After fatal Bronx school stabbing, New York City launches new anti-bullying programs

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Student activists held a conference outside City Hall Monday ahead of a City Council hearing on school bullying.

The city education department unveiled a suite of new anti-bullying initiatives Monday, just over a month after a student who claimed to have been the victim of bullying stabbed a 15-year-old classmate to death inside their Bronx school.

The $8 million package of programs includes a new online tool for families to reporting bullying incidents, anti-bullying training for students and school staff members, and funding for student-support clubs such as those for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. In addition, the department will begin allowing bullying victims to request school transfers, will require schools to come up with individual plans for dealing with students who bully others, and will provide extra training and support to the 300 schools with the highest bullying rates.

“These new initiatives will build upon ongoing work to ensure that all schools have safe, supportive, and inclusive learning environments,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said Monday during a City Council hearing on the issue of bullying Monday, which was scheduled after the Bronx stabbing that also left a 16-year-old student seriously wounded.

On Friday, Fariña announced that she had removed Principal Astrid Jacobo from the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, the school where 18-year-old Abel Cedeno is accused of stabbing two classmates on Sept. 27. The local superintendent will help find a replacement and support the school in the interim, a department spokeswoman said.

Soon after the stabbings, reports of pervasive bullying and discipline problems at the school emerged; on surveys, just 55 percent of students there last year reported feeling safe in the school’s hallways, bathrooms, locker rooms, and cafeteria, compared to 84 percent of students citywide. In a jailhouse interview with The Daily News and the New York Post, Cedeno said schoolmates had long taunted him with racist and homophobic slurs. (Meanwhile, the slain student’s family has filed a notice that they plan to sue the education department for $25 million for failing to protect the victims, according to their lawyer.)

Fariña visited the school several times after the stabbing, which was the first student-on-student killing in a city school in over two decades. Still, as recently as last week she suggested during an interview on NY1 that no “red flags” had been “really apparent” before the violent episode, and that what had been reported by the media was not “necessarily the whole story” — though it was unclear what additional information she was referring to.

During Monday’s hearing, Bronx City Councilman Ritchie Torres criticized the department for failing to publicly explain why Principal Jacobo was removed from the school, and what discipline problems existed there prior to the stabbing.

“I’m concerned about the lack of transparency from the DOE,” he said.

Torres also asked the chancellor whether there was a “systemic” problem of bullying at that school. She responded that “there is obviously a problem” but that “systemic is a very big word,” adding that she would reserve judgement until the investigation is complete. Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Fariña did not offer any explanation as to why she chose to remove the principal other than to say it provided the school a “fresh start.”

“I think it’s a fresh start for everyone and I think it’s an opportunity to start with a clean slate,” she said.

Throughout Monday’s hearing, city council members raised questions about how the education department responds when school surveys reveal large numbers of staff or students who feel unsafe, and whether the city’s bullying statistics are reliable.

Councilman Daniel Dromm, chair of the education committee, rattled off statistics from multiple schools where large numbers students and staff reported that they did not feel safe or faced bullying.

Fariña said the city does review survey data, and that troubling results prompt extra scrutiny from education department officials. “Once the numbers skew in any one direction we have at least one person who’s looking at them very closely,” she said.

Officials also faced questions about whether the city’s bullying statistics reflect the true number of incidents.

Last school year, 3,281 incidents of bullying, harassment, or intimidating behavior in city schools were reported to the state, Fariña said. But more than 700 schools reported zero incidents of bullying, Dromm said, and a 2016 report by the State Education Department and attorney general found “significant underreporting.”

Education officials emphasized that many incidents of bullying are never reported to school personnel or are not serious enough to merit reporting to the state.

The new online bullying-complaint tool is set to launch in 2019, officials said. Families who report bullying or harassment will be informed within one day that their complaint was received, and within 10 days will be told the outcome of the investigation.

In the past, families could request that their children be transferred to a different school if they were the victim of a violent crime in the school or if they felt their children were unsafe there. The new policy will now allow “safety transfer” requests by any student who has experienced bullying, the department said.

In addition to the new programs and policies, the education department will begin publicly reporting the number of substantiated incidents of bullying, harassment, intimidation, or discrimination at each school. City Council members had previously proposed a bill that would require the department to release that information; on Monday, the department said Fariña supported the bill.

The anti-bullying measures announced Monday drew mixed reactions from advocates who said they were glad the city is taking action, but questioned whether these steps are enough to root out systemic problems.

Dawn Yuster, the school justice project director at Advocates for Children, said elements of the city’s plan were not yet clear, including precisely how the city will intervene in the 300 schools they plan to identify with higher rates of bullying.

“All of this is coming out on the day of a hearing prompted by a tragedy and we don’t know some of the details behind these initiatives,” Yuster said. “It’s promising, but it’s not enough.”

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said she appreciated that officials are devoting more resources to bullying prevention, but said a larger investment is needed to fundamentally change how schools respond to student conflicts and misbehavior.

“There are still a thousand more school safety agents than guidance counselors and social workers,” she said. “And that speaks too loudly about where the city is investing its resources.”


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”