At 10:45 a.m. last Wednesday morning, thirty minutes into history class on the fifth floor of Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx, eighteen-year-old Abel Cedeno plunged a three-inch switchblade into the chest of fifteen-year-old Matthew McCree. Another student, Ariane Laboy, sixteen, stepped into the fray and was also critically injured. Forty minutes later at St. Barnabas Hospital, McCree was pronounced dead.
The first student death inside a New York City school building at the hands of another student since 1993, the killing sparked renewed questions about school safety. Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have touted 2017 as the safest school year on record, something they credit to City Hall’s prevention initiatives such as restorative justice, an approach to discipline that emphasizes emotional learning, mediation, and reconciliation over punitive actions.
But as shaken parents picked up their children at Wildlife last week, they told swarming reporters that safety at the school had long been a concern, and that they felt their complaints had been ignored by school officials. And though it’s still unclear what precisely led Cedeno to attack his classmate — media reports said that the victim had thrown pencil bits and paper at his assailant prior to the attack, while McCree’s mother said in a press conference that her son was kind, not a bully — there are indications that Cedeno had been subjected to months of harassment by fellow students prior to the incident.
In fact, the startling death of Matthew McCree and citywide bullying data reveal a picture of how schools across the city, overburdened and underresourced, remain unsure of how to effectively implement the city’s lofty school safety goals. Educators aren’t always clear on what constitutes bullying, and teachers and school faculty almost never report harassment to the city, despite regulations requiring that they do so.
Cedeno told police after his arrest that other students had taunted him for several weeks leading up to the attack. However, in a statement at the 48th Precinct in the Bronx, NYPD Chief Detective Robert Boyce said Cedeno had made no formal reports of bullying to the school prior to the incident.
Dawn Yuster, the director of the school justice project at Advocates for Children, a children’s educational rights and legal aid group in New York, says this is part of the school system’s problems with bullying. Though the city reports bullying in schools is on the decline, the AFC hotline, which helps families and students who are experiencing bullying, has received an increasing number of calls over the past few years. One of the primary complaints received: schools not taking action after a student reports being bullied to a teacher.
“What we find is that families often are making reports and telling school staff, but there are problems with addressing what’s happening by the school,” says Yuster. “There aren’t enough guidance counselors or school psychologists or mental health professionals to deal with these issues. Schools are overwhelmed.”
Toya Holness, press secretary for the New York City Department of Education, emphasizes that the DOE is making a concerted effort to improve school climate and increase the number of guidance counselors across the city, in accordance with the DOE’s “Respect for All” initiative. She says, “We take bullying seriously, and schools are required to immediately report, investigate, and address any reports of bullying.”
A classmate of Cedeno’s, who requested that her name be withheld because of harassment and threats she has received from former classmates since the incident, reports that he had been bullied since middle school. Students called him slurs because of his sexuality (he had come out as bisexual to a small circle of friends) and close female friendships. She remembers being in the library in tenth grade when another student threatened to get his gang together to “jump” Cedeno’s “faggot ass.”
Cedeno’s friend is not surprised he never filed a formal bullying report. “If somebody fucks with you, that’s just how it is, no matter how much you say something about it,” she says.
In New York City, according to a 2011 policy updated in 2013, when a teacher either observes bullying directly or hears about it from a student, the teacher or staff member is required to report the incident to the school principal or a school Respect for All liaison within one school day. A report must be submitted within 24 hours to the DOE’s Online Occurrence Reporting System (OORS), and an additional written report must be made within two school days for the school’s files. An investigation by the school principal is required to take place within five days of the original report. If the principal determines the behavior was bullying, he or she must work to recommend an intervention and take appropriate action, such as mediation to prevent the behavior from recurring, counseling with a guidance counselor or social worker, or disciplinary action.
In the 2015–2016 school year, 896 schools, or 50 percent of city schools, reported zero incidents of bullying, discrimination, or harassment, a statistic that raises eyebrows among children’s advocates. Ninety-six percent of schools reported fewer than ten incidents of bullying.
At Wildlife, just seven incidents of bullying were reported in the entire school year of 2015–2016, the most recent data available. Yet the school’s end-of-year survey from 2016 to 2017 indicated that 74 percent of students at the school reported that students were bullied or harassed some or most of the time.
The state attorney general and state education department asserted in a 2016 report that the low official bullying numbers suggest “substantial underreporting of material incidents of harassment and discrimination…along with a significant level of confusion or uncertainty as to how to classify those incidents that are reported.”
“What seems to be happening is that they’re deciding it’s not bullying before the reporting process,” says Yuster. “What we’ve seen is a breakdown in all parts of the process. Reports are made that haven’t been documented at all in the DOE database.” Left unresolved, she warns, “incidents can snowball and escalate.”
Wildlife’s numbers present a picture of a school already suffering the strain of overcrowding and high teacher and administrative turnover. Cedeno’s friend, who graduated last spring, describes a school so bursting at the seams that students had to ransack other classrooms for extra chairs and desks to use in class. In 2016, 45 percent of Wildlife students reported feeling unsafe in the school’s hallways, cafeteria, and bathrooms, and 89 percent of students reported that other students got into physical fights at school — the latter four times the rate of just three years earlier.
Wildlife has gone through three principals in just five years, and according to students, its high turnover of experienced teachers has led to a loss of student trust.
“All the teachers that cared about their students and would actually take time to build a relationship with them and understood them left,” said Cedeno’s friend. “There are very few teachers that know everybody’s story and try to go the extra mile for them.”
