BULLYING PREVENTION

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.”

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.