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.

change up

Just as Lower East Side integration plan takes off, superintendent who helped craft it steps down

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Carry Chan, left, will become acting superintendent in District 1 when Daniella Phillips, right, leaves this month to join the central education department.

The longtime superintendent of the Manhattan community district where parents pushed for a plan to desegregate the local schools is stepping down just as the plan gets underway.

After a decade at the helm of District 1, which includes the Lower East Side and East Village, Superintendent Daniella Phillips is leaving to join the central education department, Chalkbeat has learned. During the yearslong campaign for an integration plan, Phillips acted as a liaison between parents and the education department, which finally approved a new admissions system for the district’s elementary schools this fall.

She will be replaced by Carry Chan, who has also played a role in the district’s diversity efforts as the interim head of a new Family Resource Center, an information hub to help district parents sort through their school options. Chan takes over as acting superintendent on Dec. 18.

The leadership change comes at a crucial time for the district, which also includes a portion of Chinatown. Parents are currently applying to elementary schools, marking the first admissions cycle under the new enrollment system. Under the system, schools give certain students admissions priority based on their economic status and other factors, with the goal of every elementary school enrolling share of disadvantaged students similar to the district average.

It will be up to the new superintendent to help schools recruit and welcome a greater mix of families, and to help steer parents towards a wider range of schools. Advocates hope the district can become a model for the city.

“There is a torch that needs to be carried in order to really, fully execute,” said Naomi Peña, president of the district’s parent council. “The next superintendent has to be a champion for the mission and the cause.”

During heated public meetings, Phillips tried to keep the peace while serving as a go-between for frustrated integration advocates and reluctant education department officials. The tensions sometimes boiled over, with advocates directing their anger at Phillips — though they were eventually won-over and endorsed the final integration plan.

In her new role, she will oversee school consolidations as part of the education department’s Office of School Design and Charter Partnerships. In District 1, Phillips helped steer three such mergers, which often involve combining small, low-performing schools with ones that are higher achieving.

“It has been such a joy and privilege to be District 1 superintendent for over 10 years, and I’m excited for this next chapter in the district and my career,” Phillips said in an emailed statement.

Chan is a former principal who launched the School for Global Leaders, a middle school that focuses on community service projects and offers Mandarin classes. Last year, she joined the education department’s Manhattan support center, where she helped schools form partnerships in order to learn from one another.

Since October, Chan has served as the interim director of District 1’s Family Resource Center, which is seen as an integral part of making the new diversity plan work. Families must apply for seats in the district’s elementary schools, which do not have attendance zones like other districts. The family center aims to arm families with more information about their options, in the hopes that they will consider schools they may not have previously.

“I think we’re all really passionate about this plan and we really want this to work,” Chan said. “Communication is the key, and being transparent with how we’re progressing with this work.”

ATR Update

New York City sent just 41 unassigned teachers to schools after predicting up to 400 placements

After announcing a plan to place up to 400 teachers without permanent jobs in schools with openings this fall — potentially over principals’ objections — the New York City education department ended up placing just 41, according to figures released Thursday.

The placements are part of a city effort to shrink by half the pool of teachers who receive full salaries and benefits despite having lost their full-time positions due to disciplinary or legal issues, or because schools where they worked were closed or lost enrollment. The pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve, cost the city nearly $152 million last school year.

In September, just over 1,200 teachers were in the pool — a 20 percent decrease from the start of the previous school year, department officials said. The officials attributed the reduction to a hiring incentive that subsidized the salaries of teachers the schools agreed to hire permanently, and a severance package given to over 100 teachers who retired or resigned this summer.

In recent months, principals with open positions have hired 359 of the unassigned teachers — including 205 on a provisional basis, who will only be kept on if they receive good job ratings. The other 113 teachers were hired permanently under a deal where the department will subsidize their salaries through mid-2019.

Randy Asher, the education department official tasked with shrinking the pool, said the city would work to find placements for more unassigned teachers this school year, though he could not say how many. He added that the city would try whenever possible to have principals voluntarily hire the teachers rather than be assigned them.

“We’ve been working to make matches of their own choosing,” Asher told Chalkbeat. “We’re going to continue to work with principals on a case by case basis.”

None of the 41 teachers assigned to schools had faced legal or disciplinary cases, officials said.

Typically, teachers in the reserve pool rotate among schools on a monthly basis, often serving as substitutes. But under the new assignment policy, the teachers — who started at their new positions in November — will remain in the same school for the full academic year.

Officials said the year-long placements will allow the teachers to participate in school trainings and be evaluated by their principals. Those are rated “effective” or “highly effective” on their evaluations will be permanently hired by their schools, the officials said.

