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Mineola School Board Mulls State Anti-Bullying Bill

Dignity for All Students Act requires schools create “harassment-free” environments.

Chances are sometime during your school career you either were or knew someone who was the victim of bullying, be it name-calling, teasing, intimidation, social shunning or some other type of censure.

“What was accepted in terms of how you can treat other people when we went to school is completely different now than what this legislation puts into place,” Principal Matthew Gavin said at the June 6 meeting of the at the , referring to the stat’e new anti-bullying bill dubbed the (DASA).

New York State passed the legislation into law in September 2010, having it take effect in July 2012, requiring a number of policy changes for school districts which are required to be in place by July 1.

“The intent of the policy is to create an environment that is free of discrimination and harassment,” Gavin said, noting that the district amended its policy last year to add the terms ‘cyber-bullying’ and ‘sexting’ and which would need to be repealed in favor of the DASA policies, including the Civility, Citizenship and Character Education act.

“The policy that we have in place right now... deals with harassment and discrimination,” he said. “The DASA policy that we’re recommending also deals with discrimination and harassment, but it has some different protective classes and some different definitions that it provides.”

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The main difference between the old and the new policies is that the state policies provide additional definitions of terms specifically outlined by the legislature. One of the new protected “classes” is that individuals need to be protected from harassment based on their weight or perceived sexual orientation.

Also, if an individual is reporting an incident “in good faith, there can be no repercussions... even if it turns out to not be true.” There can however be repercussions if someone maliciously reports an incident and it turns out to not be true.

The DASA policy also detail how investigations into complaints are to be run and a remedial measure: the administration of corrective instruction for the student perceived to be the bully and supportive intervention for the student perceived to be the victim.

Also among the requirements are that staff must receive training on how to create a “harassment-free environment” for schools and outline the use of prevention policies, such as the CAPS bully-prevention which the district already has in place .

Dignity Act Coordinators must also be appointed, specifically two in each building – the first being the principal, having the power to sanction a students and the second being a social worker in order to provide emotional support to students.

Districts must also establish training programs designed to raise awareness about types of harassment behavior which Gavin said could include the sending of harassing text messages and e-mails, providing other information about students thought to be private.

The Civility, Citizenship and Character Education bill makes the board of education responsible for providing information to students in grades K through 12 about what civility is, citizenship and character education.

“They really want us to focus on honesty, tolerance, respect for others, dignity and other traits that will enhance the quality of student experiences and contributions to the community,” Gavin explained, noting that the district was “in a good place” that could fulfill the requirements, such as “The Great Body Shop,” which is part of the health curriculum and the CAPS bully prevention program where trainers come in from an outside organization to provide role-modeling for third and fourth graders.

Each building’s code of conduct must also be revised annually, be posted online and include a “plain language” summary of DASA, a description of the character education programs, descriptions of district responses to acts of discrimination or harassment in a school setting. Gavin noted that all codes of conduct has been updated in each building and would be posted on the building websites in July.

In terms of next steps, the district still needs to appoint the DASA coordinators. They would also conduct student assemblies in September to raise awareness and sensitivity to discrimination and harassment. Informational sessions would also be held for faculty, staff, bus aides, etc. in September and copies of the code of conduct written in “plain language” which are “age appropriate” must also be given to students at the assemblies. Such age appropriate codes already exist at the middle and high schools and are in the process of being written for K-2 and grade 3-4 buildings.

“We need to set the tone early in September with all of our buildings about what kind of environment should be embraced in each building,” Gavin said, conceding that in most cases at the younger grades the infraction “would probably have to be explained to the student.”

In response to a question from board president Christine Napolitano, Superintendent Dr. Michael Nagler stated that although codes of conducts tend to be similar across school districts, “it’s still local” to the school district in terms of severity of punishment and what constitutes offenses.

“The problem lies in when a parent doesn’t see that it’s an issue when a child is behaving inappropriately,” Dr. Nagler said, adding that he was not sure how many parents take the time to read the student handbook before their child might find themselves in a situation.

Gavin pointed out that there has been talk among administrators about how to reach out and inform parents such as through site-based teams or a back-to-school night presentation.

The state is also in the process of designing a report system into which the district would record incidents of harassment on school grounds or on school functions. Gavin stated that the system was “rumored” to be based on the VADIR (Violent and Disruptive Incidents Report) system conducted by districts each year, but as late as May 24 schools were told the state is trying to design a completely different system. The system would be reviewed by the Regents board during the June meeting.

“This is worse because this is so much more subjective to what category it would be in,” Dr. Nagler said about what might constitute harassment. “Someone, a child is teasing another child – how will you report that? And how are you determining the severity of that teasing?”

According to Gavin the state is having difficulty devising a system “so that it’s clear cut for everyone to do,” and file the reports.

Under advisement at the state level is the possibility that the state will sanction certain groups such as BOCES to provide professional training to staff members regarding DASA.

“It’s one of the questions that we’re grappling with in our strategic planning in terms of the mission is how do you measure ‘exhibit positive character traits’,” Dr. Nagler said. “We’ve been waiting for the DASA piece of it to put those two together. So if there is an assessment or a measurement, it could fill both ends of it so we could speak to our mission of positive character traits as well as whether or not we’re effective.”

Gavin did state that there could be surveys of students via interviews where students could inform administrators where the most acts of harassment are taking place, such as the cafeteria, busses or in the hallways between classes and administrators could concentrate their efforts in those locations.

“I would guess you won’t get accurate information from this for years,” Dr. Nagler said, “before everyone comes to the same understanding of what they’re reporting and see what it means, it will be a long time before we’re all on the same page – if ever.”

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