Hispanic Families Welcome New Tool against Bullying in City Schools

María Martínez (left) and Nieves Ojendis (right) talk about bullying in schools. (Photo by Edwin Martínez via El Diario)

María Martínez has two boys, 10 and 11, who are in the third and sixth grade in public schools in the Bronx. She cannot hide her concern over the increase in bullying instances to which minors are exposed at school, particularly since Donald Trump took office in the White House. The Mexican mother says that her children see all kinds of violent behavior and harassment every day and that school authorities are failing to tackle them efficiently.

“I am worried because my two little children tell me that things are being thrown at people at lunchtime – food, pens – and that Latinos are the most affected. They say to my son: ‘Hey, do you like tortillas?’ ‘Do you like hot peppers?’ and the oldest one has even asked me, ‘Why did we have to be Mexican?’ I am concerned about that,” admits Martínez.

Because bullying is a serious problem in the more than 1,700 New York City schools, and as part of the fight it says to be vigorously promoting, the Department of Education (DOE) has launched a new online tool for parents to report incidents directly to the DOE through a confidential form. The new initiative aims to allow the agency to receive complaints directly in order to investigate them and act promptly.

Lois Herrera, chief executive officer of the DOE’s Office of Safety and Youth Development, explained that the online bullying complaint form is an additional method to halt intimidation among students.

“Schools are safe places, and we are making proactive investments to strengthen the bond between schools and families by informing and addressing bullying accusations,” said the official, adding that the city has invested $8 million on a number of anti-bullying initiatives and that a website where formal complaints may be made is expected to be ready in 2019. (…)

Bullying cases on the rise

According to DOE figures, between 2015 and 2016 a total 3,281 cases of bullying in schools were reported, while 3,660 were recorded between 2016 and 2017, an increase of more than 10 percent. Last year, 503 cases of bullying linked to racism and national origin were reported. The previous year, 469 were registered, showing a similar rate of increase.

Although the online tool has received 36 complaints in the four weeks it has been operational, parents such as Nieves Ojendis, a community parent organizer in the South Bronx, considers that the tool is not effective and called for spending resources on direct training to educate people about bullying instead.

“I don’t see it working very well. The problem needs to be tackled from the inside, because we are not seeing school directors and superintendents doing much to make changes,” said the Mexican-born mother, who has two daughters in school. “What we need is intensive trainings for school personnel, for the children and for the parents because we are often being left out, whether because of our language or because of our national origin.”

Ojendis called on parents to denounce instances of bullying. She added that, even though in New York everyone has the same rights regardless of immigration status, the role parents play at home is also very important.

“Parents are the first teachers. If children see violence at home, they will be violent too. That is why training is urgent, to give parents the ability to identify the causes, effects and signs of bullying more effectively,” she said.

Nathan Osorio, community organizer for Masa, a group that works with [South Bronx Mexican and Latino] families, said that, despite the DOE’s good intentions, the city is not investing enough on resources to fight bullying and is creating programs when it does not really understand the needs of communities.

“They carry out forums but don’t invite the community, and then they launch these types of initiatives that they think are working but do not match the reality of the communities they are serving,” said the activist. “Clearly, the DOE is not listening to the community. Many parents do not have access to the technology needed to submit reports online, and others lack the knowledge to navigate the web. There is an evident lack of communication between schools and parents.”

Other parents, such as Colombian-born Rosa Martínez, have a different opinion. Martínez believes that the DOE’s form will make a difference in the fight against bullying, although she agrees that more training is needed.

“That is a very good idea because many parents are afraid to speak directly to someone. Now, they can grab their cell phone and send an email,” said the mother of a 7-year-old boy who goes to a Flushing school. “What remains to be seen is what they plan to do with that information and how they are going to handle the cases.”

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