Gay education advocacy group documents harassment in schools in New York State
The deadlock over a statewide anti-bullying law in New York may be broken in 2006 by a combination of election year politics and a new report than documents widespread harassment of the state’s students.
The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network released a study this month finding that 39 percent of kids in public and private schools in New York “reported that bullying, name-calling, and harassment is a serious problem in school.” The report, “From Teasing to Torment,” available online at glsen.org, found that most harassment was based on physical appearance and 57 percent “because of the way they expressed their gender.” More than half the students surveyed said that kids were harassed “because they were perceived to be lesbian, gay or bisexual,” though just five percent identified with those categories themselves.
Nineteen percent of those surveyed hear teachers make sexist remarks, 14 percent racist comments, and 13 percent anti-gay slurs. Most students—60 percent—did not report the harassment they experienced to a teacher. When they did make reports, only 37 percent got immediate action in response.
Forty-one percent of schools in New York State have anti-harassment policies that include sexual orientation.
The Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) that would comprehensively address the epidemic of bullying, including harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, routinely passes the Democrat-controlled Assembly while being resisted in the Republican-dominated Senate, which passes a weaker Schools as Safe Harbors Act, that the DASA Coalition, with more than 170 member groups, finds lacking in many ways, including its failure to include the category of gender identity and expression.
In June 2004, the New York City Council passed a Dignity in All Schools Act, modeled on the state bill, and overrode Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s veto of it. The mayor, who called the bill “silly,” also says it is “illegal” and refuses to implement it. While Bloomberg claims to support the state bill, he perversely refuses to implement its provisions even though he has virtual total control over school policy.
Connie Cuttle, director of Student Engagement for the city’s Department of Education, responded to the GLSEN report by saying, “We know it [bullying] is an issue because it is a social issue and kids don’t leave these issues at the door to the school.”
“We are taking it very seriously,” she asserted, by implementing “systemic training for counselors and teachers in every school,” starting in the middle schools where the problem is most prevalent and moving on to the elementary and high schools.
Cuttle said the Department of Education has done “no formal research” into the problem on its own.
Some of the training is being done in close collaboration with the Youth Enrichment Services program of the LGBT Community Center, she added.
When asked why the city’s schools haven’t implemented the procedures mandated by either the city or state DASA bills, Cuttle said, “My focus is on prevention and intervention.” She added that school officials will help any students who wants assistance in setting up gay-straight alliances, noting that the system has about 60 now.
“New York City has a long way to go,” said Riley Snorton, media relations manager for GLSEN. “Whether or not you have policies on paper, it only makes a difference if the policy is well-implemented.”
The New York State Department of Education did not return repeated calls for comment on the GLSEN report and what it is doing to reduce bullying.
Snorton did credit New Jersey with putting together an effective anti-bullying policy that includes penalties for engaging in harassment. He said that the three elements of a good program are teacher training, students feeling that teachers will deal with the problem when it is reported, and getting administrators on board.
Shawn Gaylord, the chapter organizing director for GLSEN in Washington who once worked as a policy analyst on the issue in the group’s New York office, believes that the logjam in Albany can be broken through an effort to “revise” language that differs in the Senate and Assembly anti-bullying bills.
Dirk McCall, president of the Stonewall Democratic Club, an active member of the DASA Coalition, said that the sticking point is the inclusion of gender identity and expression, but he thinks there is a “good chance” to get the Assembly bill through the Senate “in January or February,” partly because it is the last year for Steve Sanders, a Lower East Side Democrat who is the chief sponsor of the bill in the Assembly and also due to the desire of Republican Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, of upstate Troy, to “show he’s serious about social concerns in order to preserve his majority,” threatened by recent Democratic gains.
While McCall said that Republican Governor George Pataki has pledged in the past to sign DASA if it reached his desk, he has “been tacking to the right” as he contemplates a bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.
On the city front, McCall, a former aide to Lower Manhattan Democratic Councilman Alan Gerson, chief sponsor of the DASA law here, said that the Council will not take legal action against the mayor to implement DASA until it gets a court resolution over the mayor’s obstruction of the Equal Benefits Law that requires city contractors to provide domestic partner benefits to their employees if they give them spousal benefits. Gerson conceded that the city Department of Education “looks like they are starting to take action” on an anti-bullying program, “though not giving the City Council credit for it.”
Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, said, “The first task of this mayor should be to implement the bill [DASA] that is now the law of this city.” He added, “A lot of people worked very hard to get this city bill passed and turn it into law. He shouldn’t be allowed to get off the hook.” The Pride Agenda has made a priority of passing the state version of the bill since it was first introduced.
Eliza Byard, the deputy executive director of GLSEN, said that the New York report—part of a nationwide survey—shows that students “get it” when it comes to the problem of anti-gay harassment.
“The high school students we interviewed recognized anti-gay bias as the second leading cause of harassment,” she said, adding, “‘Faggot’ and ‘dyke’ are the weapons of choice if you really want to hurt someone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. As long as that piece of this pervasive problem is not addressed head on, we’re not going to make schools safe for any of the nation’s children. It is much bigger than the issues faced by gay students, though I’m certainly not minimizing those. The issue of sexual orientation affects every single student.”