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Dignity for All Students: Expert offers tips to prevent bullying

When the New York State Dignity for All Students Act (The Dignity Act) was signed into law in 2010, it was designed to protect students from bullying, harassment, and other forms of discrimination based on perceived race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, gender, or sex. Today, school officials are working to implement the act, which must be in place by July 1, 2012 in all districts across New York State.

Katy AllenBullying expert Katy Allen, a PhD candidate in human development at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education, says that The Dignity Act will offer schools a way to re-frame their work around bullying and drama.  According to Allen, The Dignity Act requires that schools modify and amend their policies and procedures to include harassment, bullying, taunting, and intimidation that meet a certain set of criteria. It also requires that schools adapt the code of conduct to reflect the changes and also put it in their handbooks for students in a way that kids can understand it, appoint a person to manage human behavior along the lines of the new law, and implement this new information into their K-12 education. Lastly, it requires that teachers are trained to intervene when they see these behaviors happening and take action to prevent these kinds of behaviors from developing into harassment and bullying.

“The most important thing schools can do is to realize that while the code of conduct is important in shaping behaviors, we also don’t want to wait until we have full-blown bullying and egregious harassment going on before we intervene in kids’ social conflict, aggression, or drama,” says Allen. “Ideally if schools could develop a system, procedure, or process for intervening when behaviors are questionable—maybe they are bullying, maybe they feel and look like harassment, but they might not be. We need to help kids modify, adapt, and change their behaviors so that we don’t get to the level of violation of the law.”

Allen stresses the importance of understanding the links between bullying and drama. Bullying, she says, is a behavior that is intentionally harmful, inflicts harm, exploits the balance of power, and is usually repeated. Drama, on the other hand, is a social interaction that is short-lived and is characterized by overreaction, exaggeration, prolongation, involvement of extraneous people, and inflated relevance. According to Allen, drama can rise to the level of bullying.

Allen offers the following tips to school administrators, teachers, and parents to help combat these problems—not just with The Dignity Act, but in general—before they escalate and become serious bullying violations:

For Schools

  • Prevention begins with helping kids to realize that some of the typically mean behavior that they engage in is not acceptable.
  • Develop schools that are truly caring communities. Set the bar very high for interpersonal respect in terms of how we treat one another, and model those types of behaviors to students. If adults are dismissive of kids in any way, or fail to treat them with respect, it sends the message to students that it’s okay to treat others this way.
  • Have your ducks in a row. Before educating students about the law and how students are going to be expected to treat their peers, nail down your policy and design a procedure that is user-friendly and can be used consistently across the board.
  • Steer away from punishment. Punishment does not usually work in instances of bullying, and that’s often difficult for adults to grasp, as we live in a world where we’ve been taught if you punish bad behaviors, they will stop. However, in the case of bullying these behaviors will not stop. Instead, these behaviors often go further underground, which can make things more dangerous.
  • Have good social radar. The biggest challenge for teachers today is not so much being able to define bullying, but rather assessing the meaning of kids’ social interactions. In other words, teachers need to work harder at paying attention to how kids are interacting with each other and asking questions, such as ‘What did I just see?’ and ‘What did that mean?’ Delicately inquire about what is going on. Cell phones have afforded kids the ability to distance themselves even more from teachers. You not only have to be paying attention to the looks on students faces when they are talking to each other, but when they are reading messages on their phones.
  • Stop the behavior. Whenever you see something hurtful going on, you need to step in. A target is not going to admit in front of his/her aggressor that this was hurtful interaction, so you need to be skillful and talk to kids separately.
  • Form strong positive relationships with students. Your goal should be more about giving students support to help them change their behaviors, learn how to behave appropriately, how to have empathy, and how to solve a problem without it escalating into hurtful names where it can begin that slide toward bullying.
  • Lastly, schools need to be mindful that one-shot educational programs, such as motivational speakers or testimonials from victims, do not change behavior. They raise awareness and trigger sympathy, but the effects are temporary.  In isolation, programs of this nature do not solve the problem of bullying in schools.

For Parents

  • Don’t tell children to ignore bullying. If your child comes to you and says, ‘I’m being bullied’ — whether it’s really bullying or it’s just conflict that’s escalated beyond their ability to control and manage it—don’t tell them to ignore it because they’ve already tried and this has failed.
  • Be a good listener and ask sensitive and thoughtful questions. Don’t be over reactive. As soon as parents overreact, kids shut down and stop telling us what’s going on in their lives.
  • Take a breather from the cell phone and computer. If bullying involves social media, such as Facebook or Twitter, or text messaging, encourage your child to shut off the cell phone for a day or take a break from the Internet. This is not meant to be a punishment, but rather a way to give your child a break, let the dust settle, get his/her emotions under control, and think about what’s next.    
  • Ask to see evidence of cyberbullying. If the hurtful interactions are taking place over the Internet, or through cell phone text messages, e-mail, or Instant Messages (IM), ask to see it and then make copies of the evidence.
  • Use the same Internet tools that your child uses. There are a lot of great web resources for parents to learn how to use and navigate through various social media sites, such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc.
  • Give your kid a chance for amnesty. If your child is having problems give him/her a chance to talk about it without fear of any kind of punishment or consequence. When you establish a relationship with your child—one that assures them that you are their ally and advocate and, within a certain range of boundaries, you’re not going to punish them—they will come and admit to you that they’ve made some bad choices that may have produced some egregiously bad behaviors from other kids. Communication with your child is key!
  • Go to the school if your child is not safe or is afraid to attend to school.

Allen, who received a master’s degree in education from the University of Rochester and a bachelor’s degree in English education from Canisius College, also serves as a consultant and trainer for schools that are trying to deal with issues of bullying and aggression. She has been helping educators to reduce bullying and aggression in schools since 1995, when she first launched her company Impact Training & Evaluation, Inc. She currently focuses her own research on how students and school staff members understand bullying in a high school context. Allen, who successfully defended her PhD dissertation "Students' and Staff Members' Understanding of the Features, Forms, and Functions of Bullying in a High School" in March, expects to graduate in May.

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