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Schools Need to Do a Better Job Reporting Bullying, Public Advocate Says

By Amy Zimmer | September 8, 2016 5:12pm
 Students entering an elementary school in East Harlem.
Students entering an elementary school in East Harlem.
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DNAinfo/Dartunorro Clark

MANHATTAN —  City schools need to do a better job reporting bullying and sexual harassment, according to Public Advocate Letitia James, who sent a letter on Thursday to Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina demanding greater transparency on tracking such incidents.

“For too many children, the first day of school is not full of excitement and nerves, but with fear and anxiety over bullying and sexual harassment,” James said in a statement. “We have a moral obligation to protect our kids from harm and ensure that parents are aware of their rights. The safety and education of our children is our number one priority.”

James also announced that she will introduce legislation requiring improved reporting under the Dignity for All Students Act.

The Dignity Act was implemented by the state in 2012 to address cyber-bullying and bias-related bullying (targeting race, religion, gender or weight, for example) as part of a bigger effort to help make schools safe environments free from discrimination, harassment and bullying. The goal was to use that data to shift schools' culture.

The law requires an appointed liaison in every school and that school employees be trained on how to combat harassment and discrimination. It also prohibits retaliation against those who report bullying.

The city has come under fire for under-reporting bullying incidents. An audit last year from State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found the DOE was not reporting hundreds of incidents as required under state law, and a recent report from Attorney General Eric Schneiderman also cited the problem of under-reporting.

James said her office also has received many complaints about incidents, leading her to believe the DOE is not fully complying with the law on reporting.

Only 30 percent of the city's roughly 1,700 public and charter schools reported some form of bullying to the state’s database created under the Dignity Act, according to figures from the 2013-2014 school year.

That number is likely far lower than the actual number of incidents at school because of the murky way of tracking and reporting incidents, advocates say, and it’s at odds with what students are experiencing in their day-to-day school experiences.

According to the Department of Education school surveys given to sixth through 12th graders, from 2015, at least some students at 99.6 percent of middle and high schools said that bullying happens “all or most of the time,” a DNAinfo New York analysis found.

James is asking the DOE for, among other things, the number of students who reported being the victim of sexual harassment or bullying, the number of parents who reported student-on-student sexual harassment or bullying and the number of incident reports entered into the city’s database on sexual harassment or bullying.

The legislation she plans to introduce would require continued reporting under the Dignity Act, as well as an annual report to the City Council on Dignity Act compliance and publicizing a list of every school’s “Dignity” liaison. Many students have reported not knowing who to report incidents to at their schools, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

James also launched an awareness campaign for parents to inform them of their right to send their child to a school that is free of harassment and bullying and the right to know the procedures for reporting incidents of harassment and abuse, as well as to have those complaints effectively addressed.

DOE officials said that schools are required to report every incident that takes place and that the department has programs in place to ensure occurrences are immediately addressed, including training school staff on the requirements on the steps to take in reporting, investigating and responding to allegations of sexual harassment or bullying.

"Our schools are the safest they've ever been, and reporting incidents is not an option, it's a requirement," said DOE spokeswoman Toya Holness. "In order to ensure that all students are provided with a safe, supportive, inclusive, and equitable learning environment, we have explicit protocols and robust training programs in place."