Latino Activists and LGBT Students Support Anti-Bullying Bill

(Photo by drp, Creative Commons license)

(Photo by drp, Creative Commons license)

José López is 16 years old and, ever since he started high school, mocking and offensive comments coming from some of his fellow students have been an everyday occurrence.

“They tell me horrible things all the time because I am effeminate and, since I am a little chubby, it’s worse,” said the Colombian teen, who attends a Queens school and who, fearful of suffering further rejection, has opted to stop complaining to his teachers. “I am forced to be strong and try to ignore the mocking, but some schoolmates of mine have even thought about killing themselves. I have been shoved, called ‘pig,’ ‘Miss Arepa,’ ‘cocksucker,’ and other obscene things that are just jokes to them but that could destroy anyone.”

Although the New York City Department of Education (DOE) claims to have implemented a number of anti-bullying programs and campaigns at educational centers, the City Council considers that there are serious flaws that put the well-being, mental health, academic performance and even the lives of LGBT and other vulnerable students at risk.

For that reason, this week the Council’s Committee on Education began reviewing a bill to oversee bullying, harassment and discrimination in schools, which intends to be more effective when protecting vulnerable children.

“Bullying continues to be a serious problem in our communities every day, beginning in preschool and worsening as children grow up,” said committee chair Council member Daniel Dromm, adding that, aside from the complaints of children being harassed because they are Muslim or disabled or for racial reasons, sexual orientation is another factor that makes students more vulnerable.

“LGBT students are overwhelmingly the victims of bullying and harassment and, according to a 2013 survey made by the GLSEN group on school climate, more than 74 percent of LGBT students were harassed verbally and 36 percent physically,” he said. “Sadly, mistreatment extends to the schools’ policies and practices.”

The political leader expressed his concern for the risks faced by these minors, and said that, although several anti-bullying measures are in place in NYC, the DOE has failed to enforce them.

Recorded cases

“Between 2012 and 2013, 80 percent of schools reported zero cases of bullying. An analysis by the state’s attorney general found that 70 percent of all schools reported no incidents,” said Dromm, explaining that the most recent report states that 94 percent of all schools reported 10 incidents or fewer. “Although there has been a small increase in reported incidents in the past three years, the amount of unreported cases continues to be unacceptable.”

Elizabeth Rose, DOE deputy chancellor, commented that, in the past year, 4,293 bullying incidents were recorded, of which 276 were related to gender, 201 to race, 195 to sexual orientation and 143 to weight, among other issues, but she defended the performance of schools in protecting students.

“The Department of Education is working to promote a positive and inclusive school culture that is free of prejudice-based bullying, harassment and intimidation of any kind through a number of methods,” said the public official, pointing to the department’s Respect for All program. “Even though we have made significant steps to build safe, supportive and inclusive schools for all students, especially for the most vulnerable who are facing unique challenges, we know that there is still much work to be done.”

Despite the criticism, Jared Fox, the DOE’s LGBTQ community liaison, said that schools have seen great progress [in the lessening of] bullying aimed at LGBT students, and mentioned the creation of the LGBT+ Advisory Council in July, which works with 34 organizations to offer support to students and their families.

“We have trained more than 1,000 parent coordinators, who are among the over 2,000 people I have personally trained in more than 40 professional development sessions,” said Fox.

Toya Holness, spokeswoman for the DOE, also defended the schools’ actions in the fight against bullying.

“Our schools are safer than ever before, and we have explicit protocols and solid training programs to handle any incidents that may arise,” he said. “We take bullying reports very seriously and continue to invest in school initiatives, including more counselors and social workers, and providing mental health support for schools.”

Council member Rafael Salamanca called on the DOE to put a stronger focus on the need for protection of vulnerable students, adding that he supports the creation of legislation that, in the process, helps educate about respecting difference.

For his part, Council member Ydanis Rodríguez, who worked in public schools for 13 years, said that, although the details remain to be defined, he supports a strict law, with penalties included, that also serves to educate.

Law against bullying

“We must make sure that all students know that there is a law punishing these behaviors and, while we do not want to criminalize anyone, it is urgent for them to know that we will do whatever is necessary to stop the bullying culture that has taken the lives of so many people,” said Rodríguez.

Paola Lebrón-Guzmán, leader of Make the Road New York’s LGBTQ Justice group, opposed creating a punishment-based law but agreed with Council member Rodríguez regarding the need for more education.

“We need to create restorative justice, and that is a practice that needs to come from the reports and from communicating more effectively about what is happening after those reports come out,” said the activist.

“The Department of Education needs to do much more, not just present reports but offer more training and also follow up because, even though there are gender and sexuality groups in some schools, they are there only for people who want to be involved, but they don’t exist for all teachers and the administration,” said Lebrón-Guzmán, as she cited the case of a 16-year-old LGBT student who was the victim of mocking and physical aggression in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, on Monday as an example of the need to start taking action.

“It is unacceptable, offensive and disconcerting for this to happen, and this is a crucial moment for Brooklyn schools, and this school in particular, to get all its student body involved and teach them about the LGBTQ community and how to become effective allies,” she said.

Figures about bullying in schools

  • At a national level, 22 percent of all students are said to have been the victim of bullying.
  • An estimated 13 million students endure bullying every year throughout the country.
  • According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), in 2013, 74.1 percent of all LGBT students were verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation, and 36.2 percent were victims of physical harassment.
  • A study performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that, last year, 40 percent of all LGBT students contemplated suicide. The previous year, 29 percent did the same. The press release says “29 percent reported having attempted suicide during the past 12 months.” 
  • Sixty percent of students are said to feel sad or affected in their everyday life because of bullying.
  • An estimated 64 percent of all students who are bullied do not report it.
  • New York schools have been singled out for not reporting every bullying incident.
  • The New York attorney general found that, in 2013, 1,792 public and charter schools in the Big Apple – 70 percent – did not report even one bullying or discrimination incident.
  • In 2015, 94 percent of schools reported 10 or less bullying incidents.
  • Laws against bullying are in effect, including the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the Dignity for All Students Act (NYC DASA), the Safe Schools Against Violence in Education Act (SAVE Act), the Respect for All program (RFA) and the Chancellor’s Regulation A-832, but critics say that these are insufficient in protecting New York students.
  • During the last school year, 4,293 bullying incidents were reported. Of these, 276 were related to gender, 201 to race, 195 to sexual orientation and 143 to weight, among other issues.

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