Mayor Vetoes Bullying Measure

Council sponsor Alan Gerson vows an override on August 12

In a letter dated July 20, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg vetoed legislation passed by the City Council aimed at protecting students and staff in New York City schools from bullying and harassment on the basis of multiple criteria, including gender identity, race and sexual orientation.

The mayor’s letter asserted that the proposed legislation, named the Dignity in All Schools Act, or DASA, is “inconsistent with State law that authorizes and directs the [Schools] Chancellor [Joel Klein] to adopt and implement policies to prevent harassment.”

The Bloomberg administration maintains that the State Education Law, the Department of Education’s Discipline Code and the DOE’s Chancellor’s Regulations all address the terms and procedures laid out in DASA.

“Providing a safe school environment is a high priority for this Administration and a goal that the Chancellor and I share with the Council,” wrote the mayor.

But Council backers of the bill, which received lopsided support of 45-3 when it was voted on June 28, say that the provisions of the bill are either not present in existing citywide statutes or not adequately enforced by the Department of Education. In addition, no current legislation pertaining to bullying and harassment in schools mentions the category of “gender identity or expression,” leaving transgendered students and staff out in the cold, the measure’s advocates argue.

DASA, which has transgender-inclusive language, would, among its key provisions, 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.

In negotiations between the Council and the Department of Education leading up to the Council’s passage of DASA, the DOE did not fulfill promises to produce satisfying evidence that it monitors bullying and harassment in schools. Ironically, late last month, the federal Justice Department issued a court order requiring the city to follow virtually all the procedures set forth in DASA to correct a case of racial harassment in a Queens high school which had gone unaddressed for months.

The Bloomberg administration has said that it supports a state-level harassment bill. The Democratic-controlled Assembly and the Republican led Senate have been deadlocked for several years over the appropriate approach to this issue, with their differences in part revolving around the issue of protecting gender-variant youth. Gay City News recently reported that a compromise may be in the offing in Albany, though no action was taken when the Legislature reconvened briefly last week. Bloomberg has suggested to the Council that approval of a statewide bill would render a city bill redundant.

“It is an outrage that Mayor Bloomberg can support nearly identical language in legislation pending in Albany while vetoing this very necessary bill,” said Councilmember Alan Gerson (D-Lower Manhattan), the bill’s prime sponsor. “The hypocrisy and unwillingness of his administration to take the problem of bullying seriously is very troubling. Not only was his Department of Education only able to point to seven recorded incidents of bullying in all of last year, but they are unable, or unwilling, to enforce their own, inadequate policies to prevent harassment of students. Clearly, policies need to be spelled out more explicitly, chains of command and responsibility must be created and reporting mechanisms established. I continually reached out to the mayor and Chancellor Klein only to be met with promises to get back to me, and now he has vetoed the bill instead of taking proactive actions. I am very disappointed in his lack of leadership on this issue and look forward to Speaker [Gifford] Miller leading the Council in an override.”

Members of the Dignity Coalition, an ad-hoc committee composed of gay, lesbian and transgendered organizations as well as other youth advocates, which advised the Council on drafting of the bill, met with lawyers to discuss legal strategies to address the veto.

“We want to make sure that if we override the veto, and the mayor then files a lawsuit, do we have a good footing to stand on?” said Scott Melvin, gay liaison in Miller’s office.

Dirk McCall, Gerson’s chief of staff, was more definitive.

“We are overriding on August 12,” he said.

The City Council is currently on recess until September, but will meet on that day to decide on a land use issue.

According to regulation, the Council has 30 days within which to override a mayoral veto.

Many observers agree that in the event of a Council override, the Bloomberg administration will likely file a lawsuit challenging the law on the grounds that the Council overstepped its jurisdiction in passing legislation on this matter.

“The governing body of the New York City School District for this purpose is the Chancellor, not the City Council,” reads one passage from the mayor’s letter.

Jordan Barowitz, a spokesperson for the mayor, said that “it’s premature” for the mayor to consider “any court action on this,” but that “many components of this bill are preempted by state law and are illegal.”

“It is disappointing that the mayor chose to veto the Dignity for All Students Act, which responds to the very serious and real problem of unsafe schools that children and teachers face every day,” said Councilmember Eva Moskowitz (D-Upper East Side), who is currently on maternity leave from her position as chair of the Council’s committee on education. “The culture of our schools needs to change from the bottom up, so that we can deal effectively with the intolerance and bullying that could lead to violence and criminal conduct when kids grow up.”

“Unfortunately today the mayor used his ‘bully pulpit’ to empower bullies,” said Kevin Jennings, executive director of GLSEN—the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, a member of the Dignity Coalition. “Where the data show that bullying, harassment, and discrimination are the rule of the land, this was a real missed opportunity to support and protect the students of New York City.”

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