Council to Vote on Harassment Bill (GCN, 4.29.04)

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Council to Vote on Harassment Bill
Legislation mandates staff training, reporting on bullying, gender identity, queer issues

By Nicholas Boston
Gay City News
29 April 2004

David Mensah, executive director of the Hetrick Martin Institute, was among those who testified for a city student dignity bill on April 26. (Pictured at September 2003 rally for HMI.) The City Council is set to vote on a bill aimed at protecting New York City public school students and staff from bullying and harassment motivated by a number of factors, including gender identity and sexual orientation.

The legislation, however, is not supported by city Department of Education (DOE) officials.

The Dignity in All Schools Act (DASA), introduced by City Councilmember Alan Gerson (D.-Lower Manhattan), has received overwhelming support, with 44 members of the council sponsoring the measure, including Eva Moskowitz of Manhattan, the chair of the education committee, as well as the three gay and lesbian Council members, Margarita Lopez, Philip Reed and Christine Quinn, also of Manhattan.

DOE officials maintain that the bill replicates a similar piece of legislation currently under consideration in the Legislature––the Dignity for all Students Act, also referred to as “DASA.” The city has taken the poisition that the state DASA legislation would effectively cover matters pertaining to harassment in schools throughout the state.

However, the Albany bill has been stalled in the Republican-led Senate after passing the Democratic–led Assembly. Republicans in the Senate have stated their preference for a less stringent approach to the school harassment issue that would not, for example, provide protections against bullying targeting a victim’s gender identity or expression.

Proponents of the city DASA bill also say that the state version does not address potential areas of harassment as comprehensively or in the explicit detail covered by the measure pending in City Hall. For example, the state version does not include protections for activity that takes place in private settings, such as guidance counselor offices, nor does it provide protections for faculty and staff who report cases of harassment or discrimination.

Throughout hearings conducted on the city bill, its advocates expressed particular concern about the DOE’s inability to provide accurate data on incidences of harassment and bullying in city schools. The Bloomberg administration is currently unable to supply those figures, yet claims to have the problem under control through a policy of reporting violence and other criminal activity to the police department.

The city DASA bill mandates that public education officials not only begin keeping extensive records of incidences of harassment and bullying, but also to publicize them at the end of every school year.

At the bill’s final hearing held this past Monday, Steven Allinger of the education department’s intergovernmental affairs office testified that the DOE acknowledges that harassment occurs in schools and that Chancellor Joel Klein supports “expanding the categories” of the state DASA bill to address such incidents.

“We are willing to work with you to implement a ‘model practice,’” said Allinger.

The Department of Education is under the jurisdiction of the Mayor Michael Bloomberg and will advise him on whether to ratify or veto the legislation when it arrives on his desk.

The bill’s sponsors and members of the DASA Coalition, a steering committee comprised of representatives from various groups that support the measure, say they have enough votes to override a mayoral veto, which would require 37 of the Council’s 51 members to approve.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Gerson about the administration’s apparent resistance to the bill. “Their testimony is really outrageous. For one, we don’t know if the state bill is going to pass. Two, if the Department of Education can support a state bill, why can’t they support one with application in the city of New York?”

Eva Moskowitz echoed that criticism.

“I am disappointed and frustrated that the Department of Education says that on the one hand they have it covered, but on the other they are not able to provide adequate documentation attesting to the extent of the problem, by region, by district and by school,” she said, adding, “What I am personally prepared to do is to vote to override.”

The bill faces a final Council vote on Wednesday, May 5, the same day that a vote is scheduled on the Equal Benefits Bill (EBB), a measure that would require contractors doing business with the city to provide their employees domestic partner benefits equal to those afforded spouses. The EBB also faces a likely mayoral veto, and the two measures together are at the top of the city legislative agenda of gay rights groups, including the Empire State Pride Agenda.

City education officials have requested time to negotiate with the bill’s sponsors, in which case the vote “might be postponed for two weeks,” said Christine Quinn who stressed that her colleagues will agree to a postponement only if ends with “substantive and positive results.”

“Otherwise,” said Quinn, “it will just be wasted time.”

An ongoing issue complicating DOE’s approval of the bill is its stipulation that all school personnel receive training in anti-harassment policies and guidelines. That plan was considered too costly initially.

“The bill goes a long way to identify and address harassment, a problem that degrades the dignity of students and teachers,” said Leroy T. Barr, special representative for the United Federation of Teachers, the teachers union, in his April 26 Council testimony. “The legislation favors full professional development of staff, so they are better prepared to deal with harassment and bullying.”

“We are strongly in support of Gerson’s bill,” said UFT president Randi Weingarten. “We would also extend its terms to [protect] people who are falsely accused [of harassment].”

Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), who also testified on April 26, called the DOE’s position “contradictory and disingenuous” because it supports the  tate DASA while proposing ongoing objections to the city bill.

“The mayor has said that schools are his number one priority,” said Jennings. “I guess we’ll soon find out if that’s true.”

David Mensah, executive director of the Hetrick Martin Institute, who also testified, provided statistics that paint an alarming portrait about school attendance by “non-conforming youth.”

According to Mensah, 42 percent of youth who identify as gay, lesbian or transgender say they do not feel safe at their schools, and 26 percent end up dropping out entirely, three times the national average. These statistics are consistent across the country, he said.

“This is a responsible administration with committed teachers in the system,” Mensah said. “It is the only school system in the nation that had the courage to open the Harvey Milk School,” a public high school for gay, lesbian, and transgendered youth.

Based on that type of commit ment, Lopez, a DASA co-sponsor, expressed her confusion over the DOE’s dragging of heels over the bill.

“If you feel that this bill is not necessary,” she said, “then why did you create the Harvey Milk School under the Board of Education?”

Some, like Phil Reed, see a parallel between this situation and another contentious moment in the history of the New York City school system that involved sexual orientation.

“Does it hark back to the Rainbow Curriculum?” said Reed, referring to the 1993 controversy when former Chancellor Joseph Fernandez proposed teaching tolerance of homosexuality, along with condom distribution, in schools. “Sure it does. That got dropped on the floor during the Rudy Giuliani administration.”

If passed, DASA will be “the second transgender-inclusive protection bill passed by the City Council,” said one advocate in a follow up interview, Pauline Park, co-chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy. The first was the Transgender Rights Bill, which became law on April 30, 2002.

Park, who serves on the steering committees of both city and state DASA bills, said that the state bill stands a stronger chance of being pushed through if the city one gets adopted.

“By passing this bill the city would make a statement and hopefully generate movement for passage of the state bill,” she said.

This article original appeared in the 29 April 2004 issue of Gay City News.

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