New York City could become the first K–12 school system in the nation to require disclosure of the number of bullying, sexual harassment, and assault cases for each individual school under legislation Public Advocate Letitia James plans to introduce.
The proposal is born out of a number of reports James’ office has received about cases of sexual harassment that she believes were handled inappropriately. At a press conference Thursday, James insisted the city’s schools were not complying with state laws about reporting bullying and harassment incidents, or with the federal gender equity law Title IX.
“Instead of treating the victims of harassment and bullying as victims, they were penalized, suspended, disciplined,” James said.
In addition to the legislation, James’ office is launching an outreach campaign to educate parents about rights for victims of bullying and harassment.
The city's Department of Education is currently under a federal Title IX investigation due to three complaints filed against the schools by clients of Brooklyn-based attorney Carrie Goldberg. One of the cases, first reported by BuzzFeed News, involved a 13 year-old girl who reported to her school that a male classmate raped her and distributed video of the incident to classmates.
“School administrators treated her as if she had a contagious disease,” Goldberg said at the press conference Thursday. School leaders allegedly told the girl’s mother that her daughter’s presence was "a distraction” and caused the video to continue to circulate, so they suggested the girl stay home and ultimately transfer schools.
The public advocate’s office plans to work with the city's Department of Education about specifics of the forthcoming disclosure bill, and it could be scaled back to protect the privacy of victims. But under the most ambitious outcome from James’ office, education officials would be required to publicize the number of incidents of bullying and harassment for each school.
Under the Dignity for All Students Act, New York schools must report the total number of bullying and harassment incidents to the state Department of Education, but that isn't necessarily made public. No state or city nationwide requires K–12 educators to publicly disclose disaggregated data on the number of bullying, harassment, or assault incidents for each individual school. Colleges and universities must annually disclose the number of sex offenses, stalking incidents, hate crimes, and other incidents under the federal Clery Act.
In recent years, the Obama administration began collecting data on bullying and harassment from each school. This information is available by request through the U.S. Department of Education, but the most recent data have not yet been publicized widely.
“All of this data is only effective if it's transparent and accessible,” Erin Prangley, associate director of government relations at the American Association of University Women, told BuzzFeed News.
The AAUW’s research has found that nearly half of students in grades 7 through 12 have experienced sexual harassment in the past year, but two-thirds of school districts nationwide reported zero incidents to the U.S. education department. There’s no way so many school districts are free of sexual harassment, the AAUW insists.
New York City schools are no different. The New York Daily News found that 80% of public schools in the city reported zero incidents of bullying or harassment in the 2012–13 year.
“Our schools are the safest they’ve ever been, and reporting incidents is not an option, it’s a requirement,” said Toya Holness, an education department spokeswoman, adding that they have “robust training programs” for staff on what to do regarding incidents of bullying, harassment, or discrimination.
No school wants to be branded “dangerous,” James conceded Thursday, “but the reality is when these issues go unreported, our children pay the price and it is unacceptable.”
In a letter to the city DOE on Thursday, obtained by BuzzFeed News, James demanded to know how many students missed school after reporting harassment, how many victims or perpetrators transferred schools following a report, and how many cases were referred to police.
James further requested information about incidents of bullying and harassment at schools in the city — some of the same data that could ultimately be publicized — such as how many investigations led to disciplinary measures against the offender.
The forthcoming legislation “will require all of this information to be made public on a continued and regular basis,” James said, because families should “know the real facts about the threats they face.”
The public advocate’s office has submitted a bill request. Once the language comes back, James’ office intends to work with school administrators on what will ultimately be officially proposed before the city council.