Bullying and discrimination are a pervasive and highly damaging situation within school systems throughout the country (NYSUT, 2013). In recent years, this trend has expanded to include issues of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) related bullying and abuse, and the increasing dangers of cyberbullying (i.e. the use of the Internet to abuse classmates), making it paramount to pass legislation that is effective in controlling these trends. The possible effectiveness of the DASA (or Dignity Act) as anti-bullying legislation will be discussed, as well as the historical background of bullying as a practice and its effects. While anti-bullying measures such as the Dignity Act are a step in the right direction, there is some doubt as to whether or not they are actually effective in controlling bullying, and may not have effective means of stopping cyberbullying.
Bullying and discrimination are a pervasive and highly damaging situation within school systems throughout the country (NYSUT, 2013). In recent years, this trend has expanded to include issues of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) related bullying and abuse, and the increasing dangers of cyberbullying (i.e. the use of the Internet to abuse classmates), making it paramount to pass legislation that is effective in controlling these trends. In New York State, one recent measure meant to act as a means to deter bullying in schools is the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), a bill which took effect on July 1, 2012 (NYSUT, 2013). The DASA (or Dignity Act) “prohibits harassment and discrimination of individuals on school property or at a school function based upon a person’s actual or perceived race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, gender or sex” (NYSUT, 2013). The possible effectiveness of this intervention in bullying will be discussed, as well as the historical background of bullying as a practice and its effects. While anti-bullying measures such as the Dignity Act are a step in the right direction, there is some doubt as to whether or not they are actually effective in controlling bullying, and may not have effective means of stopping cyberbullying.
In order to understand the changes required by the Dignity for All Students Act, the historical background of school bullying and its previous interventions must be examined. Bullying can be defined as aggressive behavior that is meant to cause mental or physical harm to another, and is often repeated to cause further pervasive harm to the target (Besag, 1989). This often occurs in school settings, due to the comparative immaturity and aggression of children and a lack of context or understanding on the part of aggressive children towards others. To that end, bullying is most closely associated with behavior between students. Nearly one-third of schoolchildren in the United States have reported bullying in school, with 4% reporting cyber-bullying (US Department of Education, 2011). Bullying is extremely relevant to social welfare, as it is effectively a form of discrimination on a school-based level (Besag, 1989). When one is bullied, it is a process that happens over time and results in a cumulative negative outcome; bullies intentionally cause this discomfort through any number of means, including physical violence, name calling, public humiliation, and in other ways. This happens through both direct and indirect means; with direct bullying, bullies typically openly target their victim and act out aggressively toward them in a physical manner. Indirect bullying, otherwise known as social aggression, occurs by working to isolate their target from their other peers socially; gossiping, social ignorance, bullying friends of victims, and more are common methods of indirect bullying (Ross, 1998).
There are many reasons for bullying to occur, but it typically occurs as the result of discrimination based on an in-group/out-group situation wherein some aspect of the victim is perceived to be different than that of the bully, which he or she regards as worthy of ridicule. Often, this occurs based on race or gender, or perceived popularity or interests; however, one recent oppressed group that has been given recent attention are LGBT youths, who attempt to survive bullying in an increasingly discriminatory environment (Connolly, 2012). In these contexts, bullying is centered around their sexual orientation (real or perceived), leading bullies to tease and mock others based on stereotypes and negative opinions of gays, lesbians, bisexuals or transgendered people.
One very recently recognized situation is cyberbullying, in which people harass others through the Internet. Often, this is an extension of school bullying, making it worse for the victim as they cannot rely on home to be a safe place from school-based bullying (Epstein & Kazmierczak, 2007). The advent of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, has made it extremely easy for people to become cyberbullied – this situation can refer to any number of actions that mentally or psychologically hurts someone on a pathological and repeated basis. This includes direct insults, gossip and slander over the Internet to others, and various other methods of cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is on the rise, with nearly 19% of children in a 2004 study having reported bullying behaviors of some kind, whether they were the aggressor or the victim (Epstein & Kazmierczak, 2007). However, as cyberbullying is still new, additional objective data on this situation is not present in great numbers.
