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Public advocate calls for increased transparency on school bullying, sexual harassment

Public Advocate Letitia James announces a campaign to find more information about school bullying and sexual harassment.
Public Advocate Letitia James announces a campaign to find more information about school bullying and sexual harassment.
Monica Disare

City schools are underreporting incidents of bullying and sexual harassment, according to Public Advocate Letitia James, who announced a plan Thursday to bring more of these incidents to light.

James revealed a three-point campaign, including a vow to introduce legislation that would require the Department of Education to release better stats on bullying and sexual harassment. She called for a litany of information from the department, including the precise nature of each safety incident and what action the school pursued. Her office also plans to conduct an outreach campaign to parents.

“For too many children, the first day of school is not full of excitement and nerves, but with a fear and anxiety over bullying and sexual harassment,” James said. “As over one million students return to New York City public schools today, we have a moral obligation to protect our kids from harm and ensure that parents are aware of their rights.”

James’ announcement comes after a recent report by State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman revealed that city schools are under-reporting incidents of bullying. In 2013-2014, 70 percent of schools reported zero incidents of harassment, bullying or discrimination, the analysis found.

James cited Schneiderman’s report as one reason she chose to launch the campaign. She also mentioned complaints received by her own office, and a critical 2015 audit by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, showing the education department failed to report hundreds of violent crimes.

Education department officials said that schools are the safest they have ever been and that reporting incidents is not optional.

“We have explicit protocols and robust training programs in place which require that all incidents of harassment, bullying, discrimination and intimidation are reported, investigated and appropriately addressed,” said education department spokeswoman Toya Holness.

There are several reasons why schools might underreport bullying, said Nelson Mar, an education law specialist at Legal Services NYC. A principal, for instance, may be concerned about his or her school’s reputation. The Department of Education also has a very “narrow definition” of what counts as bullying, specifying that there must be an imbalance of power between the individuals involved, he said.

There are also discrepancies between city and state reports of bullying, which James asked the city to explain.

Reporting incidents correctly is crucial to making sure students get the help they need, Mar said.

“The issues aren’t addressed if they’re aren’t reported accurately,” he said.

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