Assembly Members Nolan, Glick, and O'Donnell Sponsor Symposium on the Implementation of the Dignity for All Students Act

Assembly Members Catherine Nolan, Chair of the Assembly Committee on Education; Deborah Glick, Chair of the Assembly Committee on Higher Education; Daniel O'Donnell, Sponsor of the Dignity for All Students Act; in coordination with The Queering Education Research Institute (QuERI) and Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute, held a symposium on the Dignity for All Students Act.

The symposium fostered a discussion regarding the current state of the law's implementation in K-12 schools and demonstrated the urgent need for further steps in order to achieve effective implementation. Experts from esteemed institutions presented on the importance of diversity training for teachers, who set the tone for school culture within their classrooms, and argued for the need of a diversity course requirement for all teachers in New York State. The morning concluded with presentations from students who shared experiences with bullying and called for teachers to be better equipped to promote inclusive and respectful environments.

Assembly Member O'Donnell shared the history of the Dignity for All Students Act and what he hoped to now achieve:

I wish I could take credit for passing the Dignity for All Students Act but I can't; it was the children of the state of New York who passed the law. Now, after its passage, we need to discuss how to implement it effectively. However, the conversation today will not be about what politicians think, but what the experts know and think.

Assembly Member Deborah Glick reflected on the success of the Dignity for All Students Act and acknowledged the large amount of work that remains to be done:

The Dignity for All Students Act was a groundbreaking piece of legislation aimed at protecting New York school students. While we have made great progress in identifying and responding to bullying, we have a long way to go until we change the culture within all schools to prevent bullying. I thank my colleague, Assemblyman O'Donnell, for his leadership on this issue and I look forward to continuing to work with him to ensure all our school students are free of harassment.

Assembly Member Catherine Nolan echoed her colleague's call for further action:

In 2010, the Assembly Majority pushed and succeeded in passing the Dignity for all Students Act to ensure that all students regardless of sexual orientation had a safe place to learn. As Chair of the Assembly Education Committee, I would like to commend my colleague and lead sponsor of the legislation Assemblyman O'Donnell for all the work he has done on this very important issue. Building on the discussions from today's symposium, I will continue to work with all of my colleagues in government and the State Education Department to make sure that the implementation of New York's anti-bullying law gets done.

Featured testimony from experts on the impacts of bullying included presentations from Professor Elizabethe Payne, founder and Director of QuERI; Ali Michael, Director of K-12 Consulting & Professional Development at the University of Pennsylvania; Edward Fergus, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership & Policy at NYU; Heather Woodley, Assistant Professor of TESOL at NYU; and Melissa Scheible, Assistant Professor of English Education at Hunter College. The testimony clearly demonstrated the need for all students to have access to education without the trauma of bullying, and offered critical next steps on how to achieve that goal, such as adding a 3 credit diversity course to teacher certification requirements. As explained by Dr. Edward Fergus:

Our societal goal of integration requires intentional supports such as teacher and principal preparation courses in which practitioners are able to understand the complexity of how bias beliefs of diversity, culture, and difference can mitigate the effect of any "well-intentioned" practice or policy. Providing practitioners the opportunity to understand the science of learning alongside the psychology and sociology of how bias operates in behavioral practices such as instruction, student expectations and interactions, will have an effect of reducing reliance on deficit thinking bias to explain to student academic and behavioral performance.

Dr. Elizabethe Payne commended the Dignity for All Students Act as unique in the national context because it calls for a proactive effort to change school culture around bullying rather than for reactive and punitive anti-bullying measures. She stated:

The Dignity Act's focus on education and improving school culture -proactive approaches-rather than just punitive action, is a progressive way of thinking about the redress of harassment and discrimination in schools. There are great possibilities within the Dignity Act and the research we offered in today's testimony was an effort to move toward realizing those possibilities. Teachers need a good foundation for understanding diversity in their pre-service programs so they can be pro-active in addressing bias, and I think our panelists strongly made that case.

The symposium was also attended by students from the Westchester County Youth Council, who spoke on bullying they have witnessed and experienced in schools and the urgent need for educators to better understand diverse student populations. As one student put it:

Teachers need to know who gets picked on, why they get picked on, and how to handle it. Not just how to fill out a detention slip. This will make all kids feel safer.

Hunter College President Raab commended the symposium as a first step in an important human rights discussion:

I applaud the efforts of Assembly members Nolan, Glick and O'Donnell. Nothing is more important than protecting all youth and allowing them to grow with the dignity and rights that they deserve. There is no better place for this symposium than the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College which is more than just a venue-it welcomes open discussion and new ideas, and addresses human rights issues intelligently and constructively. I pledge Hunter's support in moving forward with Dignity for All Students Act implementation.