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Civil Rights Suffer Under Current Mayoral Control System

At a hearing before the State Assembly Committee on Education, the New York Civil Liberties Union today urged the legislature to address the failure of the current mayoral control school governance system to protect students’ civil rights and civil liberties. The NYCLU’s testimony focused on three areas where students’ rights have suffered under Mayor Bloomberg’s watch: the overzealous policing of the schools, aggressive military recruitment of students, and the failure to adequately address bias-based harassment.

Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director, testified at the hearing, which was held in Brooklyn. Lieberman urged legislators to emphasize core democratic principles like transparency, accountability and public oversight while evaluating and adjusting mayoral control of the public schools.

“New legislation must require the DOE to operate like other city agencies, subject to the same transparency, accountability and public oversight,” Lieberman said. “Our children suffer terribly when our schools are governed with utter disdain for these core democratic values.”

The 2002 state law that gave Mayor Bloomberg authority over the city’s public school system expires this year. The Committee on Education is holding hearings in every borough as the State Legislature considers renewing the law.

As Lieberman began her testimony, she noted the absence of the NYPD. The department is not believed to have testified at any mayoral control hearing, yet is a major, unmonitored presence in the schools. There are more than 5,200 police personnel in the city’s public schools, making the NYPD’s school safety division larger than all but four of the nation’s police forces – larger than the entire police forces in cities such as Washington DC, Detroit, Boston or Las Vegas. The massive, unchecked police presence in the city’s schools creates a hostile atmosphere that disrupts learning and often leads to the mistreatment of students and educators.

“Under Mayor Bloomberg’s control, the NYPD has imported Giuliani’s zero tolerance policing into our schools, enforcing school discipline as if it was criminal law and punishing children as if they were adults on the street,” Lieberman said. “As with everything else, school safety has become a secretive enterprise under mayoral control. The administration refuses to disclose the most basic information, such as the number of students arrested each year, making it difficult to gauge the true scope of school safety operations.”

Likewise, Mayor Bloomberg has not protected high schools students and their parents, especially those from low-income communities of color, from aggressive military recruiters. While federal law preempts the city’s Department of Education (DOE) from taking decisive action against military recruitment in the schools, some large urban school districts have acted within the confines of the statute to protect their students from aggressive recruiters. In contrast, the DOE has made recruiters’ jobs easier in some cases, and in others has simply abdicated responsibility for students’ privacy.

The Bloomberg administration’s refusal to implement the Dignity in All Schools Act (DASA), legislation that addresses bias-based harassment in the schools, is another failure to protect students’ civil rights and liberties. The DASA law, passed by the City Council in 2004, mandates support systems for bullied students, trainings for school employees, and a reporting requirement on the DOE to allow the Council to track the incidence of bullying.

Bloomberg vetoed the bill in 2004, arguing that it exceeded the Council’s jurisdiction. The Council overwhelmingly overrode the veto, but Bloomberg has refused to follow the law. Following several high profile incidents of vicious bullying, the DOE implemented some regulations to address bias-based harassment late last year. Those regulations fall far short of DASA’s training and reporting requirements.

Lieberman described the NYCLU’s difficulties in obtaining public information from the Bloomberg administration regarding issues affecting students’ rights. Currently, the NYCLU has five outstanding Freedom of Information Law requests with the DOE and NYPD on issues of school safety, military recruitment, and DASA. Four of those five have been outstanding for more than four months, and the organization has received no responsive records at all.

“The legislature can begin to address these issues through the lens of mayoral control,” Lieberman said. “First, the power, autonomy, and sovereignty of the DOE and NYPD must be immediately addressed and corrected.”

She said that new legislation must create a better forum for public input and oversight, including a strengthened Panel for Education Policy, where parents’ and students’ concerns can be recognized and addressed even when they differ from the mayor’s positions. New legislation also must ensure that the future DOE is subject to meaningful public oversight, in the form of periodic reporting of data, and to independent review by other agencies.

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