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.

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.