Dignity for All Students Act
Vigil Held at New York State Capitol

HOME . On the evening of August 20, 2001, representatives of many school and community groups working for passage of the Dignity for All Students Act gathered at the New York State Capitol to speak out publicly in support of the bill currently pending in the New York State Legislature. Over 100 participants rallied.

20 AUGUST 2001

Good evening. My name is Terry O'Neill. I'm a lawyer with a long and very broad experience in state government. I came to Albany twenty three years ago on the invitation of Fred Miller, a distinguished attorney who retired last year.

Fred is probably the most knowledgeable person I ever met about the legislative process. He certainly taught me everything I know about it. In fact, he teaches a seminar on the process at Albany Law School. He calls it "There Ought To Be A Law."

Obviously, there are many here this evening who feel that the Dignity for All Students Act "ought to be a law." I predict that when it is, you'll all qualify for credit for Fred's course because getting a law enacted is a lot of work and you learn a great deal in doing it.

It's almost two years now since John Myers of the Coalition for Safer Schools called me up in his usual restless state and told me about the recent passage of the California version of this proposal. "Do you think it might fly here?" he asked.

I've heard that question before. I am a veteran of many successful legislative campaigns. They all had two things in common. They were ideas whose time had come and they were backed by people who were intensely committed to make them happen.

I sensed that those two forces were converging over this issue.

First, there was the recent success of the Hate Crimes Bill and that coincided with huge public concern over school violence. I hasten to compliment Lt. Governor Mary Donohue and Albany Mayor Gerry Jennings for their efforts to combat the latter.

Second, I noted the appearance on the stage of people like Nick Lanni and Graham Murphy, the courageous co-chairs of this event, Ross Levi and the staff of the Empire State Pride Agenda, the rapidly expanding coalition of supporting organizations and people from far afield like Steve Cozza and his Dad with their closely related Scouting for All initiative.

I'd like to compliment John Myers in particular. John retired in recent years from a federal job and has become a tireless activist in making the schools safe for young people of all persuasions. He founded the Capital Region Chapter of GLSEN. Later he went on to organize the Coalition for Safer Schools.

Getting back to the bill, through the good offices of former Assistant Assembly Speaker Edward Griffith, we drafted legislation and passed it on to a newly-elected State Senator, Tom Duane.

We knew Senator Duane would not rest until the Governor signed the bill into law.

In the Assembly, the sponsor is Education Committee Chair Steve Sanders, one of our nation's most respected and effective leaders in education policy.

This is very important legislation. It goes much further than the Hate Crimes Law. That law punishes crimes motivated by bias and teaches a lesson to those who might be similarly inclined; but it does not address the far more pervasive, insidious and self-perpetuating existence of bias itself at its very roots. This act will help to do that.

I can see that a lot of highly motivated people have coalesced around this Act. That's what it will take to get it passed. But then the real work begins. If it is to be more than just some words in a statute book, you have to be ready to follow up by advocating its implementation in every school district in the state.

You may think that the people in positions of authority in all these government buildings can just snap their fingers and get things done. Not so. Not without public interest and support. Let me give you one example that should resonate with many of you.

In 1987, when I was first getting to know him, I had a private meeting one day with the man who was then Superintendent of the New York State Police -- Tom Constantine. He happened to mention in passing his frustration over a series of homicides of older gay men at a resort area upstate.

His frustration was because local police were not pursuing these cases aggressively and would not accept state police investigative support. That troubled him greatly.

You see, years before there was a hate crimes law in New York, our top cop stood ready to do something about what were likely hate crimes -- and he did, when he could. But to make it possible to do that in every such case with over six hundred individual police agencies in the state took years of advocacy, work and new laws won by people like you who asserted a changed public attitude and a new sensitivity to the fact that justice denied to one is justice denied to all.

Fairness and impartiality -- whether it's on the part of the police officers who enforce the laws and protect civil rights on streets and highways or the teachers and staff responsible for maintaining a safe and orderly learning environment in the schools -- I hear you asking for no more and willing to accept no less.

I would like to close by saying that I am not here representing any particular interest or group, although I do provide legal and legislative advice to the Coalition for Safer Schools. It's hard to say no to Mr. Myers.

And yes, the bill does single out for its special protection those groups who have historically borne the burden of discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, sexual preference, disability, etc. But I hope this goes a lot further.

Because there are people I've been thinking of since Mr. Myers first approached me with this Act. I'm not sure if they'd all be considered specifically covered under the bill, but I hope they are.

I want to mention some of them in closing.

There was tiny girl from a very poor family I knew when I was in first grade. She lived in a shack without plumbing and wore rummage sale clothes. Her name was Faith. She had a noticeable overbite that led to the cruel nickname "Gopher."

There was a guy named Steve who had an unpronounceable Polish name. He had more trouble pronouncing it than anyone else because of a speech impediment. He got ridiculed and picked on.

In high school there was a guy named Paul who was very portly. You know what that led to.

Another guy named Chuck was small, scrawny, had a pointy nose and close-set eyes that earned him the nickname "Mole" and a special dispensation from the requirement of showers after athletics. Chuck went on to endure and overcome horrific problems with drugs and alcohol.

There was another guy who was far from the most athletic person in the school. Nor was he exactly the epitome of stereotypically male behavior and deportment. And unfortunately his name rhymed with "queer." And rhyme it did; day after day.

There are many reasons why kids get singled out for cruel treatment in elementary and secondary schools. Not one of those reasons is justified or to be tolerated. Because, as the law enforcement officers like Mr. Constantine I've been privileged to know over the years know better than anyone else, bias leads to violence.

And that is the message of the Dignity for All Students Act.

tyger jumping through hoop

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