Has NYC done enough to combat classroom bullying?

by Winnie McCroy

EDGE Editor

Thursday March 3, 2011

A new report concludes New York City's Department of Education has not done enough to provide teachers with the necessary resources and training to combat bullying and bias-based harassment in the classroom.

The Sikh Coalition, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the New York Civil Liberties Union published "Bullying in New York City Schools: Educators Speak Out" after they spent a year monitoring the DOE's procedures for handling bias-based harassment in the city's public schools. The report, which surveyed 198 teachers and staff in 117 schools, found the DOE is doing a poor job of preventing and investigating bias-based harassment. It also concluded students do not know how to report these incidents.

"We're really concerned about training teachers how to recognize low-level bullying, which may be minor things like shoving, and intervening before bullying becomes a miserable situation for the child being targeted or bully facing criminal charges," said Johanna Miller, public policy director for the NYCLU. "We don't fault teachers for not knowing. We found in the survey that teachers at all levels don't have the resources they need. In the past, teachers felt that even when did encounter bullies, they weren't given support from the administration to do anything about it."

Only 14.3 percent of those surveyed believed the regulation was an effective measure to addressing bullying and harassment. Only 27 percent of respondents said teachers were offered training, and only 30 percent of students received this diversity training. Teachers also expressed concerns they would not be able to implement the training because of a lack of commitment from school administrators.

The report recommends the DOE receive additional resources to allow it to comply with the state's Dignity for All Students Act. The groups also recommended Respect for All Week become a mandatory annual event that focuses on teaching an inclusive curriculum.

"This report is not a comprehensive survey - it relies on the opinions of a tiny fraction of staff and grossly misrepresents the strides made by our schools," DOE spokesperson Marge Feinberg told EDGE. "Our schools take the issues of bullying and bias-based harassment very seriously, and we recently announced plans to enhance the Respect For All initiative by expanding existing Safety Committees to strengthen school-wide coordination in developing anti-bullying programs and addressing complaints received from students."

These reported deficiencies come as no surprise to openly gay City Councilmember Daniel Dromm [D-Jackson Heights.] The former high school teacher said the anti-gay harassment he said he suffered in the 1990s after he tried to teach an LGBT-inclusive curriculum prompted him to enter politics.

"For almost 20 years I have been fighting to have some LGBT-inclusive curriculum... address the concerns of gay youth in New York City public schools," said Dromm, who visited Newtown High School in Elmhurst with Miss New York 2010 Claire Buffie during Respect for All Week last month. "It is a good start, but we need to teach non-LGBT youth why bullying is wrong and protect our gay youth. We need DOE to sign onto this and make this a top priority. We need to get these resources into schools and have the DOE provide training - especially with LGBT-specific language, which is often-times overlooked, even in anti-bullying training."

Then-Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez implemented the "Children of the Rainbow" curriculum in 1992 to teach first graders to respect for the city's diverse racial and ethnic groups. It included a three-page section on LGBT families, but District 24 School Board President Mary Cummins attacked the policy and Dromm for "teaching children homosexuality." And after teaching at PS 199 in Jackson Heights for 24 years, Dromm felt he had become a spokesperson for the borough's gay residents.

"They made it seem like we were teaching Gay Sex 101," said Dromm, who left the classroom in late 2009 after he defeated incumbent City Councilmember Helen Sears. "Gay tolerance curriculum has nothing to do with that. When my school went after me in '98, they tried to make it appear as if I didn't have any right to talk openly about being gay. I challenged them on that. Ultimately we won, but they put me through many different investigations, which I think is what teachers fear, in particular if they mention LGBT stuff."

Miller said the controversy surrounding the Rainbow Curriculum made it difficult for teachers who were trying to do right by their kids. "They still face major challenges, and certainly if teachers are not comfortable teaching this we won't get anywhere," she said. "At this point the stories we hear from students are about major bullying, many against students perceived to be Muslim. We hear that now as much as attacks against those perceived to be gay and lesbian."

Miller said while Respect for All Week is a great program, it will not have any lasting impact without the DOE's backing.

"NYCLU has been a leading group in the task force to identify the right language and curriculum, but it is up to the school districts to implement this in the right way," said Miller, noting Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not support the city's anti-bullying bill. He did endorse the state DASA. "I hope now it is something him and DOE will take seriously, and find the right way to allocate resources and implement training, curriculum development, and report of bullying incidents. They have to comply with the law, so hopefully things will look up in 2012," when the law is implemented."

Dromm said he has also been working with other organizations on a mandatory system-wide approach towards teaching tolerance in the classroom. This would include a bill that would force the DOE to have text and trade books that include LGBT people whom Dromm said "have been whitewashed out of the curriculum."

"That is a form of bullying, not allowing gay lives to be included," said Dromm. "Imagine if a history book talked about Stonewall; you would see a sea change in how LGBT people are treated."

Dromm also singled out the Sikh Coalition for their LGBT-inclusive approach on this issue.

"We have long known that too many students suffer from bullying in their schools because of their race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation," said Amardeep Singh, director of programs at the Sikh Coalition. "Today's report tells us why: Few teachers know that they have an obligation to protect students from bias-based bullying. The Department of Education must invest resources into ending this dynamic. Otherwise the city's good intentions to combat bullying are merely good intentions lacking substance."

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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