Through amendments to the New York State Education Law, which will take effect July 1, 2012, the Dignity for All Students Act1 (the "Act") seeks to provide all students with an environment free of harassment that substantially interferes with their education.

The Act amends Article 2 of the New York State Education Law to provide that no student shall be subjected to "harassment" by employees or students on school property2 or at a school function.3 The amendment further prohibits any student from being subjected to discrimination based on actual or perceived race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, gender or sex by school employees or students on school property or at a school function.

The Act defines harassment as “the creation of a hostile environment by conduct or by verbal threats, intimidation or abuse that has or would have the effect of unreasonably and substantially interfering with a student's educational performance, opportunities or benefits or mental, emotional or physical well-being; or conduct, verbal threats, intimidation or abuse that reasonably causes or would reasonably be expected to cause a student to fear for his or her physical safety."

To help provide a safe and civil educational environment, the Act requires school districts to:

  • Revise their codes of conduct and adopt policies intended to create a school environment free from harassment and discrimination;
  • Adopt guidelines to be used in school training programs to raise awareness and sensitivity of school employees to these issues and to enable them to respond appropriately; and
  • Designate at least one staff member in each school to be trained in non-discriminatory instructional and counseling methods and in handling human relations.

School districts must adopt and enforce a code of conduct for the maintenance of order on school property and at school functions that must be distributed at the beginning of each school year.

Additionally, the Act adds Section 801-a to Article 17 of the New York State Education Law, requiring the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York to ensure that the course of instruction in grades kindergarten through 12 includes a component on civility, citizenship and character education. This amendment mandates instruction to students on principles of honesty, tolerance, personal responsibility, respect for others, observance of laws and rules, courtesy and dignity.4

Although the Act does not apply to private, religious or denominational institutions, we recommend that such schools rely on the Act for guidance. The New York State Education Department has provided guidance on bullying, cyberbullying and sexting.5 Additionally, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has issued tips for schools as part of its Stop Bullying Now! campaign.6