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How to protect students from discrimination and harassment in schools was the subject of an all-day workshop Tuesday at Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES, relating to the new state Dignity for All Students Act, which takes effect July 1.
Participants included school superintendents, psychologists, guidance counselors, teachers and social workers from a dozen local school districts.
The Dignity Act is designed to help schools keep students safe and free from intimidation so they are able to pursue their education, said workshop leader Mary Jalloh, executive director of the New York State Center for School Safety.
The Dignity Act promotes training for school personnel to raise awareness and sensitivity to acts of discrimination or harassment and encourages instruction in civility, citizenship and character education by expanding the concepts of tolerance, respect for others and dignity.
Weight is the number one characteristic nationwide for which students report having experienced discrimination or harassment, Jalloh said. It tops other issues listed in the Dignity Act as requiring student protection: race, color, national origin, ethic group, religion, religious practices, disability, sexual orientation, gender and sex.
Anne Ostrowski, program coordinator of The Hudson River Teacher Center at BOCES arranged for the workshop “to serve our component districts on whatever mandates are coming out of Albany.”
Nine workshop participants came from Mahopac, “a large district,” Ostrowski said. Others were from Bedford, Yorktown, Lakeland, Katonah-Lewisboro, Putnam Valley, Ardsley, Highland Falls, Millbrook, BOCES and Ossining.
Ossining started last year to work on these issues, said Assistant Superintendent Angela White, one of five Ossining staff members attending the workshop. “Our focus now is to make sure we’re continuing,” she said.
Roosevelt School Principal Corey Reynolds said concern about harassment and discrimination issues begins with even the youngest students, “as early as First Steps, for three- and four-year olds.”
Brookside Elementary School Principal Ann Dealy said, “It’s okay to notice differences but how you express them really matters. Our differences should not just be tolerated and accepted but be embraced and celebrated. We are enriched by diversity.”
Dorna Schroeter, coordinator of Outdoor Education at BOCES, said she found Dignity Act discussion valuable in designing next year’s student challenge courses to focus more on acceptance than before.
"Comments can easily be made, with interesting nuances you don’t even think about,” Jalloh said.
Not every instance of discrimination or harassment, however, rises to the level where it should be reported, though they should be investigated. Reportable events are those “having the effect of unreasonably and substantially interfering with a student’s educational performance, opportunities or benefits, of mental, emotional and/or physical well-being.”
At the day’s end, workshop participants were urged to go back to their districts to share what they’ve learned and to train and designate a Dignity Act coordinator for each school to deal with diversity issues, complaints, consistency and reprimands.