I am honored to be asked to testify today regarding Senate Bill 1571, the Dignity for All Students Act. I particularly want to thank Senator Tom Duane and his staff for their tireless advocacy for protections for all of the students in New York's schools over the past eight years.
Yes: eight years. When DASA was first introduced, today's seniors - the class of 2008, set to graduate in just few days in most districts in our state - were finishing third grade. Third grade. An entire generation of students has passed through our state's schools since this bill was first introduced, yet the bill has still not become law.
Why is this? Is this because such a law is unneeded, because New York's schools are havens of safety and tolerance? Hardly. In 2005 GLSEN commissioned the Harris polling organization to do the largest-ever study of bullying and harassment in America's schools, entitled From Teasing to Torment. We asked them to do a special report on New York's schools. What we learned was disturbing. Nearly 40% of students in New York state say that bullying and harassment is a serious problem at their school. Perhaps that's why less than half (44%) say they feel very safe at their school. When asked what the main reasons their peers get bullied are, they told us that the top three reasons were appearance (42%), sexual orientation (23%), and gender expression (12%), meaning that bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity accounted for 2 of the top 3 reasons such behavior occurs: no other reason exceeded 5%.
Confronted with the bald facts that we face a crisis in our state's schools with regard to bullying and harassment, some folks fall back on a second argument: this is all a part of growing up, "boys will be boys," kids learn how to handle this mistreatment. Toughens them up. So do we not need such a law because bullying and harassment are just a rite of passage we all go through, one that has little impact on a student's health and well-being? Hardly. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students who experience frequent bullying and harassment have grade point averages nearly a full letter grade below their peers who do not experience this mistreatment. They are substantially more likely to skip school regularly and say they do not plan to go on to college. As someone who taught high school history for ten years, none of this surprises me because I know a basic fact: students can't learn if they don't feel safe. You can't focus on U.S. History in my class if you are worried about whether or not you can get from my class to English class between this period and the next without getting your butt kicked in the hallway. It's not rocket science, people: it's common sense.
With the prevalence and impact of bullying and harassment clear, some folks fall back on their final argument: a law won't solve this problem. And you know what? They're right. Passing a law is the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end, of the work we need to do to make ours schools safe. So should we not enact this bill because it won't make a difference? Hardly. Laws do make difference. Verbal harassment of LGBT students is 1/3 higher at schools which lack a policy or law that includes sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes (and, interestingly, there's no statistically significant difference between lacking a comprehensive policy and having no policy whatsoever: the only thing that seems to make a difference is a policy with enumerated categories that include those like sexual orientation and gender identity). They are twice as likely to tell a school staff person if they are bullied or harassed - a critical step we need more to take, as a stunning 60% of New York's students who experience bullying and harassment report they never tell anyone who works for their school about it, meaning staff cannot respond. And it's good for all students as all students in schools with comprehensive and inclusive polices are 1/3 more likely to report feeling safe at school that those who attend schools that do not. And, finally, it's what teachers say they need: when asked by Harris what intervention would make it easier for them to make their schools safer for LGBT students, teachers responded that a clear and comprehensive policy was the single most important thing they needed.
So what are we waiting for? We know that bullying and harassment is prevalent in New York's schools; we know that it affects our students' ability to learn; and we know that a law like DASA will make a difference. These aren't opinions: they are well-researched facts. Yet it looks like the class of 2008 will graduate in a few days, having never had the kind of law they needed to make their schools a place where they could focus on learning.
This is a disgrace. We should be ashamed as a state that we have allowed politics to stop us from doing what we know our kids need, that - while our neighbors forge ahead - we lag behind. While we wait, kids get hurt.
I ask the Senate today not to wait any longer. Time is a luxury that a student who is getting bullied and harassed cannot afford. You're only kid once, and being a kid shouldn't hurt. But - far too often - it does for the kids in New York's schools. You have the power to make it better for them. Use it. Enact DASA today.