Mitt Romney says now that he had no idea the student he attacked in prep school was gay. This is beside the point. In 1965, as an 18-year-old stepping into adulthood, Mitt Romney learned that it was acceptable to target students who didn't conform to his own conventional rules of comportment and style. When Romney and several friends chose to attack John Lauber, Mitt wielded the scissors and chopped off Lauber's hair while the pinned young man screamed for help. The young Romney was never punished; Lauber never forgot.
Over 40 years later, bullying still affects too many of our children, from elementary school to college. Too many of our children are still learning damaging lessons they will carry into adulthood: that those of us who are "different" may need to fear those of us who are more "mainstream." Meanwhile, the perpetrators are learning that it can be acceptable to target and marginalize difference, a lesson that is not only backwards but potentially extremely destructive to our free society.
My anti-bullying bill, the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), which the New York State Legislature passed in 2010 and will be implemented this July, is an important new regulation that encourages our schools to instill tolerant values and prevent vicious, harmful discrimination and harassment. This is a powerful first step toward addressing the epidemic in New York, and one that I hope can serve as a national model.
DASA's goal is to provide all students with an environment free of harassment and discrimination based on any category, including but not limited to actual or perceived race, national origin, ethnic group, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender, or sex. It does so by prohibiting discrimination and harassment on school property and at school functions, and by requiring the New York State Education Department (SED) to support this by developing model anti-harassment policies for schools to follow. SED must also hold school districts responsible for adopting procedures and guidelines that train staff to achieve the new law's goals.
DASA will ensure that teachers and administrators step in to prevent instances like the one Romney initiated, and will give those professionals the training they need to talk about these issues when they happen. Even more importantly, it will give them the resources to discuss these issues before they occur and instill in children the inclusive values that will render discrimination and harassment rare and unacceptable.
In addition, DASA requires that schools report instances of discrimination. With this information, we can create a database of occurrences that will facilitate better understanding of harassment and enable the development of even more effective and targeted policies to prevent it.
Our schools must help children learn tolerance and respect for one another, so that no child leaves school with the fear that they will be attacked for their differences, and no child grows up believing it's OK to marginalize or discriminate against others, because all our children deserve to grow up with dignity, and our future leaders must learn to respect all the citizens they may someday lead.