Council Passes School Anti-Bullying Bill

No word on whether Bloomberg will challenge decisive majority on Dignity measure

On Monday, June 28, the New York City Council passed the Dignity in All Schools Act (DASA) by a 45-3 vote.

The legislation, authored by Councilmember Alan Gerson and strongly backed by Eva Moskowitz, chair of the Council’s Education Committee, and a lesbian, Christine Quinn, all Manhattan Democrats, covers all people on school property, students and non-students alike, from bullying and harassment based on race, disability, and sexual orientation, among other specified categories. The inclusion of gender identity, encompassing transgendered expression, among the protected categories is notable.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has 30 days to either sign or veto the bill. The mayor has not yet stated whether his intentions, but given his administration’s reluctance to cooperate during committee hearings on the bill, a veto is not unexpected, despite several weeks of negotiations Moskowitz and Gerson held with Department of Education officials prior to bringing the measure to a final vote.

Council leaders have stated clearly that they would override a mayoral veto.

“I am so proud of the Council for stepping up to the plate and passing this important legislation,” said Gerson. “Through establishing anti-harassment policies and procedures, we will send the message that bullying is unacceptable in our schools… and ensure that all students are given the chance to reach their full potential.”

Through two Council hearings and subsequent rounds of negotiations, the Department of Education consistently sought to convince councilmembers that the aims of the legislation were already part of city policy and that a bill mandating the same procedures was unnecessary. However, after repeated requests, the Department remained unable to supply the Council with proof of its assertions.

One point of particular contention was the section of the legislation that compels the Department of Education to systematically track individual incidents of harassment. School administrators will be required to keep records on the reporting and nature of complaints and the department will be responsible for maintaining a “centralized, statistical summary of cases.” During hearings on the bill, councilmembers expressed disappointment about how little persuasive data the city had on incidents of harassment.

“We all know that keeping statistics on a problem is the first step in solving the problem,” said Gerson. “It’s not the keeping of the information per se that’s important, but what follows from it that is important.”

Last month, the U.S. Justice Department issued a court order requiring the city is Department of Education to adopt and follow specific procedures to monitor and address harassment in a Queens high school where students’ reports of racial harassment had been virtually ignored.

City Council insiders said they believed the scandal brought the Department of Education to the bargaining table with greater attention to the matter than it had formerly shown. In the end, though, negotiations do not seem to have satisfied the measure’s proponents on the Council.

“The congratulations lie with the community,” said Gerson

The Dignity Coalition, an advisory body to the sponsors of DASA, comprised representatives from local and national lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender organizations, including the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, led by Kevin Jennings.

“Since 75 percent of American students still go to schools in states that do not ensure the safety of all students, we call on the mayor to immediately sign the bill and for the state of New York to follow the city’s lead by passing the statewide Dignity for All Students Act, which has been debated without signing for more than four years,” Jennings said.

On the same day that DASA was passed, GLSEN released its 2004 “State of the States” report, summarizing state laws that affect school environments and school safety for LGBT students and others. The report found that the vast majority of students do not have legal protections against anti-LGBT bullying and harassment; only eight states and the District of Columbia currently have statewide legal protections for students, based on sexual orientation; and only California, Minnesota, and New Jersey, include protections based on gender identity and expression.

“Bias-related violence in schools is a national epidemic—that’s what I think we have to stress,” said Alice Leeds, communications director of PFLAG, or Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, a national group whose New York chapter was part of the Dignity Coalition. “How could somebody not vote for something called the ‘Dignity in All Schools Act’?”

Pauline Park, co-chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, a Dignity Coalition member, said, “This is the first bill that the New York City Council has passed since passing [the transgender rights bill] two years ago that extends the definition of gender… In that regard, the City DASA bill represents a significant victory for the transgender community.”

“DASA fulfills our responsibility to our kids to provide them with safe schools where they can learn without being bullied or intimidated,” said Moskowitz.

Asked her opinion of the possibility that Bloomberg will veto the bill, Quinn said, “Considering that his administration is existing under a court order to enforce anti-harassment procedures in schools, this is not the time for the Bloomberg administration to be stepping away from a piece of legislation like this.”

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