The Dignity for All Students Act: A New Tool to Keep Student SafeSeptember 12th, 2012
Bullying can harm any student, but research shows that students with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to harassment and bullying. Bullying can cause educational decline, anxiety, physical ailments and missed classes, among other problems. This year, a new tool and mandate exists to prevent and address student bullying and harassment.
Effective as of July 1, 2012, the Dignity for all Students Act prohibits harassment and bullying based on race, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex, as well as bullying based on other characteristics. The Act seeks to provide every public school student with a safe and supportive environment free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment, and bullying on school property, a school bus or at a school function. To implement the law, each school must appoint a Dignity Act Coordinator. The Dignity Act also requires instruction in civility, citizenship, and character education by expanding the concepts of tolerance, respect for others and dignity to include an awareness and sensitivity in the relations of people based on the above differences. The Dignity Act further requires Boards of Education to include language addressing The Dignity Act in their Codes of Conduct and to amend their policies. New York State has developed excellent tools to help schools implement the law and to help parents understand it.
The Dignity Act requires school districts to adopt proactive, not just reactive, responses to bullying. The mandate of a supportive education environment should change the way school personnel address bullying—not as just a disciplinary measure, but as a school environment issue. Thus, in addressing bullying, according to New York State Guidance, a school district should, for example, consider: peer support groups; corrective instruction; supportive interventions; behavioral assessment or evaluation; behavioral management plans; school counseling and parent conferences. In addition, New York state recommends school-wide environmental remediation such as:
- supervisory systems which empower school staff with prevention and intervention tools to address incidents of bullying and harassment; school and community surveys or other strategies for determining the conditions contributing to the relevant behavior;
- adoption of research-based, systemic harassment prevention programs;
- modification of schedules;
- adjustment in hallway traffic and other student routes of travel;
- targeted use of monitors;
- staff professional development;
- parent conferences;
- involvement of parent-teacher organizations; and
- peer support groups
The Dignity Act represents an important further step in protecting student rights and the prevention of bullying. Federal courts have already recognized the right of students with disabilities to be free from peer harassment and bullying, when a school district is deliberately indifferent and the harassment causes loss of educational opportunity. In K.M. v. Hyde Park Central School District, 381 F.Supp.2d 343 (S.D.N.Y 2005), the United States District Court for the Southern District recognized that school districts could face liability for peer harassment based on a student’s disability, in the same way as for peer sexual harassment. In the K.M. case, a 13-year-old eighth grade student, was the victim of repeated instances of being called “stupid,” “idiot,” “retard” and other “disability-related insults” and acts of “physical aggression” and intimidation (all by other students) while in school and on the school bus. He was physically beaten and his school books were thrown into the garbage in the cafeteria between 5-8 times. The court held that “a school district’s deliberate indifference to pervasive, severe disability-based harassment that effectively deprived a disabled student of access to the school’s resources and opportunities would be actionable under Section 504 and Title II.” In addition, the parent in this case filed for a hearing for tuition reimbursement, based on the denial of a free appropriate public education, and the IDEA claim settled out of court.
Parents must know that they have powerful legal tools at their disposal. However, ideally, before bullying or harassment reaches a crisis point, school districts and parents should work together to prevent bullying and, if it occurs, stop it early. Parents should expect teachers to closely supervise students and to address any bullying promptly. Parents also play a crucial role in preventing bullying. Particularly for students with disabilities who may not be able to speak for themselves about bullying or understand it, parents must be proactive and protective. If you notice signs of withdrawal and anxiety in your child, ask your child about what is happening in school. Work with your child’s teacher(s) to get to the root of the problem.
Here are six steps to take to be proactive to learn how to address student bullying:
1. Review your school district’s Code of Conduct to ensure that it incorporates Dignity Act provisions. Also make sure the District has policies to incorporate Dignity Act provisions. Students must receive a plain language summary at the beginning of the school year and receive training at an assembly.
2. Learn who the school’s Dignity Act Coordinator is. Ask about the above environmental remediations to prevent bullying and address it when it occurs.
3. If your school district’s Code of Conduct does not address the requirements of the Dignity Act, you should alert the Superintendent and the Board of Education and expect action.
4. If your child is the victim of bullying or you believe bullying has occurred, do not delay in reporting this to your school district, even if your child denies it or asks you not to. If you fear your child will be retaliated against, you can ask for additional supervision. First, report to the Dignity Act Coordinator. Document your concerns and specific incidents in writing If the school does not address your concerns, follow up. Be relentless.
5. Keep a log and journal and any physical evidence of bullying.
6. Most importantly, support your child and make sure he or she receives any needed counseling or other support and that you address the problems immediately
For more information regarding bullying, or education, please visit www.specialneedsnewyork.com or www.littmankrooks.com.