Despite its arguable pervasiveness in school environments for decades, if not centuries, it is only in the 1980s that bullying started to receive widespread attention as a problem that must be solved on a comprehensive level (Kim, 2013). The anti-bullying movement in particular came about at the beginning of the 21st century as a way to address the situation of bullying in the developed world. Various social and public initiatives and interventions have been created in order to combat bullying, ranging from entertainment awareness events to comprehensive school reform programs. School-based anti-bullying programs have been most widely prevalent, interventions which include emotional control training, peer counseling, and anti-bullying school policies – all interventions it is hoped provide greater coping mechanisms to the bullied and stricter punishments to those who bully (Kim, 2013).
Federal intervention in the United States has also taken place, starting with the “Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Summit” in 2010, in which researchers, students, parents and organizational leaders came together to propose and discuss efforts to prevent bullying (Juvenile Justice Vermont, 2010). Due to the increased public attention to bullying in recent years, President Barack Obama hosted, along with First Lady Michelle Obama, the inaugural White House Conference on Bullying Prevention in 2011; the goal was to “dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up” (Lee, 2011). Other initiatives, such as the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention and Stopbullying.gov, have been created to increase awareness of bullying and the need to prevent it on a federal level (Lee, 2011).
Historically, bullying is argued to have been around for a long time, but it is only in the last few decades that substantial research and scholarly thought has been committed to studying the situation itself. Bullying is shown to be a comprehensive and pervasive problem in schools, students being targeted for anything from race to gender to sexual orientation, among other factors. Cyberbullying is also a new kind of abuse that has risen in the past few years with the availability and increased accessibility to the Internet. Several school-wide and federal interventions have taken place, ranging from summits on the situation of bullying to actual anti-bullying legislation. Current Perspective
Following the tradition of states having their own anti-bullying legislation (a situation shared by all states in the US but Montana), New York State has recently passed the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), a measure which seeks to promote dignity and diversity, as well as tolerance for others, in our educational environments (NYSUT, 2013). The legislation was proposed by the NYS Dignity Coalition, a group of more than 120 national, state and local organizations, including social work organizations. The Dignity Act seeks to protect “all public school students in NYS from harassment or discrimination by other students or adults” (NYSUT 2013, p. 2). The Dignity Act is exclusively geared toward students and children, as adults are not protected under the act. The Dignity Act is closely related to the Safe Schools Against Violence in Education Act of 2000 (SAVE), which is focused almost exclusively on physical violence between students. The purpose of the Dignity Act is to build upon the SAVE Act by focusing on public schools and targeting more emotional, verbal and discriminatory harassment in a more closely structured way (NYSUT, 2013). The act requires changes to the Code of Conduct language of NYS schools in order to demonstrate the complete prohibition of harassment and discrimination of students by other students or faculty and staff of schools. Character education, citizenship and civility instruction is to be required for all public schools to teach students and staff how to be aware and sensitive to the needs of protected classes (NYSUT, 2013). The Dignity Act also requires annual reports of discrimination and harassment incidents to be sent to the State Education Department Commissioner, as well as employee training in social work interventions and techniques to identify and protect against bullying in their classrooms, calling them “Dignity Act Coordinators” (NYSUT 2013, p. 2).
The Dignity Act works by protecting all public school students in NYS, placing specific emphasis on protected categories including gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, and more (NYSUT, 2013). According to the Act, the Board of Education is responsible for developing policies meant to foster discrimination-free school environments as per the requirements of the Dignity Act. Aforementioned Dignity Act Coordinators will be trained and approved by the Board of Education to offer oversight in classrooms and school districts, and teach students anti-bullying tactics and tolerance/sensitivity to others, using interventions to “fosteran environment of respect in their schools” (NYSUT 2013, p. 4). As this pertains to social workers, they are meant to coordinate directly with instructors and Dignity Act Coordinators, letting them know their options for reporting abuse and emphasizing their right to civil immunity for reporting discrimination or harassment (NYSUT, 2013).
One purpose of this act is to address the aforementioned situations of LGBT bullying, as it is a major component and impetus for its passing (Russell et al., 2010). Because of increasing public tolerance and advocacy for LGBT rights and equality, the issue of discrimination and bullying in these contexts has become a more widely publicized issue due to their especially vulnerable status as a school population (Russell et al., 2010). In the case of DASA, LGBT youth are specifically categorized as being a ‘protected’ population from discrimination or harassment in NYS schools, meant to explicitly recognize them as being vulnerable to targeting by bullies. This lends a greater sense of specificity and comprehensiveness to anti-bullying legislation already on the books, which can be criticized for not having an ability to “translate into action at a school or student level” (Russell et al., 2010). While LGBT youth are at risk of targeting, and protected amongst other populations in the DASA legislation, the act also protects other populations not specifically placed into categories.