The city’s earlier projection of 300 to 400 placements was based on expected school vacancies, but officials said that some of those vacancies turned out to be for teachers on leave who are due to return soon or for spots that no longer need filled due to declining enrollment.

It’s also possible the smaller-than-expected number of vacancies could reflect principals scrambling to fill or otherwise hide their vacant positions before Oct. 15, after which the city was to begin assigning them teachers.

After the placement plan was announced in July, some principals said it would take away their freedom to hire whomever they choose and could saddle them with ineffective teachers. Among 822 teachers in the reserve at the end of last school year, 12 percent had been rated “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” in 2015-16, compared to just 1 percent of teachers citywide, according to city data.

Critics also worried the plan would send subpar teachers to struggling schools, since they are most likely to have openings.

The schools where the 41 teachers were sent include a high school that is part of the city’s “Renewal” program for low-performing schools. Taken together, the schools enroll a higher share of poor students and a lower share of students who passed the state exams than the city average, according to an analysis released by The Education Trust – New York, an advocacy group that had criticized the city’s teacher-placement plan.

“This raises major equity concerns,” said Ian Rosenblum, the group’s executive director, in a statement.

Despite advocates’ fears, some principals welcomed the teachers. Department officials said the principal of the Renewal high school, the Coalition School for Social Change in Manhattan, asked to be sent a teacher from the pool. And the principal of a Bronx school said it struggled to find a qualified special-education teacher before the city assigned it one.

“I don’t know if I got lucky, but it worked out,” said the principal, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “My dawning perception of folks who are ATRs is give them a job, give them a clear role, and hold them accountable — and they mostly do it.”

The reserve pool grew under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who struck a deal with the teachers union that gave principals more power to make hiring decisions but prevented teachers from being fired. As the Bloomberg administration aggressively closed schools, the number of unassigned teachers swelled even as the union resisted efforts to cap the length of time educators could remain in the pool.

In 2014, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña promised not to use “forced placement of staff” as a way to shrink the ATR pool. Officials argue that the current policy does not qualify as forced placement because teachers are only sent to schools with open positions and the assigned teachers cannot bump others from their positions.

In October, Fariña said principals should “take a chance” on unassigned teachers.

“But if there’s one who you really feel should not be in any school — not just in your school,” she added, “then we’ll support you.”

The schools that were assigned teachers are spread among 20 of the city’s 32 local districts, with the largest — Manhattan’s District 2 — receiving the most teachers (6). Below are the schools where they were sent:

Manhattan

P.S./I.S. 217 ROOSEVELT ISLAND
BATTERY PARK CITY SCHOOL
BUSINESS OF SPORTS SCHOOL
THE HIGH SCHOOL FOR LANGUAGE AND DIPLOMACY
HIGH SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS AND FINANCE
INDEPENDENCE HIGH SCHOOL
COALITION SCHOOL FOR SOCIAL CHANGE
P.S. 092 MARY MCLEOD BETHUNE
P.S. 133 FRED R MOORE
P.S. 197 JOHN B. RUSSWURM
MOTT HALL HIGH SCHOOL

Bronx

BRONX DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION ACADEMY
P.S. 011 HIGHBRIDGE
P.S. 199X – THE SHAKESPEARE SCHOOL
THE NEW AMERICAN ACADEMY AT ROBERTO CLEMENTE STATE
NEW DIRECTIONS SECONDARY SCHOOL
BEDFORD PARK ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
P.S. 041 GUN HILL ROAD
P.S./M.S. 11X498 – VAN NEST ACADEMY
FREDERICK DOUGLASS ACADEMY V. MIDDLE SCHOOL

Brooklyn

P.S. 003 THE BEDFORD VILLAGE
CITY POLYTECHNIC HIGH SCHOOL
PS 059 WILLIAM FLOYD
P.S. 147 ISAAC REMSEN
KHALIL GIBRAN INTERNATIONAL ACADEMY
P.S. 191 PAUL ROBESON
SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND RESEARCH EARLY COLLEGE HS
P.S. 219 KENNEDY-KING
I.S. 285 MEYER LEVIN
FDNY – CAPTAIN VERNON A. RICHARDS HIGH SCHOOL
EAST NEW YORK MIDDLE SCHOOL OF EXCELLENCE
P.S. 164 CAESAR RODNEY
MOTT HALL BRIDGES ACADEMY

Queens

P.S./I.S. 087 MIDDLE VILLAGE
PIONEER ACADEMY
GOLDIE MAPLE ACADEMY
P.S. 015 JACKIE ROBINSON
P.S./M.S. 147 RONALD MCNAIR
P.S. 127 AEROSPACE SCIENCE MAGNET SCHOOL