A New York City mother knew something was seriously wrong when the school called to say her eight-year old son had stabbed himself in the ear with a pencil. He had been bullied relentlessly for months, she said, and when she came to pick him up that day, he told her he had only wanted to make the insults stop. His leg was marked with visible bruises from a bully's foot.
New York City public schools are bound by law to protect children from bullying by investigating and remediating acts of violence. But the mother said that never happened for her special-needs son. He lost sleep because of stress and anxiety for a half a year until he was finally moved to another class, away from the bully who had repeatedly hit, harassed, and chased him.
The boy and his mother are part of a new class-action lawsuit against the New York City Department of Education, alleging a systemic and unaddressed problem with violence in New York City public schools. Repeatedly, the parents allege, the country's largest school district has failed to follow its own policies in dealing with an "epidemic" of violence against children. In a violation of state law and its own policies, it has failed to report and investigate incidents, failed to punish teachers who abuse students, and, at times, retaliated against students were themselves bullied.
The suit will be filed late Wednesday night in the Eastern District Court of New York, a lawyer for the plaintiffs said. It is the first time a class-action lawsuit has been filed over school violence in New York.
The suit alleges that New York City students are being deprived of their right to a public education because of the city's "ineffective and inadequate" response to school violence. Those students are disproportionately black and Latino — meaning, the suit says, the city is violating students' Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection.
"I want the DOE to be held accountable for how they handle violence," the bullied boy's mother said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. "They should have had to report and investigate what happened to my son."
Backing the lawsuit is one of the most powerful forces in New York politics: Families for Excellent Schools, an advocacy group that spent $10 million on state lobbying in 2014, more than any other lobby group. Until recently, FES's efforts have been focused on promoting charter schools, in part by skewering the academic failures of the city's public schools through biting ad campaigns.
"We think the Department of Education is not following the law, and in doing so, they're jeopardizing the academic and physical livelihoods of kids across the city," said Jeremiah Kittredge, the organization's executive director, in an interview with BuzzFeed News. "Students aren't being protected, and the DOE isn't following their obligations under the law to remedy it."
The Department of Education declined to comment directly on the suit. In a press conference earlier today about a spate of incidents in which guns were brought into city schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio said, "We are doing a lot to keep schools safe and our school safety agents are doing a fantastic job. Major crimes in our schools are down 14.29%, and other crimes are down 6.77%... School safety is showing us they can consistently drive down crime in schools.”
FES believes the issue of school violence is one of racial justice, Kittredge said, arguing that black and Hispanic students are far more likely to be in New York schools plagued by violence. "The DOE's actions have a disparate, and very significant, impact on black and Hispanic children. They're six times as likely to experience a violent incident" as their white counterparts, Kittredge said.
Kittredge and FES have long framed the expansion of charter schools, too, as a racial justice issue, saying that black and Latino students are routinely "forced" into "failing schools" in New York. A controversial advertisement made by the group last September, called a "Tale of Two Boys," showed a black and a white child walking to school, saying that because he lived in a wealthy neighborhood the white child would go on to college, while the poor black child would likely not. "We are one New York, divided by two public school systems," the announcer said.
Backed in part by hedge fund billionaires Dan Loeb and Julian Robertson, Familes for Excellent Schools has tangled frequently in the past with both the Department of Education and with teachers' unions, the other only group in New York that nears its level of spending on lobbying.
"This lawsuit is nothing but a political ploy," said Zakiya Ansari, the advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education, a group allied with teachers' unions, in a statement to BuzzFeed News. "The right way to address discipline issues is through restorative justice and expanding community schools, which Mayor deBlasio is doing more of. [FES] doesn't care about our public schools, and it's shameful that they have decided to perpetuate the false narrative that our black and Latino children are violent."
The lawsuit details the often-wrenching stories of 10 New York City public school children who have been violently bullied, both by their peers and, in some cases, by their teachers, with little or no intervention from school officials.
A pair of sisters were allegedly targeted and abused by the same bully for many years. Another boy said he was thrown down the stairs by his teacher, who was allowed to remain at the school for three years — until the teacher was arrested for assaulting another student this February. For most children, the result was the same: a loss of learning that came from missed class time and intense anxiety, even post-traumatic stress disorder.
The suit is an evolution in a near-constant wrangling between pro-charter groups, spearheaded by Families for Excellent Schools, and teachers' unions and the Department of Education. After a years-long, mutimillion-dollar battle over letting charter schools use space in city buildings, the groups have turned their attention to school violence, with FES claiming violence is starkly on the rise and New York City Department of Education officials claiming the opposite, saying that news-grabbing incidents of violence were isolated.
Earlier this year, Success Academy, a charter school group that is closely aligned with FES, came under media scrutiny after the New York Times published a leaked video that showed a star Success teacher berating a young student for being unable to answer a question, eventually tearing her paper in two.
In response to that video, Eva Moskowitz, Success's CEO, berated the Times for failing to report on "horrifying misconduct" by district schoolteachers. "This disturbing pattern of abuse, neglect and outright disregard for children inside traditional public school classrooms clearly indicates a systemic problem, a pattern of violence against children," Moskowitz wrote.
Six days after the Times story, FES issued a report called "Safety Last: New York City’s Public Schools Are More Dangerous Than Ever," assembling a parent group that held a press conference on the steps of City Hall. It calls the campaign "Safe Schools Now," and has accompanied it with video ads, hashtags, and a petition, which has been signed by more than 20,000 people.
Kittredge, who said that his goal was to force the Department of Education to follow its own procedures and ensure oversight of the district's response to violence, said FES had not directly approached the city before filing the suit. The city has repeatedly "refused to acknowledge the crisis in school violence," said Kittredge.
"The city says there's no problem — that violence is down," Kittredge said. "This crisis, to parents, feels very real, and to date, their voices haven't been heard."