Despite the obvious benefits of the DASA legislation, there are some areas in which it may be perceived to fall short of student needs. For instance, cyberbullying is a component of the Dignity Act, but it is not clearly defined beyond the need “to protect public school students from extreme and constant bullying” (Ribble & Miller 2013, p. 140). While bullying is considered a form of harassment, there is no specific addressing of cyberbullying through e-communication, and further work on an individual basis with an attorney or social worker would be necessary in order to determine whether or not off-school behavior that affects student learning in school would qualify under the Dignity Act (NYSUT, 2013). Because of the relatively new nature of cyberbullying and the lack of concrete research and knowledge of its effects and reach on students, it is difficult to pass legislation that affects sweeping change on an institutional basis without entering questions of governmental overreach regarding the policing of off-school behavior (Russell et al., 2010).
Another issue brought up by the Dignity Act is its representative approach to bullying in schools; in order to create safer schools for vulnerable populations, there are those who question the use of anti-bullying discourses to frame the problem and work to solve it, favoring initiatives in which changes in school culture and gender policing would work better than a punishment-based model (which is argued to have little effect on actual ideological changes in bullying mindsets) (Payne & Smith, 2012). Some suggested interventions include utilizing methods which remove the power of bullies, such as peer-based nomination of bullying children, which gives the bullied a more concrete and bestowed ability to collectively point out and discourage bullying behavior (Carter, 2011).
That being said, other perspectives explicitly advocate the use of anti-bullying statutes as a solution to anti-gay bullying in schools. Connolly (2012) notes the vast prevalence of bullying instances in which individuals were targeted because of their sexual orientation, necessitating specific and explicit condemnations of anti-gay hate speech in school situations due to the especially vulnerable nature of LGBT youth in a time when their identities are faced with so many obstacles: “because of the uniquely damaging nature of verbal attacks based on sexual orientation, the state’s interest in protecting vulnerable youth should be dispositive in this context, allowing reasonable proscriptions on homophobic speech” (p. 249). Anti-gay bullying legislation acts not just as punitive measures, but as social messages to bullies and society as a whole that sexual orientation, along with gender and race, should be protected and accepted as a given without needing to bully or spreading biased, anti-gay perspectives (Connolly, 2012). To that end, the passing of statutes such as the Dignity Act (which does explicitly protect LGBT youths as a vulnerable population) fulfill this promise to effectively sign into law the protection of sexual orientation as an accepted way of life in the United States. The purpose of the Dignity Act and others like it, therefore, is not just to prevent people from being harassed and driven to violence or suicide because of their sexual orientation, but to instill cultural values of tolerance and acceptance of diversity into the mindset of impressionable youth (Connolly, 2012). Conclusion
The Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) is a sorely-needed piece of legislation that regulates and protects vulnerable populations, including but not limited to LGBT youth, from bullying in a school setting. By explicitly naming them among other specific categories of children who are commonly harassed because of gender, race, sexual orientation, or other physical or personality factors, the Dignity Act provides legal framework and basis for taking action against bullies and preventing them from cultivating a culture of discrimination within a school setting. Bullying is still a relatively new subject to discuss in a formal, academic or legislative sense, but is commonly considered to have a long-standing status among youth who have not been given appropriate education on tolerance or respect for others. Research and examinations into the situations of bullying are very recent, leading to interventions only happening with regularity in the past two decades. Variants of bullying like anti-gay bullying and cyberbullying are even fresher in the public consciousness, leading to the need to discuss and address these issues in a comprehensive manner. The Dignity Act serves as a means to address LGBT bullying in an effective way, with higher standards and concrete interventions given to schools in the New York State area, but some improvements could be made, particularly in a stricter, more explicit definition of cyberbullying and clear protection against it. Despite these gaps in providing a comprehensive net of cyberbullying prevention, the Dignity Act serves as a clear way to aid victims and social workers in finding recompense for acts of bullying that have been shown to have damaging psychological effects on victims, and even lead to violence.
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