Governor Amends the DASA act to Include Cyber-bullying

I applaud the Governor Cuomo for amending the Dignity for All Students (DASA) Act to include acts of cyber-bullying. DASA, effective July 2012, requires schools to report instances of school bullying to New York State and develop embedded school curriculum which teaches tolerance for all and focuses on prevention. I also commend the Governor for resisting the political pressures to criminalize the behavior. While creating a data base of bullying is more a question of logistics, the real challenges schools are now faced with is developing an empathic school climate that seizes conflicts as teachable moments. This is especially true when it comes to the world of social media.

Our culture has resorted to using social media as a means to have substantive communication. As an attorney and psychologist, I help facilitate dialogue between high conflict parties. I am reminded of two parties who resorted to texting in lieu of speaking. One of the parties complained to me that other party was yelling when texting.

In a bewildered state, I asked, “How do you know that you are being yelled at?”

“The texts are all in capitals”, she replied.

This psychological phenomenon is referred to as a hostile bias. And the best way to overcome this is by having a face-to-face dialogue between the parties; texting does not facilitate resolution. Face to face dialogue permits the disputants to see each other’s humanity. We can observe the person’s gestures and hear the manner in which they are speaking, see their body language and measure their tone.

Conversely, when individuals text or email each other, one is left to interpret the true meaning of that message either in a vacuum or based on the feelings that they have for that person. So for example, if a person receives an email or a text from their former spouse and it is in all capitals, it may be interpreted by the sender is yelling at him.

Moreover, having the ability to convey a message without seeing how the message is perceived abrogates the sense of responsibility for the result of that message, giving the messenger a false sense of bravado which could result in causing great amount of pain to the recipient or subject of the message.  This certainly contributes to what is happening in the world of cyber-bulling. Horrible and hurtful things are being said in the wireless world. These messages are like ticking time bombs, detonated once the message is read.  The sender is insulated from the personal consequences his actions have caused by distance; he has sent his message from the comforts of his own space.

There was a time we believed that the new methods of communication would engender more and better interaction; instead, they have distilled the power of interaction.  We have become so dependent on texting and emailing that we are spawning generations that will no longer know how to engage in true dialogue in the midst of conflict. They will resort to texting and emailing to build on their hate rather than sitting down and seeing each other’s humanity.

In Schools, we educate our students how to prevent fires and what to do in case of one. However, we fail to teach our children how to prevent conflict and/or how to address it in the event happens. As a result, we rely on the “Zero Tolerance doctrine” when a conflict does occur. Many public schools in New York State use zero tolerance practices to discipline their students in addressing such wrongs as bullying.  Zero tolerance penalties in New York include in-school suspensions, principal suspensions (under five days), superintendant suspension (five days to one year), expulsion, or even arrest.  Zero tolerance policies create the potential for many students to be criminalized for relatively minor infractions.

Zero tolerance practices can have harmful effects on students, both directly and indirectly. The direct harm is the most recognizable.  If a student is suspended, expelled, or arrested, he/she will immediately be taken out of the classroom, and inadvertently be rewarded for his “bad” behavior. The student also is immune from seeing the personal consequences his actions had upon the victim, as in the case of texting. Children are often arrested. The arrest not only goes on the child’s record, which can follow him or her throughout academic years, it can also be an emotionally and psychologically damaging event in the child’s life.

The indirect effect carries a long-term harm. The National Center for Education Statistics found that 31 percent of students who had been suspended three or more times before the spring of their sophomore year dropped out of school.  While only 6 percent of students who had never been suspended left school without a high school diploma.  Children who are suspended are more likely use drugs and alcohol and more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system, and eventually the criminal justice system.  Research also shows that zero tolerance policies are applied unequally.  Zero tolerance tends to be implemented in a discriminatory manner: it is enforced more often against male students, students of color, students with disabilities and those from low-income households.   According to data from the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, in 2004, African American students made up 33 percent of the enrollment in New York City schools, but accounted for 52 percent of out-of-school suspensions.  Thus, inequitable school discipline practices create a greater likelihood that more men of color, more people with disabilities, and more people from lower economic statuses will abuse substances and/or enter into the criminal justice system.

Pursuant to the DASA requirements, suspension, expulsion, and arrest should be a last resort to dealing with disruptive behaviors.  Some public schools in New York State, and at least six schools in New York City, implement violence and/or bullying prevention programs that do not utilize zero tolerance policies.  Instead, these schools employ restorative justice and rehabilitation techniques that foster the student’s accountability without forcing him or her to leave school. Many studies have shown that students who participate in alternatives to punitive discipline, such as conflict resolution, counseling or restorative practices, are happier and more successful at school.

In a world that has become so dependent on social media as a means to communicate, we are now faced with educating our youth how to have a meaningful dialogue so that instances of bullying are prevented and conflicts are transformed into teachable moments.

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