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Op-Ed: All Our Students Deserve Their Dignity (Albany Times-Union)

By Donna Lieberman

The recent suicide of a Massachusetts high school student and the subsequent indictment of nine teenagers who allegedly had relentlessly harassed her have thrust school bullying into the national spotlight.

This tragic case, in which 15-year-old Phoebe Prince hanged herself after enduring vicious taunts and physical threats at school, demonstrates the devastating effect bullying has on children.

It sends a powerful message to New York lawmakers: It’s finally time to pass the Dignity for All Students Act, legislation that would empower educators throughout the state to provide students a safe, comfortable learning environment.

New York, like Massachusetts, has no law addressing bullying and harassment in schools. It is one of only nine states to receive an “F” from Bully Police USA, a national watchdog group that advocates for state anti-bullying laws.

The Dignity for All Students Act, which has passed the Assembly multiple times only to stall for years in the Republican-controlled Senate and again under Democratic leadership, would amend state Education Law to protect public school students from harassment and discrimination, including “verbal threats, intimidation or abuse,” based on race, color, national origin, ethnicity, religion, religious practice, weight, disability, sexual orientation, gender or sex.

The bill’s protections are not limited to these categories as it aims to protect all students from any harassment that substantially interferes with their education.

Under the proposed law, teachers and staff would receive regular training to properly address instances of harassment and discrimination. The bill would require monitoring and reporting of such incidents.

Far too often, adults dismiss bullying as an unavoidable “fact of life” or a “rite of passage.” This attitude ignores the destructive toll that persistent bullying and harassment inflicts on children.

Victims of bullying lose focus on class work, skip school and engage in drinking, drugs and other self-destructive behaviors, sometimes even lashing out and causing serious harm to their tormentors. And, most tragically, they may even contemplate suicide.

Between November 2008 and April 2009, four Schenectady High School students made the devastating decision to take their own lives. According to news reports, the girls were attacked regularly by other students. The abuse was so relentless that two of them stopped going to school, and one girl was beaten so badly she suffered two broken ribs and a concussion.

We can limit the kind of suffering that resulted in these tragedies. Last year, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against a public school district in Herkimer County on behalf of a 9th grade student who said he was repeatedly harassed, threatened and physically assaulted at school for being gay and not conforming to gender stereotypes.

The school district in this case has now done the right thing. Demonstrating its commitment to a safe and nurturing learning environment, it has agreed to a series of sweeping reforms that should protect all students from bullying and harassment.

But children shouldn’t have to sue to be protected from bullies at school. And they should never live in fear of going to school.

The Dignity for All Students Act will help our school districts fulfill their responsibility to protect children from bullying and harassment. It will help prevent tragedies like the suicides of Phoebe Prince and the Schenectady girls.

Gov. David Paterson has endorsed this bill. The Senate must pass it quickly.

Donna Lieberman is the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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