Volume 78 / Number 3 - June 18 - 24, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since


Villager photo by Joy Wiltermuth

At Chelsea Campus High School in Soho, from left, students Maria Estevez, Wilvin Rodriguez, Emil Rachero and Jenilyn Luna, said bias-related bullying luckily isn’t a problem in their school. Yet, they noted, they’ve received zero guidance or information on the issue from the education system.

Students could be feeling more Dignity soon

By Joy Wiltermuth

The passage of the Dignity for All Students Act, or DASA, currently wending its way through the State Senate, could mean a long-awaited reprieve for students facing harassment, bullying and intimidation in New York City’s public schools.

“If they set rules, then they could prevent it,” Wilvin Rodriguez said, when asked about bullying in schools. Rodriguez, 17, will graduate from Chelsea Campus High School, at Sixth Ave. and Broome St., in a few weeks. He gave his thoughts on the bill recently as he sat talking with classmates on a shaded park bench outside the school.

“No one in our school is homophobic,” Rodriguez said, adding that he thought it was not an issue among students his age. He said harassment was more likely to occur during middle school; he added that youths are less comfortable with themselves, and with others’ differences, at that age.

Maria Estevez, 18, agreed: “There is a big acceptance of gay people in our school,” she said. “We blend together.”

But the seniors at Chelsea Campus High said very few students were, in fact, openly gay at their school. Growing up in the city’s public education system, the friends said they received no special instructions or lesson plans on about how to deal with or stop bullying.

Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN (pronounced “glisten”), said rates of harassment and bullying in New York City’s schools are higher than in states with comprehensive anti-harassment legislation.

In 2005, GLSEN commissioned the Harris polling organization to conduct a study of New York’s schools. It found nearly 44 percent of students said bullying and harassment was a serious problem. Appearance, sexual orientation and gender expression were the top three reasons students gave for being bullied in school.

“We are not talking about youthful indiscretions, dirty jokes or hyperbole, but bullying as targeted and repeated, verbal or physical, harassment,” Alan Gerson, city councilmember for lower Manhattan, said, “We are talking about a pattern of conduct that is intended to victimize its targets.”

In 2004, Mayor Mike Bloomberg vetoed anti-bullying legislation for New York City’s public schools that had been passed by the City Council.

“The major basis for the veto was a jurisdictional matter,” said Gerson, the bill’s lead sponsor. Gerson called Bloomberg’s authority “pseudo-control” and argues that the City Council retains the right to legislate on issues concerning health and safety in schools.

“It is a law of the city of New York, but the Department of Education has not adequately enforced it,” Gerson said of the city version of DASA. He said although Bloomberg’s veto blocked DASA’s implementation, D.O.E. has stepped up measures to combat bullying in response to the City Council’s action. “They are doing more,” Gerson said, “but not really enough.”

While D.O.E. has adopted a number of individualized, anti-harassment programs for certain city schools, there has been no system-wide implementation or tracking of incidences. Some public schools have partnered with the Anti-Defamation League. Others have adopted Operation Respect, a nonprofit organization founded by Peter Yarrow of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, which promotes music as a means of conflict resolution.

“Some of the issues affect only some of the schools, not all schools,” said Margie Feinberg, a D.O.E. spokesperson. But, she said bullying was a top priority and a serious infraction of D.O.E.’s Discipline Code.

An argument against keeping kids safe in school is tough to make. Yet, the city’s version of DASA has been caught in limbo between what should be done in public schools and who has the authority to do it.

Meanwhile, offering hope of breaking the impasse, a statewide version of DASA has been proposed in the New York State Senate. Anti-bullying advocates have rallied behind the bill, saying it is their best bet to get legislation passed.

New York is surrounded by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey, all of which have comprehensive legislation against student harassment.

“For some reason, the Senate has not seen it necessary to move on it,” said Daryl Presgraves, GLSEN’s spokesperson. Nationwide, states that legislate against student bullying “transcend the red state-blue state divide,” Presgraves said. “It’s something a lot of people have been able to get behind.”

The law must be focused and specific, however, to be effective, according to advocates.

“If you just pass legislation that says, ‘Don’t bully,’ students don’t understand what that means,” Presgraves said. GLSEN supports inclusion in anti-harassment legislation of protected categories of groups, which the New York State Senate bill, in fact, does include. Seven states with anti-harassment legislation for students lay out specific categories of protected groups. “When you define and list categories of protected groups, specifically laying out what is not acceptable in the legislation, it is most effective,” Presgraves said.

Last week, State Senator Tom Duane organized a Senate hearing to address bias-based harassment and intimidation in all of New York’s public schools. Students, parents, teachers and activist groups from across the state gave testimony, highlighting the problems they face.

“Our bill differs from the city’s because it is statewide,” said Mark Furnish, Duane’s legal counsel. “It is the best solution for the problem of bullying and harassment because it stems the problem of bullying and harassment before it starts. There is a good chance for getting some form of Dignity passed within the year,” he noted.

Presgraves added that DASA sends a message “to both the student who would do the bullying, as well as the student who could become a target — that it is not accepted. It is important for students on both sides to understand that the school and state recognize protected status,” he stressed.

“I would be interested to see how effective it is,” said Dale Smith, a former theater teacher at Harvey Milk High School on Astor Place. Although enrollment at the city public school is no longer restricted to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth, it remains supportive of at-risk students.

“It is part of adolescent development to claim your own power. It’s just kind of what 15-to-16-year-olds do,” he said, in support of the bill.

“There are different communities where being prejudiced is accepted at different levels,” Smith noted. He grew up in a small town in Texas and came out during his mid-20s. “Anything that makes people step back and examine their behavior is a good thing,” he said of the legislation. “It’s obviously a step in the right direction.”

At the city level, Councilmember Gerson still has not given up on his local version of DASA. He has proposed a second version of the bill, which he calls “DASA II.” The new bill focuses on citywide enforcement of the anti-bullying initiative and requires record keeping and tracking of incidents. But, DASA II also addresses harassment of young people in the city’s public parks, streets and even cyberspace.

“Bullying is bad for both the bully and the bullied,” Gerson said.

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