It's October and students all across New York are sharpening their pencils and starting another school year. For most students, the beginning of the year brings the excitement of reuniting with friends, attending school events, and of course, learning new things. However, for some students, returning to school also means returning to bullying.
Today, the problem is not just aggressive schoolyard bullying--giving swirlies and pushing kids into lockers. It's no longer a Monday-to-Friday experience. Students leave school taunting to come home to hateful messages on Facebook and Twitter. The bullying of today is psychological -- it's name-calling and teasing, it's spreading rumors, it's exclusion -- and it's pervasive. It's far more than can be seen without paying very close attention. According to the Center for Disease Control, bullying is any unwanted aggressive behavior where there is an imbalance of power that is or is likely to be pervasive.
Bullying is a youth epidemic that kids never get a break from. Between 20% and 28% of youth in the 6th through 12th grades experience bullying, and about 30% of students report bullying others. Daily, upwards of 160,000 students are absent from schools across the United States to avoid bullying. The effects reach far beyond school days missed. Students who are bullied are more likely to have depression, anxiety, and poorer self-esteem than students who are not bullied. Students who bully have a greater tendency towards domestic violence, alcohol and drug use, and future problems with the law.
This situation must change. Kids go to school to learn and grow without fear. They are supposed to be nurtured, not tormented. In 2010, I teamed up with educators and scholars to draft the Dignity for All Students Act to put an end to bullying. The piece of progressive legislation that we came up with specifically protects students from bullying based on race, religion, ethnicity, disability, sex, sexuality, and gender expression. It is the first piece of anti-bullying law that includes trans* students as a protected group.
The Dignity Act is a different kind of anti-bullying law. It works to educate students, change behaviors, and open minds rather than punish. This law calls for teaching empathy rather than doling out detentions, and engaging in mediation before suspensions. As spelled out in the Dignity Act, schools are required to educate teachers, administrators, and counselors on how to spot bullying and defuse hostile or aggressive situations. Further, students are to be educated on diversity, tolerance, team work and civics. Dispelling myths and rumors about other cultures and groups is the first step towards tolerance and better understanding. Teachers, counselors, and administrators must understand why bullying is taking place and try to cut it off at the source. Schools need to examine their values and missions to ensure their policies align. Creating a safe, fair, and comfortable school climate is a key to ending bullying.
October is National Bullying Prevention month, and schools across New York are rising to the challenge of taking a more proactive approach to end bullying. Information, statistics, and warning signs are readily available on stopbullying.gov. Start a conversation on recognizing signs of bullying. Talk to your kids about accepting each other's differences. Ask your school what they are doing to educate and empower students against bullying. And if you're in New York City, join me on Monday, October 27th, at 6:30 p.m. for a conversation about bullying and bullying prevention efforts. It will take place in the auditorium of the Joan of Arc School Complex at 154 W. 93rd Street, between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues.
Together, we can make school a more welcoming and fun place to learn and grow. Together, we can stop bullying.