For Andrea H., a parent of an 8-year-old student at , what started out as a great school year for her son quickly turned downhill when another boy in the class began bullying him.
The boy would hit her son and other students, push them into walls, trip them, and cut in line ahead of other students, Andrea H. said. It caused her son so much anxiety that it affected his grades and made him not want to go to school. And although she said she took her complaints through "the proper chain of command" within the school, it took nearly all of the school year for the issue to be addressed.
"I feel like they really don’t understand what’s going on," she said. "I wish more parents would kind of speak out about it. Something has to give. I hate to see kids unhappy."
But that's exactly where the Dignity Act – a new state law requiring all schools to aggressively confront bullying – comes in.
According to Three Village administrators, the school district is well-prepared to meet the requirements of the Dignity Act, which took effect July 1. Cathy Taldone, the district's director of school and community partnerships who has been appointed as the Dignity Act coordinator, said the administration has been working all year to put the school district in compliance with the law before it took effect.
Among the requirements of that law:
- School districts are required to include language in their codes of conduct specifically addressing the Dignity Act;
- School districts must collect and report data pertaining to incidents of harassment and discrimination;
- School districts must incorporate the concepts of civility and citizenship, as well as character education, into the curriculum;
- Each building within a school district must have a bullying prevention coordinator.
"The legislative intent is that for kids to learn, they have to be in a school that is not compromised by harassment. It makes schools more accountable," Taldone said.
In 2011 the district formed a task force, consisting of 25 administrators, teachers, social workers, parents, and students, to steer the district's approach to the Dignity Act. The task force created a formal definition of bullying:
"Bullying is the intentional harmful behavior initiated by one or more students and directed toward another student. Bullying exists when a student with more social and/or physical power deliberately dominates and harasses another who has less power. Bullying is unjustified and typically is repeated. Bullying differs from conflict. Bullying involves a power imbalance element where one or more students target one student who has difficulty defending himself or herself."
RELATED: View the district's code of conduct and anti-bullying policy attached to this article.
Taldone said the scope of the Dignity Act does not include cyberbullying. However it does include not just classrooms and hallways, but all school grounds, activities and functions – including buses.
Jennifer W. said her six-year-old daughter, who just finished kindergarten, was continually bullied on the bus this year by a boy a year older. She said the boy has called her daughter fat and stupid, and "actually put his hands on her" one time near the end of the school year.
"We tried to tell her to just ignore him and didn't report every incident because each time we did, we were told that the school would handle it," Wolber said. "However, they would never ever tell us what was being done because they said they had to protect the privacy of the boy."
Barbara Gildea, the district's director of transportation, said the school bus is considered an extension of the classroom, that the drivers are trained in how to handle misbehavior on the buses, and that parent complaints about bullying on buses are handled at the school level.
"There's very close interaction between the bus drivers and our staff. ... School bus drivers don't just sit there and watch," Gildea said. "We look at a whole team approach, with the drivers, the parents, the staff, the administration. We want the school bus experience to be as positive as possible."
Another parent, Gayle G., said an older boy bullied her kids, ages 9 and 7, during "parent pick-up" – that's when students wait after school in the cafeteria, supervised by adults, when they can't take the bus home. She said she had to opt for the parent pick-up option because her kids were bullied on the bus in the first place.
"This older boy would whisper extremely inappropriate suggestive comments to them. He would also stare at them and mouth curse words at them," she said. "I am completely beyond upset for my kids, as this stuff was never in their radar prior to this."
Jennifer W. said she doesn't know what else she can do about the bully situation.
"I asked the school to keep this boy away from my daughter on the bus, but they obviously didn't do it or he just didn't listen," she said. " ... I don't want another year ruined for my daughter."
Gayle G. called for the school to place monitors on the buses, and said the children in the "parent pick-up" program should be divided into smaller groups so the monitors there can watch the kids more closely.
"When we leave our children in the hands of the school, as parents, we expect they will be cared for and given a safe place until they are back in our care," she said. "It is hard to leave them there, unsure if their sense of well-being is being shaken."
According to Bill O'Leary, a forensic therapist who has children in the Three Village district, kids shouldn't be singled out; instead, he said, "you put a behavior out there and deal with that."
"Ideally it’s something that has to be seen as a cultural issue in terms of the whole culture of the district instead of solely a home issue," he said. "Kids behave differently depending on who they’re with. If you bring the two systems together, it’s harder to really hide the different aspects."