By Tara Kyle
GREENWICH VILLAGE — A law signed by Gov. David Paterson Wednesday offers new anti-bullying protections to students, specifically calling out protections for kids who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, as well as students taunted because of their weight.
Federal law currently protects students from harassment based on race, religion and national origin. With its new law, New York joins nine other states in offering specific bullying provisions for LGBT communities.
Paterson said he hoped the law would protect students from bullying similar to the same kind of that he experienced in school.
The governor, who was one of the first legally blind students to attend public school in his Long Island district, told a story of how he retaliated against one bullying peer by clobbering him with his metal lunchbox.
"The problem is, that’s not the way to handle the problem," Paterson said in remarks Wednesday at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Center. "And my father told me that's not the way to handle the problem.
"My mother told me it was cool," he added jokingly.
The new law, called the Dignity for All Students Act, provides specific rules for implementation, including teacher training and staff development, dialogue sessions among students, and a mandate that schools report incidents of bullying to the New York State Department of Education.
"Children cannot learn if they don't feel safe," said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. "If the walk down that hallway is a walk down a gauntlet of fear, they simply cannot get in their chairs and digest what they’ve heard."
But enacting protections for students against that kind of suffering took over a decade. While the State Assembly passed versions of the bill eight times, the State Senate didn't vote in its favor until June. The law will go into effect July 1, 2012.
A coalition of some 200 groups, including the United Federation of Teachers, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLESN), the Anti-Defamation League and the New York State Pride Agenda, fought for it continuously.
In thanking those groups, State Sen. Tom Duane shared an anecdote of one African-American mother who told him she didn't allow her daughter to ride the bus because the bullying from white students was so intense.
"That will never happen again in New York State," Duane said. "No student should be afraid to go to school."
Studies indicate that bullied students face greater risks of truancy, drug abuse, fighting and suicide, according to Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Among LGBT students in New York, 79 percent reported verbal harassment in GLESN's 2007 National School Climate Survey.
"The things they take away from it are never positives in their lives," said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers. The new law, he said, "is something that we hope will lead the children and the next generation to a better place than we ever were."