By Jon Campbell • Albany Bureau • May 17, 2010
ALBANY — As bullying in schools continues to grab headlines in New York and throughout the country, school administrators and state legislators are looking at ways to combat the activity — at both the state and district level.
After the highly publicized suicide death of 16-year-old Phoebe Prince, a Massachusetts high school student who had been bullied at school and online, Massachusetts lawmakers enacted a law in March that requires school districts, charter schools and private schools to develop bullying prevention and intervention plans.
Forty-three states have enacted anti-bullying laws since 1999, according to Bully Police USA, an advocacy group that assigns a letter grade to each state based on their bullying laws or lack thereof. In the group's most recent rankings, New York received an F.
"By and large, you still have a large group of adults who still don't get it, who still don't think bullying is a problem, or that schools need to do anything about it," said Judy Kuczynski, the group's president. "Until it becomes personal, they tend to look in other directions."
Now, the state Legislature is considering legislation with similar goals to the Massachusetts law, and a number of school districts are strengthening their efforts to curb bullying.
Sen. Tom Duane, D-Manhattan, and Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell, D-Manhattan, are sponsoring the Dignity For All Students Act, a bill that would require school districts to establish policies that would discourage harassment and discrimination against students regardless of background, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or other characteristics. Schools would have to report instances of harassment or bullying to the state Education Department.
"It will be, when enacted, a way to just make our schools safer and help students improve their academic tools," Duane said. "Because students in school who are fearful that they might be victimized do not do as well in school."
The bill has floated around the Legislature for the better part of a decade. It has passed the Assembly eight times in previous years, but it has never made it through the Senate. The Senate Education Committee is expected to take up the bill Tuesday.
Senate Republicans are pushing a package of bills that would require school districts to teach methods that discourage bullying and cyberbullying; mandate that school employees report bullying incidents; establish a statewide hotline to report bullying; and create tougher penalties for hazing and teacher harassment.
"I think in some instances, at the very best, some schools have benignly neglected the importance of focusing on bullying," said Sen. Stephen Saland, R-Poughkeepsie, whose bill would mandate incident reporting to school administrators and and establish tougher sanctions for teacher harassment.
Two of the three bills have also been introduced in the Assembly. Saland's has not.
The GOP legislation is similar to Duane's bill, but it does not include specific language about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. Both Duane and O'Donnell are openly gay.
But the state's continuing fiscal crisis could derail legislation. A 2009 state Education Department financial analysis of the Dignity For All Students Act pegged the cost of implementing it at around $53 million, mostly for training, though the bill has since been amended slightly and the department said the estimate is no longer accurate.
"I worry more about the cost of delaying passage of this legislation another year," Duane said. "How many children's lives will be devastated because they are victimized in the school?"
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