respect for all

Schools’ response to bullying is questioned after fatal school stabbing

When Eugene Harding came home Wednesday evening, he turned on the evening news to discover that a student had fatally stabbed a classmate during history class in a Bronx school.

A school social worker in New York City for 25 years, Harding formed a theory about what triggered the killing as soon as an image of 18-year-old Abel Cedeno — now accused of murder — flashed on the screen.

“I looked at the kid and my gut sense was, ‘Oh, he’s not a murderer,’” Harding said. “He was bullied.’”

Details are still emerging about what led Cedeno to allegedly draw a switchblade and plunge it into two of his classmates inside the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation — leaving one dead and another critically wounded. But according to statements by his lawyer and a family friend, Cedeno faced persistent bullying in a school that some parents say struggled to maintain order.

The incident, which marks the first time a student was killed by another student inside a city school in a quarter century, is raising fresh questions about the state of bullying prevention in America’s largest school system.

The education department has had an anti-bullying program in place since 2007, and all new teachers have received anti-bullying training since 2014. But it’s largely up to individual schools — through the environment they establish and the way they respond to incidents — to permit or prevent bullying.

Some schools have built strong cultures where bullying is rare and students learn to peacefully resolve conflicts, spurred in part by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push for schools to shift away from harsh discipline policies. But at many others, students report frequent bullying and harassment that is ignored or inadequately addressed, according to student surveys, advocates, and school personnel — highlighting the difficulty of ensuring that each of the city’s 1,800 schools is safe for all students, particularly those whose identities make them targets.

“We know we have a huge problem that affects kids — some of them really, really seriously,” said Robert Faris, a sociology professor at the University of California, Davis who has studied bullying, referring to the prevalence of bullying nationwide. “But very little of what we’re doing is working.”

It’s hard to know exactly how much bullying happens in New York City’s schools.

Schools are required to report bullying incidents, but that self-reported data has been called into question. In the 2013-14 school year, 70 percent of city schools reported no incidents of intimidation, bullying or harassment. The state attorney general and education department concluded in a 2016 report that such a low incident rate indicated “significant underreporting.”

Meanwhile, about 81 percent of the 433,715 students in grades 6-12 who responded to the city’s annual survey last year said students harass, bully or intimidate each other at their school. Of those students, 43 percent said it happens “some” or “most” of the time, while 38 percent said it happens “rarely.”

Schools sometimes fail to input bullying reports in an education department database that triggers a process for responding to the allegations, according to Dawn Yuster, the School Justice Project director at Advocates for Children of New York, a group that supports students who have been bullied. She said some of her clients’ families had repeatedly gone to school personnel with bullying allegations — to no effect.

“There was no documentation until we got involved,” she said.

Yuster attributed some schools’ failure to document or respond forcefully to bullying partly to staffers’ uncertainty about what counts as bullying and how best to respond to it. In other cases, teachers and administrators may simply be overwhelmed.

“I don’t think it’s an unwillingness,” she said. “I think it’s more about resources, knowledge, experience, and training.”

In 2007, the city education department launched Respect for All, a program designed to raise awareness among educators and students about harassment and bullying, and how to prevent it.

Under the program, and state law, schools must create plans to stamp out bullying and harassment as soon as it bubbles up. They must also appoint a staff member to undergo anti-bullying training, handle bullying reports at the school, and act as a resource for students and staffers. And since anti-bullying training became mandatory for new teachers three years ago, 14,700 have taken the six-hour courses offered by the teachers union.

The de Blasio administration has also set aside $47 million per year for student mental-health services and trainings to help schools responses to student conflicts and crises.

“We take reports of bullying extremely seriously and have explicit protocols and robust training programs in place to ensure harassment, discrimination or bullying of any kind is immediately reported, investigated and addressed,” said education department spokeswoman Toya Holness.

Across the city, bullies are especially likely to prey on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students — and those perceived as such.

