A sweeping state law that targets school bullying takes effect July 1, putting students on notice that tormenting their peers won't be tolerated and setting standards for districts to back that up.
It requires, for the first time, that all employees of a public school district be trained to recognize bullying or harassing behavior and how to intervene. Districts must expand codes of conduct to include specific, age-appropriate language on bullying, and to protect all students, including those facing harassment based on weight, gender and sexual orientation. Students will get classroom lessons on civility and tolerance.
The state has been slow in giving final approval to some of its regulations, but local districts have not been idle. Many have been busy rewriting codes of conduct, training staff and reviewing curriculum. And though many local districts already have bullying prevention measures in effect, they say they expect the new law to strengthen their hand in changing student behavior and attitudes.
"It's us being able to say to them: 'This is the law, and it's the law for you, as well as the law for everyone else,' " said Islip High School social worker Donna Ruggiero, who as high school Dignity for All Students Act coordinator will oversee anti-bullying efforts. "This is not just us saying, 'This isn't a nice way to behave.' "
The Dignity Act, signed into law in 2010 by then-Gov. David A. Paterson, came after well-publicized cases of bullying across the country -- some blamed for the suicides of targeted youngsters -- and growing activism by victims' families and advocates.
Lessons to develop students' empathy, emotional understanding and coping skills are already included in schools' curriculums. Most schools hold assemblies, workshops and bullying awareness campaigns for students and provide some training for teachers and support staff.
But the law goes further in establishing protections for all students, including those facing harassment based on "race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, gender, and sex." These policies, written in age-appropriate language, will be explained to students annually.
Districts with websites must post their codes of conduct online, and report to the state each year incidents of bullying and harassment.
Christine Kryjak, a West Babylon mother of a lesbian high school junior, who is Suffolk County co-chairwoman of the newly formed Long Island Gay Parent Teacher Student Association, was enthusiastic about the Dignity Act.
"It's so important for these kids to feel safe and [it] helps educators and principals alike, because they now have something concrete -- written guidelines," said Kryjak. "There's not going to be a lot of gray areas on what is and is not acceptable behavior."
Superintendent Susan A. Schnebel of the Islip school district said that while her district already had in place bullying prevention programs, the new law did require preparation and some changes.
Schnebel met with a student advisory committee over the past year, and said the district is putting the "finishing touches" on a separate policy on bullying and harassment to be approved by the school board.
Support staff and administrators have undergone training on regulations and a districtwide Dignity Act committee is "reviewing what needs to be done" to carry out the law, she said. All staff, from teachers to lunch monitors to custodians, will receive a day of training before students return in the fall.
The legislation leaves many specifics up to local school districts. For example, while Islip will select social workers as their Dignity Act coordinator in each school, Long Beach Superintendent David Weiss said the responsibility will lie with school principals in that district.
"The responsibility for dignity in a school, for school climate and how people interact is the principal's," he said. "Having the principal become engaged in a slightly more refined way -- DASA puts a little more clout behind that, but the principal has the role and always did."
Kryjak said the law will strengthen the hand of school officials who have been trying to do the right thing.
"These educators want to be able to have firm guidelines and want to be able to tell students 'that is inappropriate language that you are using, and not [because that's] my opinion, but because we have this guideline right here that says so," she said.
The state Board of Regents has formally approved two of the four Dignity Act regulations -- including those covering changes to the codes of conduct and to public school (although not charter school) curriculum. A regulation governing staff training was approved in an emergency action May 17, with final approval to come after a public comment period in July. A fourth regulation regarding how schools report bullying incidents to the state hasn't been finalized.
Officials in some districts have complained about the delays, though they are generally familiar with the law and its overall requirements.
"We're waiting patiently, but the frustrating part is that it's supposed to take effect on July 1," said Adrienne Robb-Fund, superintendent of schools in Valley Stream's K-6 District 13.
She said the district has its Dignity Act teams "ready to go," its district coordinator in place, and has discussed who would serve on them, "but we haven't gone forward with it until we have the regulations. It would help, you know?"
That committee, she said, has been working on its new policies and codes of conduct for more than a year. Having a consistent policy throughout the district and training all district employees, she said, "I hope and believe will make a difference."
The New York State Education Department said much information was already available to districts to aid in their preparations. A document listing "promising practices" to help guide districts' choices of programs was to be released this month, said Jane Briggs, a spokeswoman for the New York State Education Department.
Others are confident most districts are moving in the right direction. "Honestly, I think most school districts have started the process and have the leadership in place," said task force member Alane Fagin, executive director of the nonprofit Child Abuse Prevention Services in Roslyn, which provides training to local school districts.
Julie Lutz, Eastern Suffolk BOCES deputy superintendent for educational services, said that group's training sessions have been well attended. She too was hopeful about the new act's potential. While existing training and programs already include "some great things," the new Dignity Act will ensure that training is "much more global" and that it puts bullying prevention and response out front, beyond an occasional workshop or student assembly.
"The Dignity Act makes it much more consistent," she said. "A comprehensive, sustained effort is key."
From The Dignity for All Students Act
The legislature finds that students' ability to learn and to meet high academic standards, and a school's ability to educate its students, are compromised by incidents of discrimination or harassment including bullying, taunting or intimidation.
It is hereby declared to be the policy of the state to afford all students in public schools an environment free of discrimination and harassment. The purpose of this article is to foster civility in public schools and to prevent and prohibit conduct which is inconsistent with a school's educational mission."