Bloomberg, Council Continue Dignity Debate

Advocates of city safe-school measure plan to press councilmembers next week to hang tough

Members of the New York City Council are locked in an ongoing volley of negotiations with the Department of Education over the details of the Dignity in All Schools (DASA) bill, proposed legislation that would protect students and staff from harassment and bullying in New York City public schools based on a number of criteria, including gender identity and sexual orientation.

Members of the Dignity Coalition, a steering committee of DASA proponents that includes many of the city’s gay, lesbian, and transgendered leaders who helped draft the legislation, held a conference call on Tuesday, June 1, to discuss the latest delay and strategize about how to respond.

Coalition members declined to comment on the outcome of those talks, saying only that the coalition is “doing some more homework” in preparation for a meeting with City Council members on Tuesday, June 8.

The goal of that meeting will be two-fold, said Scott Melvin, who works on the staff of City Council Speaker Gifford Miller (D-Manhattan). The meeting will aim to “get a formalized response [prepared] to [convey] to the [Bloomberg] administration. And to find out if the administration is willing to go the distance.”

Even as the discussions continue, The New York Times, in a June 2 article, reported that the Justice Department, after a long investigation into allegations of prolonged abuse and harassment of Asian students at a high school in Brooklyn, pressured the Department of Education (DOE) into taking steps to correct the problem.

Under a consent decree filed in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, the DOE agreed to “start diversity and tolerance training for students” at the school, reported The Times.

The Justice Department said it will monitor the school’s progress for the next three years.

City Council insiders speaking off the record said they are convinced that this development, clearly smoldering behind the scenes for months, influenced the decision by the Bloomberg administration, with responsibility for the DOE, to propose negotiations on DASA, a piece of legislation it had initially dismissed altogether.

The Bloomberg administration requested that the sponsors of the bill, which has already cleared the Council’s Committee on Education, chaired by Manhattan Democrat Eva Moskowitz, enter a round of negotiations over the legislation’s wording and the terms of its implementation in the days prior to a vote scheduled for May by the full Council. The sponsors, including Councilmembers Alan Gerson and Christine Quinn, also Manhattan Democrats, agreed.

“They provided us with about 80 percent of the information we had requested,” said Melvin.

He said that this information included the administration’s current procedures for reporting instances of harassment and bullying and the guidelines for how those procedures are implemented throughout the system.

“I wouldn’t say that we were satisfied,” said Melvin, adding that the administration “did not address the [main] intent of the legislation or how they could make it work.”

“They are proposing to amend their code of conduct to reflect what we have mandated in the law,” Moskowitz said in an interview. She added that initially the administration maintained that its code of conduct in schools covered the recording of instances of bullying and harassment, when in fact it did not.

“There is nothing in the code of conduct that deals with bullying and harassment as such,” she said.

In the last round of talks with the Council, Moskowitz said, “They have now admitted and conceded that [harassment and bullying] are not [covered] in the code of conduct,” and are proposing measures to amend the code accordingly.

“Even if they were to do these things,” said Moskowitz, “it would not make the law unnecessary. We will still have to mandate recording.”

Moskowitz offered the hypothetical example of the parent of a gay child searching for a school that does not have a track record of excessive harassment of gay and lesbian students. Without records of the instances of harassment in schools and on what grounds, students and parents have no information on which to gauge the social climate and safety of a potential school.

DASA would require school administrators and teachers to report and stop bullying and harassment based on race, color, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and a number of other characteristics.

Among its key provisions, the measure would develop rules to specifically prohibit bullying and harassment; train school officials and staff to systematically address the problem; develop mechanisms for the tracking and reporting of such incidences; and incorporate discrimination awareness and sensitivity into education materials and presentations.

Moskowitz said that her office is currently drafting a response to the administration, which is to be delivered at a date to be determined.

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