Mayor Ends Resistance on Anti-Bullying Initiative

After more than four years of refusing to deal comprehensively with the epidemic of bullying in schools, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein announced a major new initiative to combat a problem that they have minimized in the past, but now acknowledge impedes “our students' ability to learn.”

The two officials were surrounded at a hastily called September 3 press conference by advocates of the Dignity in All Schools Act (DASA), a 2004 City Council bill that mandated most of what Bloomberg is implementing only now. He vetoed that bill, dismissing it then as “silly” and “illegal,” and the Council did not take him to court after they overrode the veto but he still refused to implement the law.

Asked by Gay City News what took him so long to act on this issue given that he has long supported a New York State bill that would have made him do the same thing, Bloomberg said, “We wish we could do everything on Day One.”

Out lesbian Council Speaker Christine Quinn flanked the mayor as did out lesbian teacher's union president Randi Weingarten. In 2005, Quinn attacked Bloomberg's stonewalling on implementing DASA as “legally untenable and disgraceful,” but this week she praised the new initiative as going “a long way in ensuring that school officials and young people are appropriately informed and that we are accurately tracking incidents of harassment as they occur.”

Weingarten pledged her members, long concerned about school safety, would “faithfully implement” the program.

All students and staff were scheduled to have received a leaflet as school opened on September 3 explaining the “Respect for All” initiative. While school regulations have long prohibited harassment, these new regulations require posters in all schools explaining: how students and staff can report bullying; that schools must report the complaints to the Department of Education within 24 hours; how the process for investigation, including contacting the families of accused students, will work; and what measures are in place for intervention and counseling.

The new program requires training for all school staff, but it is less clear how much classroom time and effort will be devoted to creating a climate of respect through an anti-bullying curriculum.

Maris Ragonese, program director of Generation Q, an LGBT youth program in Queens, had only seen an earlier draft of the regulations, but said, “We're working on getting an educational component” so that students understand that “queer people exist.”

Brian Ellner, an out gay senior counselor to the chancellor who played a key role in the development of the initiative, wrote in an email that the school will provide “lessons addressing bullying and harassment as well as students' rights and responsibilities to create respectful learning communities.”

While LGBT groups including Parents-FLAG and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) have pushed for the initiative for years and played major roles in its development, pressure from the Sikh Coalition may have been the key to turning it into the chancellor's regulations announced this week. Amardeep Singh, executive director of the coalition, told Gay City News that a survey of 400 Sikh students in the New York City schools found 65 percent had faced bias-based harassment such as being called “terrorist or Osama” and 20 percent had been “touched or hit.” The coalition demanded the regulations in a June 30 march through Richmond Hill, Queens, compelling Klein finally to promise them action.

“We made substantial progress,” Singh said. “For the necessary sea change to take place, we still have work to do.” The group wants to see public reporting by category of harassment victims, something the mayor said would be done but which Singh said is not explicit in the regulations.

Singh also said he and his group had absolutely no problem with Sikh children being taught to respect gays and lesbians. “We believe in equality for all,” he said, decrying the idea that “anybody's dignity would be denigrated.” He noted that the two Sikh members of the Canadian Parliament voted for same-sex marriage to the consternation of Sikh leaders in India but not in their home districts.

Teaching about LGBT issues has been part of the culture wars in New York for decades and past chancellors have never agreed to any more than sporadic staff training on the subject as opposed to other school systems around the nation that integrate information on LGBT issues into their curricula.

GLSEN took a lead in the pilot phase of “Respect for All” in 2007, training 300 teachers and staff. Eliza Byard of the group said that their National School Climate Survey found that 80 percent of LGBT students “experienced verbal or physical harassment on a regular basis” and that the keys to ending that were policies that forbid anti-LGBT discrimination and “the ability to identify a supportive faculty member” for at-risk students to turn to. The new regulations mandate a designated staff member in every school to handle complaints.

Gay City News asked Bloomberg if the expansion of the mostly LGBT Harvey Milk School at the Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI) was not testimony to the lack of safety for LGBT students in mainstream schools. He said that when he took office, “I had no idea [the school] existed.” As for the lack of safety for LGBT youth in the public schools generally, he added, “I'd like to think that is no longer true. I'd like to think the need [for Harvey Milk] has gone away and now it's just a choice of where you want to go.”

Thomas Kerver, executive director of Hetrick-Martin, told Gay City News, “We're working for the day when the Harvey Milk School is no longer necessary.” The school's enrollment is now capped at 100 students. “Today is a stride forward,” Kerver said. But, he added, “we're a transfer school. The very fact that they're going to it is because they've suffered verbal, physical, or emotional distress to such an extent that their education has been severely halted.”

To make mainstream schools safe for LGBT youth, “we have work to do,” Kerver said, noting that “more than half” the young people who receive services at HMI report anti-LGBT harassment in city schools, complaints that Hetrick-Martin staff work to resolve individually.

In recent years, Department of Education spokespersons have put the number of bullying incidents in the schools at 1,700 per year for the entire system, an average of 1.1 per year per school – an estimate derided as absurd by advocates, some of whom suggest the average could be one per minute per school. If these new regulations are implemented effectively, a more realistic picture of bullying in the schools ought to emerge, though the mayor was hopeful that their mere announcement will help cut down on those incidents now that the school system is finally pledging to take action.