Showdown on Bullying Law

Bloomberg refuses to implement Council’s school anti- harassment law, saying it’s illegal

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration refused to send an education department official to testify before the City Council Education Committee on March 28 about the department’s progress in implementing a school anti-bullying law.

The committee, chaired by Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz, a Manhattan Democrat who is running for borough president, voted unanimously on Wednesday to issue a subpoena mandating an appearance on April 5 by Rose DePinto, an education department official, to address the issue.

The political showdown has been spurred by the Council’s passage last year, over Bloomberg’s veto, of the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA). The law requires the schools chancellor to document incidents of school bullying, including incidents precipitated by anti-gay and gender bias, and to train educators on how to stamp out such harassment within the schools.

“DASA is an illegal bill,” said Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott at City Hall as he raced between meetings, “so we’re not participating” in any oversight hearing on it.

Bloomberg has referred to DASA as “silly,” though he favored a state version of the bill—still tied up in the Legislature—during his 2001 campaign.

Unlike his obstruction of the Equal Benefits Law, another measure passed by a Council override that mandates companies doing business with the city to give the domestic partners of municipal employees the same benefits as those offered spouses, Bloomberg has not yet gone to court to challenge DASA.

However, the administration’s recalcitrance in implementing the law has become apparent. Last week, Karen Meara, the mayor’s director of legislative affairs, wrote to Moskowitz. “The Council acted beyond its jurisdiction in passing DASA,” wrote Meara, and that the “administration does not implement illegal statutes, and therefore has no comment on the oversight topic.”

While Meara said that administration officials would participate in a hearing on “the important issue of providing a safe school environment,” the Department of Education provided no information to Gay City News on the extent of the bullying problem in the schools or how school officials are addressing it.

On Wednesday, Keith Kalbe, an education department spokesman, said that school officials are committed to providing a safe environment for all students and that state law, not city law, gives the chancellor the right to enforce regulations in the schools, suggesting that, for political purposes, the Council was intruding on that administrative prerogative. The Council is overwhelmingly comprised of Democrats, while Bloomberg is a Republican.

Kalbe said that DASA is “an illegal” law and that existing chancellor’s regulations explicitly prohibit the physical or verbal harassment of lesbian, gay or gender-variant public school students and staff.

When asked to provide statistics on the number of superintendents’ suspensions brought against students who have harassed or assaulted pupils or staff in bias-related incidents, Kalbe responded that since many of these incidents are in fact crimes, the New York Police Department, which has jurisdiction over school safety officers, has the statistics on those students who have been arrested. As for the number of superintendents’ suspensions at the high school level, Kalbe said the education department would be able to furnish that information at some time in the near future, but that parsing bias-related incidents based on gender identity or sexual orientation might not be possible, since such incidents, along with race-related and ethnic-based harassment, are categorized in a catch-all “harassment” category.

On a political level, the dispute between the City Council and the mayor seems to hinge on certain constitutional issues that might need judicial intervention in order to resolve.

“The mayor does not get to decide if his agencies are going to testify before the City Council,” said Moskowitz. “I strongly advise the mayor not to create a crisis over the clear mandates of the Charter.”

Moskowitz called Bloomberg’s defiance of the Council “the height of arrogance.”

Michael Best, the education department’s general counsel, released a statement this week in which he depicted as inaccurate claims that educational officials shun testifying before the Education Committee.

“We have testified before the City Council 34 times in the past 15 months, and twice regarding this legislation, so it is simply inaccurate to say that we are uncooperative,” wrote Best, adding that “the DASA legislation is illegal and that there is no purpose for us to testify about the implementation of this law since we do not implement illegal legislation.”

Best accused the Council of political grandstanding.  

“I am outraged by the administration’s behavior,” said Democratic Councilwoman Christine Quinn, a Manhattan lesbian, saying, “the response of the Department of Education on DASA up to now has been to say that they will comply with the city human rights law and they didn’t even know the categories of protection.”

Apart from the specific provisions included in DASA, the human rights law includes language protecting the rights of gay, lesbian and transgendered people.

Quinn lambasted the administration for being out of touch on the issue of bullying in the schools.

“At one hearing they said there were only seven incidents of bullying,” Quinn said, “which is a ridiculous number based on the number of arrests for it by the police in the schools.”

Kevin Jennings, the executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, was at Monday’s hearing and expressed consternation with the administration’s refusal to testify

“They’re playing politics with kids’ safety,” Jennings said of the Bloomberg administration. “The mayor is saying, ‘The schools are mine and no one else has authority over what happens there.’”

Council Speaker Gifford Miller, a Manhattan Democrat running for mayor, told Gay City News that the mayor was “dead wrong” about the legality of DASA. He said the failure of the administration to testify at the hearing “further displays the mayor’s failed leadership on education and his inability to be held accountable for the education services this city provides to our children.”

Councilman Leroy Comrie, a Queens Democrat, said, “There are kids being preyed upon every day in the schools and the Department of Education is offering no solutions.”

Councilman Alan Gerson, a Manhattan Democrat, and DASA’s lead sponsor, said, “This is very sad. If there ever was an issue that we should come together on, this is it.”

This week, José Ramos, a gay man, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, demanding $100,000 in compensatory damages for alleged anti-gay treatment he claimed he suffered at the hands of a school safety officer when he attended Unity High School in SoHo. Ramos said the officer, Tiffany Devlin, prevented him from going to a “Hispanic Day” celebration during school hours in 2003, shoving him and saying, “Just go and sit down, you boy or whatever you are.”

The lawsuit contends that the officer’s comment “was calculated to draw attention to Mr. Ramos’s homosexuality and to cause him humiliation and embarrassment.” Devlin handcuffed Ramos and threatened to have him arrested, although no charges were brought against him. The suit contends Devlin was heard calling another student “a fucking faggot.”

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