New York City officials unveil new initiative to combat classroom bullying

by Michael K. Lavers

National News Editor

Thursday March 11, 2010

The New York City Department of Education unveiled a new initiative on Monday, March 8, to combat
bullying and harassment in the classroom.

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, City Councilmembers Robert Jackson and Sara M. Gonzales, representatives of the United Federation of Teachers and others unveiled "Respect for All Week" at Public School 24 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The initiative encourages school administrators to organize workshops, poster campaigns and other projects that will educate students about bullying and harassment in their schools and encourage them to strategize ways to address it.

"We have a responsibility to provide every student in New York City with a safe and inclusive learning environment," Quinn said. "Teaching our students to embrace diversity is essential to preventing hate among future generations."

The DOE announced in Sept. 2008 it had begun to require school administrators to track incidents of bullying and harassment and to conduct prompt investigations of complaints. The DOE also offered voluntary two-day training sessions and workshops to middle and high school administrators as part of the Respect for All initiative that Klein, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Quinn announced in 2007.

"We want to make all our schools safe learning environments because New York City is such a melting pot of all cultures," DOE spokesperson Marge Feinberg told EDGE.

Activists largely applauded "Respect for All Week" as part of what they described as the DOE's ongoing commitment to tackle bullying and harassment in the city's public schools.

"[The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network] has made a significant investment in the project because we think it's so important," Aimee Gelnaw, director of education for GLSEN, said.

Glennda Testone, executive director of the LGBT Community Center, agreed. The Center's Youth Enrichment Services (YES) program offers internships, cultural activities and even a week-long summer camp in New Jersey to students between the ages of 13 and 22. Testone said many YES participants continue to experience bullying, isolation and other forms of harassment in the classroom.

"Through the Respect for All Initiative, we've been able to address that," she said. "It really has some teeth to it."

The DOE reported 4.7 percent of the total reported disciplinary incidents in the 2008-2009 school year were bias-related. The audit further indicated 13 percent of these incidents were related to a student's sexual orientation or gender identity and expression, but adequate documentation of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in the classroom remains a problem across the country.

EDGE reported earlier this month the majority of Texas' school districts have yet to implement mechanisms to effectively track bullying incidents. State Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) introduced a bill in the state legislature that would have mandated the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in incident reports, but legislators failed to act on it.

"Bullying is just seen as part of growing up, but if this bias kind of behavior just gets dropped into a bucket, we don't get an opportunity to look at it," Gelnaw said.

The New York State Assembly passed the Dignity in All Schools Act for the seventh time in April 2009, but the state Senate has yet to take up the proposed legislation. The City Council overwhelmingly passed
a version of DASA in 2004, but Bloomberg vetoed it on the grounds local lawmakers could not dictate DOE policy.

The mayor and Klein, however, continue to support the statewide DASA. And while the battle over the proposed legislation has proven contentious over the years, activists who continue to work with the DOE maintain the agency remains at the forefront of efforts to combat anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools.

"We've enjoyed working with them to make schools safe for LGBTQ students in the city," Testone said. "It's important... they feel safe and supported."

Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.

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