In 2015, 24 percent of surveyed LGBTQ youth reported being bullied at school, compared with 13 percent of non-LGBTQ students, according to a health department report.

Abel Cedeno, the student who allegedly stabbed his classmates this week, endured homophobic and racial taunts, according to a family friend who spoke with reporters. Still, experts said it’s extremely rare for LGBTQ students — who suffer from disproportionately high rates of depression and suicide — to react to bullying with such violence.

The city recently appointed its first-ever LGBTQ liaison to help schools support those students. And in March, the city expanded protections for transgender students.

Yet despite these citywide initiatives, individual educators still often find it difficult to address LGBTQ bullying head-on, said City Councilman Daniel Dromm, a former teacher and longtime gay-rights advocate.

“Schools will talk about bullying in general, or diversity in general,” he said. “But teachers and principals still fear actual discussion around LGBT issues.”

Donavon Taveras, who identifies as queer and recently graduated from a Brooklyn high school, said the tone teachers set in their classrooms can make marginalized students feel either protected or vulnerable.

He recalled the time a teacher discussed homosexuality matter-of-factly during a health class. Taveras was so grateful he thanked the teacher after the lesson.

But in a different class, after Taveras read aloud a journal enjoy that referenced a boyfriend, a student muttered “faggot” loud enough for all to hear. Instead of reprimanding the student or turning the insult into a teachable moment, the teacher simply rolled his eyes and continued the lesson. Taveras still remembers how much that stung.

“If felt like everyone was against me,” he said.

Monica Disare contributed reporting.


Newark schools would get $37.5 million boost under Gov. Murphy’s budget plan

PHOTO: OIT/Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy gave his first budget address on Tuesday.

Newark just got some good news: Gov. Phil Murphy wants to give its schools their biggest budget increase since 2011.

State funding for the district would grow by 5 percent — or $37.5 million — next school year under Murphy’s budget plan, according to state figures released Thursday. Overall, state aid for K-12 education in Newark would rise to $787.6 million for the 2018-19 school year.

The funding boost could ease financial strain on the district, which has faced large deficits in recent years as more students enroll in charter schools — taking a growing chunk of district money with them. At the same time, the district faced years of flat funding from the state, which provides Newark with most of its education money.

“This increase begins to restore the deep cuts made to teaching and support staff and essential programs for students in district schools over the last seven years,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, who noted that a portion of the increase would go to Newark charter schools.

Newark’s boost is part of a nearly $284 million increase that Murphy is proposing for the state’s school-aid formula, which has not been properly funded since 2009. In the budget outline he released Tuesday, Murphy said the increase was the first installment in a four-year plan to fully fund the formula, which calls for about $1 billion more than the state currently spends on education.

Even with Murphy’s proposed boost, Newark’s state aid would still be about 14 percent less than what it’s entitled to under the formula, according to state projections.

Murphy, a Democrat, is counting on a series of tax hikes and other revenue sources — including legalized marijuana — to pay for his budget, which increases state spending by 4.2 percent over this fiscal year. He’ll need the support of his fellow Democrats who control the state legislature to pass those measures, but some have expressed concerns about parts of Murphy’s plan — in particular, his proposal to raise taxes on millionaires. They have until June 30 to agree on a budget.

In the meantime, Newark and other school districts will use the figures from Murphy’s plan to create preliminary budgets by the end of this month. They can revise their budgets later if the state’s final budget differs from Murphy’s outline.

At a school board meeting Tuesday before districts received their state-aid estimates, Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory said he had traveled to Trenton in December to tell members of Murphy’s team that the district was “running out of things to do” to close its budget gap. He said the district wasn’t expecting to immediately receive the full $140 million that it’s owed under the state formula. But Murphy’s plan suggested the governor would eventually send Newark the full amount.

“The governor’s address offers a promising sign,” Gregory said.

