New state law takes aim at tackling in-school bullying

BETH YOUNG FILE PHOTO | Brittney Longley gives Pulith Pieris a ribbon as part of last year’s anti-bullying project at Mattituck High School.

Bullies may have a more difficult time getting under the skin of their fellow students on the North Fork and across New York State this school year.

Educators hope that’s the result of the new Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), which was signed into law by former governor David Patterson in 2010 but didn’t take effect until this summer.

The law requires school boards statewide to adopt a uniform set of guidelines for what constitutes harassment and discrimination and provide a clear chain of command within their schools for students and parents confronted with bullying. It also requires that parents be notified of the changes.

Most local schools plan to send information on the new law home with students in the upcoming weeks.

“It’s certainly something that warrants an ongoing dialogue on a number of fronts,” Southold Superintendent David Gamberg said at a recent school board meeting. “It’s pretty far-reaching. The premise is to ensure greater protections for various classes of students that, over time, have received harassment and discrimination. We must do things, educationally speaking, to prevent feelings of being mistreated.”

Each school within a district is required to name a dignity act coordinator, usually someone in the school’s guidance office, who receives and responds to complaints and reports them to the state, which is also now gathering more data on incidents of harassment.

The state requires that districts “maintain a climate of mutual respect and dignity for all students regardless of actual or perceived race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, gender or sex.”

The law requires districts to spell out disciplinary practices, which should be “measured, balanced and age appropriate,” in their codes of conduct, which will be sent home with students at the beginning of the school year.

The Mattituck-Cutchogue School District, which came under fire from members of the African-American community several years ago for its lack of staff diversity, has engaged in several years of soul-searching to determine what it should do better for minority students.

The school has been working with students across grade levels to understand how students and teachers feel about discrimination.

Cutchogue East principal Anne Smith said at a recent school board meeting that she wants to engage fifth- and sixth-graders in discussions about what it means to be treated differently on the basis of factors over which one has no control.

“Harassment and bullying mean something entirely different to different students,” said board member Janique Nine. “Some students don’t even know when they’re bullying or being bullied.”

High school principal Shawn Petretti said it was important to remember that every instance of harassment has its own circumstances, which must be taken into account when meting out punishment.

“There’s no blanket way of handling different situations,” he said. “There are students who have been suspended, who have harassment on their behavior record. What’s accepted in the workplace? We’re trying to bring that expectation here. It goes beyond student on student. It’s also about how teachers and coaches talk. We need to make everyone aware of the tone they use with people.”

Mr. Gamberg, from Southold, agrees.

“We’re definitely going to create dialogue among teachers, and between students and teachers,” he said. “It goes without saying that as an educational community, it’s part of the process. If we handle that proactively, I don’t think we have any issues. Clearly, things are a matter of interpretation. People have to live by the golden rule. That should be the law of the land.”

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