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Dignity for All Students Act Passes NY Senate

updated 6/22/2010 11:35 p.m.

Albany, New York — In an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 58-3, the New York State Senate today passed a bill combating bias-based bullying, harassment and discrimination in the state's public schools. The Senate vote follows the Assembly's May 17 passage of the "Dignity for All Students Act" or "Dignity" (A.3661/S.1987) with a vote of 138-4.

Western New York Republicans George Maziarz of Lockport and Dale Volker of East Aurora both voted no on the bill.

This marked the first time that the Senate has passed legislation that would extend protections for transgendered people.

The New York State Assembly had previously approved the bill on May 17. Governor David Paterson is expected to sign the legislation into law, it will take effect July 1, 2012.

Assembly Member Daniel O'Donnell, the Assembly sponsor of the bill, remarked,

"Too many students are bullied based on real or perceived differences with their classmates. Every student deserves an environment free of harassment and discrimination, an environment that allows every child to reach his or her full potential. For too long, our educational system has been blind to the plight of these students. I am proud that the Assembly led the way on this important issue, and that the Dignity for All Students Act will finally reach the Governor's desk."

"No student should have to fear for his or her safety while trying to learn in school," said Empire State Pride Agenda Executive Director Ross Levi. "We are glad that both chambers of the legislature have come together and joined the other states that have passed measures like this important piece of legislation. We call on the Governor to sign this bill into law so that public schools will be able to provide more effective protections from bullying and violence to students who differences make them frequent targets."

The Dignity bill creates tools for school administrators, teachers, parents and students to address bullying and bias-related behavior of all kinds that interfere with student safety and learning. Key provisions include: developing rules to prevent and respond to discriminatory harassment and hate violence; establishing teacher, staff and administrative training guidelines; incorporating discrimination awareness into civility and character education curricula; and, required reporting of incidents of bias harassment to the State Education Department.

Categories specifically listed in the bill are race, color, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, weight, disability, sexual orientation and gender, though its protections are not limited to these categories. Gender is defined in the bill to include "gender identity and expression."

"We thank the Legislature for passing the first-ever state law that includes protections based on gender identity and expression," said Ross Levi. "This significant law will now protect some of our community's most vulnerable members-transgender youth for whom unsafe schools can be the beginning of a lifetime of marginalization that can include health issues and even homelessness. The Dignity bill is an important first step in protecting all transgender New Yorkers."

"We also thank the lead sponsors of this legislation, Assemblymember Daniel O'Donnell (D-Manhattan) and Senator Tom Duane (D-Manhattan) for their perseverance in getting this bill passed," said Levi. "We also want to recognize former Assembly Education Chair Steven Sanders (D-Manhattan) for being the bill's original Assembly champion and for his work getting the Assembly to pass the Dignity for All Students Act for the first time in 2002."

Over the last decade, the Pride Agenda has been a lead advocacy group working with the Legislature to pass Dignity and is one of over 170 groups in the state that joined together to form the "Dignity For All Students Coalition" to build broad-based support for the bill. Groups in the Dignity Coalition include leading education, child advocacy, civil rights, religious and labor organizations across New York State. "As the founding co-facilitator of the Dignity for All Students Coalition, the Pride Agenda is appreciative of the work of allies ranging from the ADL to NYCLU, GLSEN, Log Cabin Republicans of NYS and NYSUT to get this bill passed. The diversity of groups committed to this effort reflects the broad base of support for the measure."

The impetus behind Dignity legislation in the NYS Legislature and other states and similar measures in New York localities has been the widespread acts of bullying and violence taking place in the nation's schools where bias is a contributing factor.

According to a survey commissioned by the Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), 39% of New York students reported that bullying and harassment is a serious issue in school. A 2005 GLSEN study showed that 57% of respondents said that students were harassed based upon how they expressed their gender and 52% said that students were harassed who were or were perceived to be lesbian, gay or bisexual. In both instances almost a quarter of respondents said this type of harassment happens often. As a result of feeling unsafe on school property, students are also pushed out of schools and into high-risk behaviors. A 2007 GLSEN study showed that 33% of LGBT students skipped school each month because they feared for their safety on school grounds, as opposed to only 4.5% of the general student population. Data collected by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health showed that 40% of lesbian, gay and bisexual high school students attempted suicide as opposed to just 10% of their non-gay peers.

The Dignity bill was first introduced in the Legislature in 2000 and has been passed nine years by the Assembly with overwhelming bipartisan support. This is the first time the Senate has passed the bill.

Twelve states and D.C. have passed measures that explicitly prohibit bias harassment and bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, including: California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, Vermont and Maine. Three additional states have safe schools laws designed to protect students based upon sexual orientation: Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Connecticut. — Staff

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