Urban Assembly, a well-regarded nonprofit that helps support a network of 21 public schools across the city, takes a “social-emotional learning” approach to teaching. SEL, as it’s known, places an emphasis on educating students to be emotionally intelligent, empathetic, and able to constructively resolve conflicts. The science says it works; the DOE collaborates with consultants at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to design its curriculum and train teachers on social-emotional learning principles.
However, integrating social-emotional learning into a classroom isn’t always simple, says Dena Simmons, director of education at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. “Even if you take SEL out of the equation, you’re still going to have a host of challenges,” says Simmons, a former middle school teacher in the Bronx.”How do you teach SEL or math or social studies or anything in classrooms where you have structural challenges like poverty that make it very difficult?”
Simmons’s research has focused on teacher preparedness to intervene in, prevent, and respond to bullying in New York middle schools. She was surprised to find that teachers did not feel empowered to intervene when conflicts broke out in their own classrooms. This statistic was particularly pronounced if the bullying was caused by gender preference or race.
Teachers also only witness a fraction of bullying that occurs between students, says Simmons. When she was a classroom teacher from 2006 to 2009, she says, administrators often instructed her not to get involved in student conflicts, and to let students fight it out for themselves, which is against DOE protocol. When teachers don’t recognize bullying as requiring intervention, that compounds problems for students, who can feel powerless to stop it, or mislabel the experience themselves.
Cedeno’s friend said that in her conversations with Cedeno, they would never call it “bullying.” “We would just say if people already started bothering us,” she says.
Dawn Yuster says when she advocates for a child who has been bullied or experienced harassment at school, she often ends up telling teachers and guidance counselors about existing support systems in place to help them with bullying.
“Students, families, and even school staff are typically not even aware of who the person is in their school who is supposed to be the expert on addressing bullying,” she says.
For example, Yuster points out, every school reports to a school climate manager who works with the DOE. However, each school climate manager serves at least seventy and as many as two hundred schools, according to DOE figures.
“We appreciate good policy,” she says, “but it needs to translate on the ground. Schools need to have the resources and the training to utilize it.”
Moreover, the bullying training teachers receive is limited. The Dignity for All Students Act, the 2010 state law (implemented in 2012) that defined a “zero tolerance” policy for school bullying and harassment, requires only that anyone applying for a New York State teaching license after 2013 must complete a six-hour course on harassment, bullying, and discrimination. There are no measures in place for a school administration to evaluate a teacher’s understanding or application of the training.
“It’s something they do six hours on a Saturday. It doesn’t allow them to get in depth enough to become expert on dealing with these issues,” says NYCLU executive director Johanna Miller. “And somebody needs to be an expert in a school, not just on the law, but on how to support young people and de-escalate conflicts in a constructive way.”
The DOE also requires that each school’s appointed Respect for All liaison attend a two-day, twelve-hour weekend training on the policies, bullying prevention, and intervention procedures. But the NYCLU found that 81 percent of surveyed high school students had no idea which school official was their anti-bullying advocate.
Part of the shift toward social-emotional learning in city classrooms comes from a de Blasio initiative to drastically reduce student suspensions and move increasingly toward restorative justice in schools. Educators are required to document positive interventions they had made prior to the principal deciding to suspend a student. Student suspensions dropped between 2012 and 2016, and the city heralded the initiative.
But the falling suspension number is controversial, as some wonder if constructive alternatives are being offered, or if students are simply not being suspended for behavioral infractions.
“Schools are under a lot of pressure to reduce suspensions, but most aren’t getting the resources they need to implement safe alternatives,” says Miller. “You can’t successfully reduce suspension numbers without providing alternatives.”
Advocates argue that the problem of schools’ difficulties in addressing bullying goes all the way to the top. Despite the city’s multiple anti-bullying campaigns, training programs, and designated Respect for All liaisons in every school, teachers across the city aren’t receiving necessary training on the ground, says the New York Civil Liberties Union.
The city allocated additional funding for restorative justice programs, which are designed to avoid suspensions and keep students in school through mediation, counseling, and providing additional mental health supports. But much of the $47 million designated annually for “school climate” initiatives, says Yuster, has been directed to a small number of the city’s schools with the highest number of suspensions, providing money for teachers to become trained in restorative practices, and therapeutic crisis intervention training for staff members. Wildlife is not slated to receive these extra supports, according to the 2017 DOE budget, despite additional guidance counselors being assigned to schools with comparable size and student demographics.
The DOE is taking steps in the right direction, but its efforts are not yet reaching all New York City schools. Marc Brackett, the director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, works directly with the DOE on its effort to increase the impact of its social-emotional learning curriculum. But the trainings are still not mandatory, and have only reached a small percentage of teachers so far.
“The DOE is very interested in moving forward with training for all teachers,” he says. “The reality is that it takes time to do it well.”
If the tragic death of Matthew McCree is any indication, a more concerted effort on behalf of the DOE is required to close these training gaps in all schools, not just a struggling few. The burden cannot be placed on schools and teachers alone.
“I do think that most schools are trying to do the best they can for kids,” says Brackett. “We have really high expectations for how people should support kids, but it’s a very difficult place to be as a teacher — trying to support so many kids.”
The desire to improve schools is there. Now it is up to the DOE to scale its efforts and make good on its promise to families: that every child is entitled to attend school in a safe and supportive learning environment, free from discrimination, harassment, bullying, and bigotry.