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.

'Clarity 2020'

Superintendent León calls on Newarkers to help shape his plan for city’s schools

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León unveiled his strategy to improve the district at Central High School on Wednesday.

Newark Superintendent Roger León unveiled his strategy for transforming the school system at a community forum Wednesday, the first of several meetings where residents will be invited to help shape the plan.

The strategy, dubbed “NPS Clarity 2020,” calls for closer cooperation among schools and between them and the community. The strategy’s premise is that schools must challenge students academically while also attending to their physical and emotional needs.

Over the next few months, officials said, the district will turn the strategy into a detailed, three-year plan with help from families, students, and partner organizations, who will be invited to planning sessions in each of the city’s five wards. The final plan will be released in June.

“How are we going to do this? Everybody in here — all of you,” León said to hundreds of mostly invited guests at Central High School. “There’s a lot of hard work we’re about to do, and we’re not going to be scared about it.”

While Wednesday marked the start of public feedback on the strategy, León has been referencing his plan at meetings for months. Some leaders, including Mayor Ras Baraka and a few board members, have previously urged León to publicly share his plan, along with specific goals he hopes to achieve.

Baraka, who was Central’s principal when León was an assistant superintendent, made a brief appearance at Wednesday’s event to lend his support to León’s vision. He said the two have been working in particular on a plan to get local universities to enroll more Newark Public School graduates.

“I just want people to know that the superintendent and I are on the same page,” said Baraka, who famously clashed with León’s state-appointed predecessor, Cami Anderson. “And it hasn’t been that way for a very long time.”

Baraka is also part of a new advisory committee that will provide input on the plan. The 24-member committee includes teachers, principals, and advocates, along with business, higher-education, and philanthropic leaders.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Newark residents wrote down challenges and opportunities in the district during Wednesday’s forum.

The district hosted a similar series of public forums in 2016 under Superintendent Christopher Cerf, which led to the district’s current three-year roadmap.

The district has hired a Newark-based consultancy, Creed Strategies, to lead the current planning process. The firm’s founder and president, Lauren Wells, is a former advisor to Baraka and previously helped spearhead a high-profile reform effort in Newark called the Global Village School Zone.

Started in 2010, the program lengthened the school day and added extra support services at seven Central Ward schools, including Central High School. It also brought the schools’ teachers together for joint trainings and made sure their courses were in sync so students could easily progress from the elementary schools to Central. However, Anderson abruptly ended the effort in 2012.

Now, Wells is helping incorporate elements of that program’s approach into León’s strategy. At the forum, Wells described some tenets of the strategy: recognizing and addressing poverty’s effects on students; helping schools work together rather than in isolation; taking advantage of the resources that families and local organizations have to offer schools; and measuring student success on a variety of scales.

“They will be risk-takers, they will be sought-after,” she said. “They will pass assessments — and not just the PARCC, but the bar.”

Attendees were also given a document with an elaborate diagram representing the “Clarity 2020” approach, which district employees received at an August conference where León previewed his plans. The diagram features a dozen “keys to 2020,” such as higher education and social services, and six “game changers,” including alumni and internships, but provides no details beyond those broad headings.

The district has not yet posted the document online or announced dates for the forums in each ward. León declined to be interviewed after the event.

Several attendees said they were energized by Wednesday’s forum, which included small-group brainstorming sessions where participants listed challenges and opportunities in the district.

“You don’t usually have a superintendent that asks questions,” said Nitia Preston, the community engagement specialist at Peshine Avenue School. “He’s asking, ‘What change do you want? What strengths do you have?’ I love that.”

six months in

As Newark superintendent makes whirlwind changes, some residents seek ‘clarity’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León has faced calls to share more details of his agenda. On Wednesday, he unveiled his "NPS Clarity 2020" strategy.

A whirlwind of activity. A legion of initiatives. A blitz of meetings. Pick your metaphor — Superintendent Roger León has been busy.

In his first six months as Newark schools chief, León has overhauled the district’s central office; launched a wide-ranging assortment of programs involving high schools, testing, technology, and more; and offered a litany of wildly ambitious promises, including a vow to make Newark “the highest-performing school district in the country.”

León’s maximalist approach has thrilled many residents who find it invigorating to hear a Newark native present a vision of greatness for a school system that, until February, spent two decades under state control. In recent years, the 36,000-student district has attracted national notoriety mainly for its struggles and the pitched battles that erupted when outside reformers tried to reshape the city’s schools.

