New York City kids went back to school today, and Public Advocate Letitia James announced new legislation that will help protect them from bullying.
Last week state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman released a report that found significant underreporting of bullying and harassment in public schools. In the 2013-2014 school year, 70 percent of schools reported no incidents of bullying or harassment in their halls according to the AG report. Ninety-eight percent reported fewer than ten incidents. The Dignity for all Students Act of 2012 mandates that schools annually report instances of bullying (including cyberbullying) and harassment to a public database.
“We believe that the Department of Education is not complying with the Dignity Act or Title IX,” said James. “In the case of several individual reports of abuse received by our office, it appears that instead of treating the victims of bullying as victims they were penalized, suspended and disciplined.”
James’ proposed legislation would require that the city Department of Education make public disaggregated bullying and harassment data, publicize a list of all school “Respect for All” representatives and would require an annual report filed to City Council regarding Dignity Act compliance.
An earlier audit by state comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found that hundreds of violent incidents—including sexual assault and weapons possession—had gone unreported in city schools. And in 2014, a Daily News analysis found that 80 percent of city schools claimed no bullying in their halls in 2012—including a school in the Bronx where a student was fatally stabbed.
Along with the legislation, flyers that spell out parents’ and students’ right to a safe school environment were distributed across the city with the help of Community Education Council officials. Along with underreporting of incidents by schools, James said, there’s a lack of awareness of how to report issues and what victims rights are among parents.
Toya Holness, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, told the Voice last week that Schneiderman’s report relied on outdated data and did not acknowledge the city’s efforts to control bullying. “Our schools are the safest they’ve ever been, and reporting incidents is not an option, it’s a requirement,” Holness said. One problem could be a disconnect between how the city and state define harassment, bullying and discrimination. Incidents that don’t meet the state’s criteria are not reported and thus left out of state analysis.
Despite recent reports, a slew of school safety measures introduced by Mayor Bill de Blasio have attacked punitive disciplinary policies, something the district has long been criticized for. Arrests are down over 50 percent. Just 1,155 students were arrested last year compared to over 3,000 in 2010.
A letter sent from James to the DOE demands 33 documents and databases that will reveal the extent of that disconnect, including the actual number and nature of bullying and sexual harassment incidents, actions taken (including the average length of time it took) and information about training given to employees who handle the reporting.
“The safety and education of our children is our number one priority,” said James.