Civics lesson

With district’s blessing, Newark students join national school walkout against gun violence

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Thousands of Newark students walked out of their schools Wednesday morning in a district-sanctioned protest that was part of a nationwide action calling for an end to gun violence.

At Barringer Academy of the Arts and Humanities in the North Ward, students gathered in the schoolyard alongside Mayor Ras Baraka and interim schools chief Robert Gregory, who offered support to the protesters and even distributed a “student protest week” curriculum to schools.

Just after 10 a.m., hundreds of students watched in silence as a group of their classmates stood in a row and released one orange balloon every minute for 17 minutes — a tribute to the 17 people fatally shot inside a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

While the Barringer students and faculty mourned those victims they had never met, they also decried gun violence much closer to home: siblings and relatives who had been shot, times they were threatened with guns on the street. Principal Kimberly Honnick asked the crowd to remember Malik Bullock, who was a 16-year-old junior at Barringer when he was shot to death in the South Ward last April.

“Too many lives have been lost way too soon,” she said. “It is time for us to end the violence in our schools.”

School districts across the country have grappled with how to respond to walkouts, which were scheduled to occur at 10 a.m. in hundreds of schools. The student-led action, which was planned in the wake of the Florida mass shooting, is intended to pressure Congress to enact stricter gun laws.

Officials in some districts — including some in New Jersey — reportedly threatened to punish students who joined in the protest. But in Newark, officials embraced the event as a civics lesson for students and a necessary reminder to lawmakers that gun violence is not limited to headline-grabbing tragedies like the one in Parkland — for young people in many cities, it’s a fact of life.

“If there’s any group of people that should be opposed to the amount of guns that reach into our communities, it’s us,” Baraka said, adding that Newark police take over 500 guns off the street each year. “People in cities like Newark, New Jersey — cities that are predominantly filled with black and brown individuals who become victims of gun violence.”

On Friday, Gregory sent families a letter saying that the district was committed to keeping students safe in the wake of the Florida shooting. All school staff will receive training in the coming weeks on topics including “active shooter drills” and evacuation procedures, the letter said.

But the note also said the district wanted to support “students’ right to make their voices heard on this important issue.” Schools were sent a curriculum for this week with suggested lessons on youth activism and the gun-control debate. While students were free to opt out of Wednesday’s protests, high schools were expected to allow students to walk out of their buildings at the designated time while middle schools were encouraged to organize indoor events.

In an interview, Gregory said gun violence in Newark is not confined to mass shootings: At least one student here is killed in a shooting each year, he said — though there have not been any so far this year. Rather than accept such violence as inevitable, Gregory said schools should teach students that they have the power to collectively push for changes — even if that means letting them walk out of class.

“Instead of trying of trying to resist it, we wanted to encourage it,” he said. “That’s what makes America what it is.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students released one balloon for each of the 17 people killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

After Barringer’s protest, where people waved signs saying “Love,” “Enough,” and “No to gun violence, several ninth-graders described what it’s like to live in communities where guns are prevalent — despite New Jersey’s tight gun restrictions.

Jason Inoa said he was held up by someone claiming to have a gun as he walked home. Destiny Muñoz said her older brother was shot by a police officer while a cousin was recently gunned down in Florida. The Parkland massacre only compounded her fear that nowhere is safe.

“With school shootings, you feel terrified,” she said. “You feel the same way you do about being outside in the streets.”

Even as the students called for tougher gun laws, they were ambivalent about bringing more police into their schools and neighborhoods. They noted that the Black Lives Matter movement, which they said they recently read about in their freshmen social studies class, called attention to black and Hispanic people who were treated harshly or even killed by police officers.

Ninth-grader Malik Bolding said it’s important to honor the victims of school shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida. But the country should also mourn the people who are killed in everyday gun violence and heed the protesters who are calling for it to end, he added.

“Gun violence is gun violence — it doesn’t matter who got shot,” he said. “Everybody should be heard.”