The New York Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of New York City civic organizations commended Mayor Michael Bloomberg, schools Chancellor Joel Klein and the Department of Education for taking a strong stand today against harassment in New York City public schools. But while the new Chancellor's Regulation on bias-based harassment, intimidation and bullying is a significant step, it falls short of full implementation of the Dignity in All Schools Act (DASA), a four-year old law passed by the City Council that the mayor has refused to enforce, despite his legal obligation to do so.
The DASA in Action! Coalition – which includes the NYCLU, the Sikh Coalition, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families, the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA) and others – came together in 2007 to help fight the problem of pervasive, bias-based harassment in New York City's public schools.
“We commend the Bloomberg administration for taking an important step forward in the effort to create a safe space for all students in our schools,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director. “But Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein are legally obligated to enforce the law. It's past time for New York City to finally enforce the Dignity in All Schools Act.”
Harassment in schools based on a student's actual or perceived race, national origin, ethnic group, religion, sexual orientation, disability, sex, and gender identity and expression is an urgent issue:
- Osama al-Najjar, a 16-year-old at Tottenville High School in Staten Island, plunged into a deep depression and tried to commit suicide because he was incessantly referred to as Osama bin Laden.
- Sikh student Harpal Singh Vacher, a freshman at Newtown High School in Elmhurst, was forced into the bathroom by another student who removed his turban and forcibly cut his waist-length hair. In accordance with Harpal's religion, his hair had never been cut.
- Last spring, Maria Herrera, a 12-year-old at PS 72 in Brooklyn, made a devastating decision and took her life. According to news reports, the girl's mother said that Maria was the subject of her classmates' constant harassment and though she complained to the school, teachers and the DOE more than 20 times, nothing was ever done.
“On-going, widespread harassment puts students in an atmosphere of fear which undermines their academic potential,” said NYCLU Organizer Erica Braudy. “It can lead them to skip school, engage in high-risk behaviors such as drug or alcohol abuse or even contemplate suicide.”
The City Council recognized the seriousness of the issue when it passed the Dignity in All Schools Act in June 2004 and then overcame a veto by Bloomberg to make it law in September 2004. The mayor, however, has never enforced DASA.
Today's regulation is a positive step forward in meeting some of DASA's crucial goals. It includes a system for bringing and investigating complaints of bias-based harassment; it requires distribution of information to parents and students annually on the prohibition of and complaint process regarding bias-based harassment; and it creates a standard form for reporting of incidents.
However, the new Chancellor's Regulation falls short of full enforcement of the law:
- DASA prohibits bias based harassment by any person on school premises or at a school function, but the DOE regulation governs student-to-student harassment only. The new regulation does not cover harassment by school administrators, teachers and other individuals.
- DASA requires annual reporting, including in a school's report card, of information on the number and nature of bias based incidents broken down by school, district, borough and grade level. Such information is supposed to be published on the DOE's web site. But the DOE regulation includes no public reporting requirements.
- DASA is very specific in its requirement of trainings on a regular basis for all staff to discourage development of harassment. But the DOE regulation is vague and does not detail what sort of annual trainings will be mandated. This is a key provision, since in order to change the environment in the schools, all staff and students must be trained in recognizing and preventing bias based harassment.
- DASA included a definition of bias based harassment that would discipline students appropriately and not lead to over-reliance on punitive measures in order to address minor school disciplinary problems. But the DOE regulation is so broad that it could lead to punitive measures being used against students rather than a focus on creating a more nurturing and respectful environment.
The NYCLU and its coalition of partners also expressed concern that the regulation announced today did not allow for a public comment period, as required by both state and city law. The DOE should seek the advice of the public, including feedback from parents, students, civic organizations and elected officials, before issuing final regulations.
“This is even more important considering the subject area of this regulation,” said NYCLU Advocacy Director Udi Ofer. “Impacted communities should have been given an opportunity to provide their feedback on the regulation before it is made final. The mayor should follow city and state law and allow New Yorkers the chance to submit their comments on the regulation before making it final.”