Bloomberg administration asserts right not to follow “illegal” school measure
The Bloomberg administration asserted its right not to follow a law it deems “illegal” without going to court as it continued to refuse to implement the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), a public school anti-bullying law passed by the New York City Council over his veto last year.
DASA includes protections against harassment and violence based on a number of categories including sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
At a tense hearing before the Education Committee on April 5, Michael Best, the counsel for the Department of Education, told Education Committee chair Eva Moskowitz, “An agency has an obligation to determine whether a law is legal. The Council has a right to sue to compel enforcement of the law.”
Best insisted that New York State education law preempts DASA, a contention disputed by councilmembers and their attorneys.
When Bloomberg decided he did not want to implement the Equal Benefits Bill, requiring city contractors to provide domestic partner benefits on the same basis they offer spousal benefits, the Council went to court to preempt his stated intention to challenge the constitutionality of that law. Bloomberg won a 5-0 decision at the Appellate Division overturning the law, a decision the Council is looking to appeal to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. But in the case of DASA, the mayor’s education department is simply ignoring it.
This hearing only took place after the committee issued a subpoena summoning Rose DePinto, senior counselor for school intervention and development, to testify. On March 28, the department refused to attend an oversight hearing on DASA.
After more than an hour of wrangling over the legal obligations of the department, DePinto gave testimony about how the school system is addressing bullying through enforcement of its own discipline code and training for staff. She said the department is “committed to making our schools safe and supportive environments for all students.”
Under questioning, however, DePinto said that there were 1,769 incidents of harassment officially reported this past year, a little more than one per school. When Gay City News asked her after the hearing if this number captured the extent of the bullying problem, which has been described by some who testified before the Council as epidemic, she would not give a direct reply, saying only, “We are working on the problem.”
DePinto and about 15 other mayoral staff who were on hand for the hearing departed immediately after completing their testimony, missing testimony from four citizens about the their views on the extent and nature of the bullying problem in the schools.
Joy Tomchin, a lesbian mother, talked about the travails of her 10-year-old son, Evan, at PS 41 in Greenwich Village. In 2001, she said, “I approached the administrators of our school to talk about the bullying, teasing and hints of discrimination already in the first grade in our school. My efforts were met by silence. Now, four years later, in fifth grade, the bullying and teasing are rampant. This problem is out of control.”
Tomchin said her son is teased with the name “KFC” because he is considered overweight. One of the lavatories in the school is called the “faggot bathroom,” she said. “When one Chinese boy comes in the yard, kids portray slanted eyes.”
She also detailed bullying based on amount of body hair, learning disabilities, being adopted, wearing the ”wrong” clothes, gender and height. “These children have learned and now practice discrimination,” she said.
Malika Simmons, mother of Dexter, a fourth grader at PS 161 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, tearfully begged the committee to deal with the fact that her son was “bullied continuously this year” and the fact that school administrators “failed to protect him.” She added, “I feel bullied as a parent. The Department of Education refuses to sit down and talk.”
Neil Bomberg, public policy director for GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, called the lack of attention to the bullying problem in New York City schools “tragic.” He said that nationwide, 84 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) students report verbal harassment and 83 percent say that faculty “never or rarely intervene when present.” He said that DASA gives staff, parents, and students “the legal tools they need to address bullying and harassment.”
Wayne Ho, director of the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families, said, “While chancellor’s regulations address proper student behavior, they are not enough to prevent incidents of bullying.”
Phyllis Steinberg of the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and chair of the DASA Coalition, testified, “We have already had the United States Department of Justice called in to Lafayette High School regarding harassment of Asian students.” She added that this abuse took place despite the schools’ code of conduct. “Our children need to be able to focus on their studies instead of focusing on how to protect themselves from bullies.”
DePinto did detail training and professional development being conducted in the schools “to address bullying and bias,” including a collaboration with the Youth Enrichment Services program of the LGBT Community Center during the next school year to train 900 teachers and counselors from 300 high schools.
New York City does not have the kind of systemic program to address gay and transgender issues as do school systems in Los Angeles, Seattle, the State of Massachusetts and other jurisdictions, though through the Hetrick-Martin Institute, the city runs the Harvey Milk High School, a program almost entirely for LGBT students—a tacit acknowledgement that public schools are not safe places for them.
Councilwoman Christine Quinn, a lesbian from Manhattan, used the hearing to continue her campaign to press the Department of Education to mirror the city human rights law’s categories in the school Code of Conduct. The department added “gender identity” at her suggestion, but not “gender expression” as she requested.
On the broader issue of the mayor’s defiance of the DASA law, Quinn said, “I am unbelievably offended that the Bloomberg administration takes the position that courts don’t matter. It is a legally untenable and disgraceful position that will hurt our children.”
There is no word yet on whether the Council will go to court to try to compel the implementation of DASA. Alan Gerson, chief sponsor of the law, said, “We studied state law extensively and drafted it to fall within the provisions of state law.”