But León’s jam-packed agenda and sweeping promises have also raised concerns, even among those rooting for him to succeed — an unease that León may be hoping to address Wednesday evening at a community forum on the district’s future.

Observers have privately asked how the new leader’s disparate initiatives fit together, and whether he can pull them all off simultaneously. Occasionally, their frustration has bubbled to the surface, as when some board members refused to approve some of León’s requests until they knew more about his plans or when Mayor Ras Baraka urged León to make those plans public.

Even the name of León’s elaborate strategy — “NPS Clarity 2020” — has baffled some people, who are unsure when it starts and what it entails. They are hoping the forum will address some of those concerns.

As a former Newark Public Schools educator and administrator, León brings a wealth of experience and institutional knowledge to the job, said Antoinette Baskerville Richardson, the mayor’s chief education officer. While León obviously “has a big vision,” she added, it is imperative that he share detailed plans with the public — especially after 22 years of state control, when officials had license to make wholesale changes without locals’ consent.

“I think a lot of stakeholders are looking for more clarity — and it’s up to the superintendent to bring that,” she said. “Folks are looking for substantive plans.”

After a quarter-century working in the district, León started July 1 with strong convictions about what approaches work in schools — and which don’t. But as he’s rushed to reverse policies he considers ineffective and enact alternatives, schools and partner groups have often had to scramble to keep up.

In June, he tried to oust top district officials before informing the school board, which then rejected some of the staffing changes. In September, he axed a program that extended the hours of struggling schools — resulting in scheduling changes just days before classes began. Last month, he cast doubt on a program that brought extra services to several South Ward schools, leaving the schools and their partner organizations uncertain about its future.

At the same time, he has undertaken several efforts of his own. While most new superintendents are eager to start making their mark, León’s aggressive timeline and ambitious agenda have run up against roadblocks.

He is planning a redesign of the city’s high schools, including changes to the admissions process for magnet schools and new career-themed academies inside the traditional schools. However, the new magnet admissions test was recently postponed, and the district has not formally announced the themes and partners of the new academies. Meanwhile, the enrollment period for next school year is already underway.

León has also promised to tackle one of the district’s most dire and long-standing challenges — absenteeism. One in three Newark students missed the equivalent of a month or more of school days last year, qualifying them as “chronically absent.” The crux of León’s plan for getting students to school is to rehire attendance counselors who were laid off by his predecessor. However, labor rules have complicated the rehiring process, leaving many of the counselor positions unfilled five months into the school year.

Other new superintendents might be content with these already ambitious goals: revamping the district’s high schools and combating severe absenteeism. But León has not stopped there. He has personally reviewed student transcripts and conducted teacher trainings; negotiated changes to the city’s enrollment system with charter-school leaders; and ordered comprehensive audits of the district’s teaching materials and facilities.

León has described different parts of his agenda to different audiences at meetings large and small with parents, district employees, students, union leaders, and local philanthropies. However, members of the public who aren’t invited to all of these gatherings and can’t make the public school-board meetings may have a limited view of León’s entire agenda. His administration seldom holds press conferences or posts summaries of his initiatives on the district website, and reporters’ questions often go unanswered. (A spokeswoman did not respond to questions for this story.)

Deborah Smith-Gregory, president of the Newark NAACP and a former district teacher, said she is eager to learn how León will incorporate all of the feedback he has received into a clear plan with measurable goals.

“He’s doing a lot of outreach,” she said. “But after you get all of those opinions, how do you prioritize what you’re going to pay attention to and implement something that can be measured?”

León may begin to answer that question at the forum Wednesday evening at Central High School. A public notice for the event says it will include a discussion of “goals and timelines” for Clarity 2020, along with a 10-year district roadmap León is crafting and various policy reviews he is conducting.

The event will also kick off a series public meetings intended to gather input for a new three-year strategic plan for the district, according to the notice. León’s predecessor, Christopher Cerf, organized a similar planning process in 2016 to create the district’s current strategic plan.

Whether Wednesday’s forum will leave the public with a clearer sense of León’s overarching vision remains to be seen. But some of the superintendent’s most ardent supporters say they already know enough.

“He’s planning to turn this into the most successful district in the state,” said Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon. “What’s obtuse about that?”