Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Bullying: In My Past and In Our Schools

This morning on twitter I found out from nyclu about an eleven o'clock press conference at Tweed Hall about "bias-based harassment and bullying". This is right up by City Hall, about a ten minute walk from where I work in the financial district, but work was too busy for me to get away. Argh. I wanted to be there because I'm particularly interested in this topic.

The first reason is that I was obese as a kid. I broke the two hundred pound mark by the time I was in sixth grade, and the three hundred pound mark by the time I was in eleventh. School was hell - or at least so I thought. I grew up in a quiet town that was small enough so that, while not everyone knew everyone else, parents were never removed by more than one degree of separation. I never had to deal with the sort of physical violence that some of the kids mentioned below.

The second reason is connected to the first. Whenever I get swept up in something, like I'm swept up in this blog, I remind myself of Maslow's hammer.
When the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.
I tend to see things in terms of bullying because I was bullied. One of the reasons why I react strongly to discrimination and bigotry against gay people is that I see it as bullying behavior. Proposition 8? Classic bully move: The bully isn't satisfied having what he has; he's not satisfied until he takes away what you have.

Is this thought model my hammer? Am I limited by thinking of everything in terms of bullying? I suspect that once I start my volunteer work with Garden State Equality, I'll be better able to answer that question.

But for now, on to the event. It makes for interesting reading, especially the white paper. I have some mixed feelings about DASA, especially when I read things like this.
Ashanta Woodley, 15, sees classmates being harassed everyday. Often the bullies aim their barbs at her. “They call me a lot of names, like fat or fat ass,” said Ashanta, a 10th grade student at a Prospect Heights High School in Brooklyn. The taunts hurt and distract Ashanta from her schoolwork. “It’s like everybody is judging you either by your skin or by how you look, they find something to bother you with, and it’s annoying,” she said. “Sometimes when I keep focusing on it, I slip away from my schoolwork so I get low grades.”
I got called "fat ass", and much worse, all the time. I never let it affect my grades. As a matter of fact, it probably helped my grades. I came to identify myself as the socially inept fat kid who gets good grades. I was the opposite of those who made my life miserable, and my anger at them fueled me.

I don't expect my messed-up little psychological construct to apply to all children. What I do expect, though, is school regulation that is enforceable and doesn't reek of mind-control. The police aren't going to swoop in every time an adult calls another adult "faggot". Should we teach our children that they can be protected from words, and that our government should clamp down on everything that comes out of our mouths? Aha! Apparently not.
Finally, DASA includes a definition of bias-based harassment that appropriately balanced the proscription of bias-based harassment with freedom of student speech and expression protected under the First Amendment. DASA prohibits conduct or verbal threats, taunting, intimidation or abuse that “unreasonably and substantially” interfere with a student’s educational performance or opportunity. By contrast, the Chancellor’s Regulation prohibits written, verbal or physical acts that create a “hostile, offensive or intimidating school environment” or “otherwise adversely affect[] a student’s educational opportunities.” This definition of harassment is overbroad and could infringe on First Amendment speech, with the potential effect of punishing the same students that the regulation seeks to protect, such as students who express an unpopular point of view.
OK, that I like. I think we are capable of drawing a line between intimidating behavior and one student calling another "fat ass", and hopefully the words "unreasonably and substantially" compose that line. In any event, it sounds like DASA is more of an accountability tool for what the DOE should be doing already, and it smacks less of mind-control than the existing Chancellor's Regulation. Sounds good to me.

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