At a New York City Council hearing today on bullying and bias-based harassment in city schools, the New York Civil Liberties Union urged council members to actively monitor the city Department of Education’s implementation of the Dignity for All Students Act – a statewide anti-bullying measure that takes effect in July 2012.

“The DOE has made progress, but much more work is needed to ensure that all students feel safe and welcome at school,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “The City Council must ensure that the DOE not only meets its obligations under state and local laws, but that it sets a statewide standard for effectively addressing bullying and bias-based harassment in schools.”

In June 2004, the City Council passed Local Law 42, legislation that prohibits harassment and discrimination in the schools; requires regular anti-harassment training for staff and teachers; and requires regular reporting and tracking of incidents of bullying and harassment. Mayor Bloomberg and the DOE refused to enforce this law. Four years later, following a pair of high-profile attacks against Sikh students in the city schools, the DOE issued Chancellor’s Regulation A-832, a step toward addressing bias-based harassment and bullying that falls short of Local Law 42.

The statewide Dignity Act, enacted in July 2010, protects public school students from all forms of bullying and harassment, including “verbal threats, intimidation or abuse,” for any reason, including the student’s race, color, national origin, ethnicity, religion, religious practice, weight, disability, sexual orientation, gender or sex. Unlike Local Law 42 and the chancellor’s regulation, which apply only to student-on-student harassment, the Dignity Act also prohibits adult-to-student harassment. It also requires annual reporting of incidents of harassment to the State Education Department.

In its testimony before the City Council’s Education Committee, the NYCLU emphasized the importance of transparency in addressing bullying.

“We can’t address the problem of bullying in our schools unless we know what the problem is,” said NYCLU Assistant Advocacy Director Johanna Miller. “The DOE has shied away from reporting incidents of bullying out of fear of shaming schools into under-reporting. We are confident that a reporting scheme can be developed to both address the DOE’s concerns and ensure its compliance with the law.”

The NYCLU also urged the DOE to go beyond the Dignity Act’s requirements in areas where Local Law 42 or the chancellor’s regulation provide stronger protections. This would include:

  • Reporting some information on bullying incidents to the public. Parents, students, and advocates should be able to access this important measure of school climate, and use this information to evaluate the DOE’s progress.
  • Expanding training opportunities to include more teachers and administrators, as well as support staff including school safety agents, bus drivers, and teachers’ aides.
  • Avoiding a zero tolerance response to bullying incidents. Suspension is not an effective way to change student behavior, and is enforced in a discriminatory manner. The DOE must focus on educational interventions and prevention.

The NYCLU warned against adopting a “zero-tolerance” disciplinary approach to bullying.

“Endlessly arresting and suspending students for bullying will not create safe, nurturing schools,” Lieberman said. “It takes a positive educational approach, not handcuffs and suspensions, to teach children to treat one another with dignity and respect.”

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