New law aims to shed light on sex and gender discrimination — and prevention — in NYC schools

New York City Council members will vote Thursday on a bill that would require schools to share prominently information about sex and gender discrimination, harassment, and assaults on campus.

Additionally, the education department would have to report annually on what schools are doing to prevent and address harassment and issues relating to Title IX, the federal law protecting students from sex discrimination in schools and colleges.

“The hope is that this will hold them accountable,” said Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal, who sponsored the bill. “Advocates will now have one place they can go to get information and hold [the education department’s] feet to the fire. And that’s good.”

The new law would direct the city’s Commission on Gender Equity to collect data from the education department and post it on a single, user-friendly website. In some cases, such information is already publicly available, but difficult to find. The commission would also be required to make recommendations based on the information collected. 

At a City Council hearing last spring, New York City students recounted their experiences of harassment and discrimination on campus. One student said she was admonished for wearing a sports bra during soccer practice. Another felt there was no one she could turn to after a school safety agent made unwanted advances. Another still was told she had violated the school’s dress code because of what she wore to school on a hot summer day.

Rosenthal said she often heard from girls whose stories of sexual harassment or assault were dismissed by school staff. 

“Shaming the victim starts early. These kids are in elementary and middle and high school, and they’re being told, ‘Oh let it go. He likes you,’” she said. 

Ashley C. Sawyer, policy director for the advocacy group Girls for Gender Equity, said the organization is “grateful” that the education department will have to report on what officials are doing to try to stop harassment and discrimination in the first place. 

“Prevention is key here,”  she said. “We can’t have positive school climates without thinking about gender and sexuality.” 

The City Council recently pushed for funding to hire seven additional Title IX coordinators, up from just a single coordinator tasked with compliance in 1,600 schools serving about a million students. By comparison, Chicago employs 20 coordinators though the district’s enrollment is a fraction of New York City’s.

Last fall, the city updated its regulations around sexual harassment in response to a 2016 legal settlement. The regulations expand the kinds of behavior that are considered harassment, lay out requirements for school leaders to conduct investigations into allegations, and explain how to treat students who make reports.

The city’s education department has voiced its support for the legislation. “Schools must be safe havens and we’ve implemented changes to better address and prevent sex- or gender-based discrimination and harassment, including hiring more Title IX liaisons,” Miranda Barbot, a spokeswoman with the department, said in an emailed statement.