A new state law is augmenting Whitehall’s efforts to ensure its students experience an educational environment free of discrimination.
The Dignity for All Act seeks to create schools that are free of discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment, and bullying. The law, which was passed in September 2010, went into effect statewide on July 1.
The law amends previous legislation and expands tolerance to include people of different mental and physical abilities, gender identity, sexual orientation and even weight, in addition to race, nationality, ethnicity, and religious affiliation.
“It’s similar to Title XI, but it expands upon it,” said Jodi Bradshaw, Whitehall business manager and the district’s Dignity for All Act coordinator. “The interesting thing about the law is all the protective classes that have been included, like weight. It broadens the horizon of where things can be taken.”
The law requires schools to develop guidelines and policies that create a school free of harassment and discrimination, as well as provide training to faculty.
The district was also required to appoint coordinators at each of its schools as well as a committee consisting of members of the Board of Education.
Molly Gordon and Allison Henry, the psychologists at the high school and elementary school, respectively, were chosen to serve as coordinators and will receive any complaints of discrimination that a student may make.
“We chose the school psychologists because we wanted the kids to have a certain comfort level with someone who was not going to be in control of the discipline,” Bradshaw said.
After they have received a complaint and spoken with the student, the information will be turned over to the principal or Gregg Chappell, dean of students, to investigate further and determine the appropriate disciplinary action.
Board members Joyce Corcoran, Jim Brooks, and Adam Mickel, all of whom have children who attend school in the district, will serve on the committee tasked with finalizing the policy.
Most administrators said the act is similar to many things the district has been doing.
“It’s not a lot different that what we’ve been doing. We’ve already been doing PBIS (positive behavioral interventions and supports) and Mrs. (Kelly) McHugh has a great anti-bullying program in place already. It ties into what we’ve been doing, but it just formalizes it a bit more.”
“The big thing is communication,” said Chappell. “There is more training with staff, and more communication with students.”
Although the district is still finalizing its training procedures, its expected most of the work will be done at faculty meetings. Staff will receive instruction aimed at increasing awareness of what constitutes discrimination and methods to address and respond to incidents where harassment may occur.
“They’ll need to foster an environment free of harassment and discrimination in those categories,” Bradshaw said.
Coordinators of the program will also meet with students during the first few weeks in school to discuss forms of harassment and discrimination. Chappell said those meetings will occur every year.
The district will also need to amend its code of conduct to include specific language outlined in the act, something McHugh is currently working on, and there will be a reporting aspect that the state is still working on.
“There’s still some kinks that need to be ironed out, especially regarding how the state collects the information, but this is going to be a good thing for the students,” Bradshaw said.