Testimony Regarding the Department of Education’s Efforts to Combat Bullying
Testimony of the New York Civil Liberties Union before the New York City Council on the Department of Education’s efforts to combat bullying & proposed resolutions 473-a and 474-a. The New York Civil Liberties Union respectfully submits the following testimony regarding the Department of Education’s efforts to combat bullying and the City Council’s support of the Safe Schools Improvement Act (Resolution 473-A in support of H.R. 1648/S.506) and the Student Non-Discrimination Act (Resolution 474-A in support of H.R.998/S.555). With more than 48,000 members, the New York Civil Liberties Union is the foremost defender of civil liberties and civil rights in New York State. As part of our dedication to upholding the right to a quality education for all of New York’s children, we have spent over a decade advocating for schools to prevent and address the bias-based harassment of students. Our work has included legislative campaigns in support of the Dignity for All Students Act (“The Dignity Act”) and its local counterpart (“Local Law 42”), legal advocacy on behalf of individual targets of bias-based harassment around the state, and ongoing participation on the State Education Department’s Dignity Implementation Task Force. In addition, our work to improve school discipline and restrict the role of the criminal justice system in schools affords us a unique perspective on the criminalization of student behaviors, including bullying. It is with this in mind that we offer our strong support of the two resolutions at issue today. The Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) would extend important legal protections and remedies to LGBTQ students across the country. LGBTQ students are not specifically protected by civil rights statutes that prevent discrimination on the basis of protected characteristics (race, national origin, sex, and disability status) and have few legal remedies in even severe cases of bias-based harassment at school. The SNDA would correct this disparity. The Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) would also contribute to improved educational environments for students across the country. SSIA’s training and reporting requirements will go a long way to addressing bullying in schools nationwide. In particular, the reporting requirements in SSIA would enable more sophisticated analysis and effective action against bullying by highlighting patterns of behavior among students. Data collected by the federal Department of Education on student achievement and discipline is a valuable tool for advocates and researchers, and we strongly believe that bullying incidents should be tracked and analyzed in the same way. While we strongly support enactment of the federal bills at issue today, our immediate concern is the successful implementation of the Dignity for All Students Act—a state law which prohibits harassment and bullying. The DOE should be commended for taking important steps to address bullying, but it is still failing to meet all its obligations under Local Law 42—a seven-year-old local anti-bullying law—and is falling far short of the requirements under the Dignity Act. We urge the DOE to come into full compliance with Local Law 42. Compliance with the local law will put DOE ahead of the curve in implementing the Dignity Act, and ensure that New York City is a model district in ensuring that students are protected from bullying. I. The Effects of Bullying Week to week, the NYCLU receives calls from panicked parents and terrified students who are subjected to such severe harassment that just attending school each day is a challenge. In addition to missing class, students who are subject to bias-based harassment may suffer from anxiety and an inability to complete their school work. They may be too scared to join extracurricular activities or participate in school events. These children, like other targets of bullying, can suffer serious health and mental health consequences, consequences that can extend to other children in the school who are not direct targets of the harassment. A school environment that is toxic to students, can lead to high absenteeism, lowered grades and test scores, and a general feeling of disengagement with the school. As we speak, NYCLU attorneys are working to secure a transfer for a student who has been so viciously bullied due to his sexual orientation that his principal told him this was a “good year” because he had only received one death threat. Not only does 16-year-old Richard live in constant fear for his physical safety—and even his life—he has sacrificed almost every school activity to avoid being bullied. For instance, though he excels at soccer, he was too afraid of his bullies to try out for the team. He goes out of his way to avoid the other out gay student in the school because their mere friendship makes both boys targets for sexual harassment. The school environment is so poisoned for Richard that he won’t even consider joining the Gay-Straight Alliance—a support group for out LGBT students and straight allies—because he fears it would draw the bullies’ attention. For Richard, unfortunately, due to the failure of his school to intervene effectively to protect him and improve the school environment, the only viable option is a transfer. The NYCLU works with a handful of individual bullied students like Richard to find solutions to ensure their right to an education. Ultimately, though, intervening on behalf of individuals is a limited tool for creating safer schools for all children. For that reason, our focus has shifted to establishing strong, meaningful anti-bullying programs in schools. Our work with the DOE and the State Education Department as part of the Dignity Task Force reflects this commitment. Because the DOE has implemented its own anti-bullying program for several years, we believe that a close examination of its successes and shortcomings will highlight important considerations for implementation of the Dignity Act. II. Statutory Framework In New York City, the issue of bias-based harassment sits at the intersection of several bodies of law. For decades, all public schools have had obligations to prevent and address harassment pursuant to federal law:
- Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects students from discrimination or harassment on the basis of their race, color, or national origin (including English- language proficiency).
- Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 protects students from discrimination or harassment on the basis of their sex (gender).
- Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protect students from discrimination or harassment based on their disability status.