October 7, 2011

With the school year back in full swing, D.C. students are once again busy completing their homework assignments. Now that the D.C. Council has reconvened after its lengthy summer recess, let’s hope our elected leaders spent the summer completing theirs.

Last spring, the council put on hold the Bullying and Intimidation Prevention Act of 2011, long-overdue legislation that would prohibit bullying in the city’s public and public charter schools, parks and libraries, among other places.

The law would require, for the first time, that schools and other covered agencies establish policies prohibiting intimidation, harassment or bullying carried out through written, verbal or physical gestures or acts — including electronic communication — based on distinguishing characteristics, including race, religion, ancestry, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or a mental, physical or sensory handicap.

These are basic and fundamental protections, and our young people shouldn’t have to wait any longer to get them. The issue is not one of will but resolve. Although nearly all council members either introduced the bill or signed on as co-sponsors, another school year has started with no safeguards in place. Not only should the council make passage of this bill a top priority, but it should also ensure that the legislation includes provisions advocated by the Anti-Defamation League in its model bullying prevention law that require robust reporting and investigation provisions, consequences for violators, victim assistance and resources for training and assessment.

With the pervasive bullying and harassment that occurs in our schools, it is appalling that the District lags behind the rest of the country in this critical area: Forty-seven states have already enacted anti-bullying legislation. On Sept. 1, New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights — billed as the nation’s toughest — took effect, just in time for the school year.

The need for this legislation is obvious. Bullying and harassment severely disrupt learning environments, breed an atmosphere of intolerance and hatred, and have led to a number of highly publicized student suicides in recent years. The problem is particularly pronounced for marginalized students. According to the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, more than 80 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender secondary-school students nationally report being verbally harassed in school because of their sexual orientation.

A Sept. 6 Post article highlighted an additional consequence of bullying: a drag on student achievement. Research at nearly 300 high schools in Virginia revealed that campuses with more reported bullying had lower passing rates on the state’s standardized tests.

In encouraging the D.C. government to take action, a former council member remarked that “bullying fosters a climate of fear and disrespect that can significantly impair the physical and psychological health of its victims and affect learning in a way that undermines the ability of students to reach their full potential.”

These words were spoken by then-council chairman — and now D.C. mayor — Vincent C. Gray at a hearing on the legislation almost a year ago. He was right then, and he’s right now. With concerted leadership this legislation can cross the finish line and become a law on which our children can depend.

The writer is the chairman of the young professionals division of the Washington, D.C., region of the Anti-Defamation League.

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