by Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — In the month of September, students making their way back to their schools usually spend a bit of time acclimating themselves to their new surroundings. Whether it be new classmates, room assignments, teachers or buildings, something different is presented to everyone.
This year, a new law is rearing its head which has a massive effect on each student in New York state. The Dignity For All Students Law went into effect in July and addresses one of life's largely overlooked and criticized experiences: bullying.
"New York State’s Dignity for All Students Act — or The Dignity Act — seeks to provide the state’s public elementary and secondary school students 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," according to the state Education Department's website, www.nysed.gov.
It's easy to think The Dignity Act was created in response to some of the state's recent tragedies concerning bullies, especially last year's suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer, the Williamsville student who took his own life after years of constant harassment. Or Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old Rutgers University student who jumped from the George Washington Bridge in 2010 after his roommate and another student captured video of him kissing another man.
But this isn't the case. State lawmakers passed the bill in September 2010 a whole year before the Rodemeyer tragedy (and though it doesn't affect a college campus setting, nine days before Clementi jumped).
The act itself does two major things. Most importantly, the act outlaws both bullying and harassment in any form — including perceived but not actually happening – according to different races, weights, national origins, ethnic groups, religions, religious practices, mental or physical abilities, sexual orientations, gender identity and sexes. It also requires each student, faculty member or administrator to report each instance.
This last requirement has Niagara-Wheatfield principal Timothy Carter optimistic.
"Anything you shine a light on or focus attention on, you're going to see results," he said. "Putting it front and center has brought it to the attention of everyone. Kids should be able to come to school and know no one is going to harass them."
Of course, the strength of the law depends on how it is enforced. So principals at each of the three area school districts spent a large portion of their opening week speeches earlier this month detailing their expectations of the children. Carter said his talks resulted in a few instances of students reporting what they witnessed.
Though they didn't receive as many as they originally anticipated kicking the year off, the school has investigated enough claims to know the law was helping them address a problem which might have previously gone unheard.
"In the past, this type of thing spread out through the year," Carter said. "In the past, this type of thing could become a bigger issue where there's eventually a fight or a face-to-face standoff. We've been communicating to the students that's not the way to handle these things. Now, they're more wiling to report things early, more willing to tell. They don't necessarily want their name attached to it, but they're willing to come up and say 'that's not right.'"
Bullying in today's world
Though Lewiston-Porter seems the idyllic setting, where everyone gets along and the entire student body succeeds, given the district's high ranking in Buffalo Business First's yearly standings, according to high school principal Paul Casseri, there's a large amount of harassment students dish out to each other.
Much of the focus, he said, is in online bullying – or cyberbullying – on websites like Facebook and Twitter.
"Maybe in the old days, these things would have been part of a note passed under a table," Casseri said. "Now, if you call somebody ugly or stupid or fat, that gets back to that person instantaneously. So we do deal with it. At this point, it's not an over-the-top issue, but it's something we're concerned with."
In the fight against bullying, technology is both the greatest tool available and the worst enemy administrators face. Phones equipped with more computing power than laptop computers are attached to children now and many districts are even allowing them to remain on. They're accessing Facebook and Twitter during school hours to post these derogatory comments or photos with applications like Instagram.
For Niagara Falls City School District Dignity Act Coordinator Tom Fisher, technology only makes the law much more important as students get away from tormenting face-to-face.
"We see it as an ongoing issue," he said. "Because of the way technology is today, I think this act is important. Bullying is no longer something kids need to do in-person. So I think this act helps because it covers that area."
It isn't easy to fix
A common theme among most of the responses from administrators is the Dignity Act doesn't actually give districts, teachers or parents any new teeth with which to combat harassment in any of its forms. Instead, it boils down, in practice, to more paperwork for them and the state, since it only requires schools to keep a detailed log of every instance and submit it to the education department every month.
It does, however, provide districts like Lewiston-Porter, Niagara-Wheatfield and Niagara Falls with clear definitions of bullying and harassment, allowing them to better judge what is problematic and what needs to be worked through.
For Dean Ramirez, new principal at Lewiston-Porter Middle School, having the definitions in his pocket better enables him as school leader to root out issues so students can come to school both as physically and emotionally safe as possible.
"I think the main objective of the law is to make sure every child understands bullying and harassment is serious," he said. "To say (bullying) isn't going to happen is foolish, but now we have the tools to effectively handle the situation."
What about the Falls?
Fisher, a teacher on special assignment in the Falls' human resources department, has as firm a grasp on The Dignity Act as anyone in the area. It's his specialty this year, coordinating the training and implementation districtwide.
Each school in the city has its own personnel specifically trained in responding to issues and concerns brought up by students. In fact, the beauty of the act is its creation of these point people, who students at any grade level can safely see to work through any issues or describe things troubling them, he said.
"The students are protected, they have contact people at each building," Fisher said. "We've already had language in our code of conduct addressing bullying and cyberbullying, but The Dignity Act can only help. The act itself can only help."
In addition to the practical changes made in the schools, specifically the personnel designated to take the complaints, Niagara Falls has also used its website, www.nfschools.net, to allow parents and students to learn much more about Dignity For All Students. Fisher said everything anyone attending schools in the city or sending their children to school needs to know about the act and what it requires and provides is available on the site.
As for district personnel, the key is to keep training and becoming as proficient as possible in keeping these acts from hurting students in the future, he said.
"We'll continue our ongoing training and make sure the kids remain aware they have to come to an adult if there's a problem," he said. "I don't see it as an issue that'll just go away. The district does a good job but I think it's an ongoing issue we'll need to remain on top of."