What's not to like in legislation with a title like Dignity in All Schools Act? That's the high-minded name of a bill certain to pass in the City Council that would require the Education Department to design policies to stop harassment as well as to keep records of bullying in public schools.
Too bad that instead of bringing dignity to the blackboard jungle, the bill will only politicize, and bureaucratize a serious discipline problem.
The bill begins with the assumption that schoolyard bullies are best seen as adolescent racists, sexists and homophobes. The bill's architects want to stop "harassment and bullying" based on race, color, religion, disability, sexual orientation and other attributes that historically have given, rise to discrimination.
Councilwoman Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) justified her support because of "a crisis of bias in this city" while Councilman. Michael McMahon (D-Staten Island) said, "The bully of today is the hate-crime perpetrator of tomorrow."
The Empire State Pride Agenda, a gay lobbying organization, has been active in supporting the bill and helped to push through the similar Dignity for All Students Act in the Assembly in the spring.
But is bigotry what really drives the bully? Yes, there is racial tension in the schools. And, yes, gay kids get bullied a lot. But so do fat kids, cross-eyed kids, kids who wear dorky clothes or have a lot of bad hair days.
What the bullying-equals-hate-crime theorists don't grasp is that kids bully not because they are prejudiced in any familiar adult sense but because they are crude, Darwinian creatures trying to stake 'out territory and proclaim their dominance. They look for weakness —that's why small kids are so often targets — but anything that hints of vulnerability will do. According to an article in Education Next by Marc Epstein, one city high school needed to set up a separate cafeteria for freshmen because they were being so tormented by upperclassmen.
Consider the tragic case of J. Daniel Scruggs, whose mother was convicted last week of creating an unhealthy home by a Connecticut court. The 12-year-old hanged himself because he was bullied mercilessly — for being small, dressing in filthy clothes, smelling bad and being a temperamental crybaby.
The best way to save kids like Daniel is not through an anti-bias campaign. It's not even — or not only — to discipline bullies. It's to smash the peer-driven hierarchy that sets the tone in most middle and high schools. Schools without bullies —and though rare, there are such things —are places where dynamic principals build a supportive but serious community whose norms are set by adults. One reason many reform-minded educators prefer smaller schools is because they make it easier for adults to cultivate an adult-driven communal ethos.
Instead of encouraging educators to create decent communities, the Council's bill would only add to the regulations and paperwork that turn principals into distracted bureaucrats.
Moreover, consultants and sensitivity workshops — the inevitable result of the bill's employee training requirement —will only add to the sense among principals and teachers that their school is under the control of remote outsiders with little grasp of their students and neighborhood.
The truth is that discipline codes and regulations cannot socialize the Darwinian adolescent, only adults can do that. The Council bill is no help there.