Friday, October 5, 2007

NYC Schools to Teach Respect for All

Anti-LGBT bullying in New York City's public schools remains a serious problem which local lawmakers and activists continue to address. The Dignity in All Schools Act, which the City Council passed in 2004 despite Mayor Michael Bloomberg's veto, has yet to be implemented. The issue remains a rather contentious one as my article in the Blade this week indicates. The 2009 mayoral election (and posturing ahead of it) remains the underlying backstory to almost anything that comes out of City Hall these days [Call me a cynic if you will!]. But this issue remains arguably one that should transcend politics because students well-being and potentially lives remain at stake.

New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced a new initiative on Sept. 27 to protect LGBT students in the city’s public schools from harassment and other bullying based on their sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.

The plan, already in effect, is called Respect for All and has been endorsed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. It provide two-day training sessions and other professional development workshops to teams of teachers and counselors at more than 700 middle and high schools across the city. Workshop curriculum is based on recommendations of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Educators Network, the LGBT Community Center and other organizations.

Respect for All is a joint initiative with the Department of Education (DOE) and contains three broad objectives: to promote inclusion, to serve a resource to the LGBTQ students and to serve as a resource to faculty.

Quinn said DOE has already begun to implement the initiative this month. She added Respect for All sends a message that both the City Council and New York City government will not tolerate bullying against LGBT students.

“We think it’s a great step forward,” Quinn said. “We think it will be a really good resource for our schools.”

Bloomberg readily agreed in a statement.

“Our administration has zero tolerance for intolerance and we have worked to ensure that this important value—respect for others—is a part of everything we do,” he said. “This new initiative will bolster our efforts to ensure that every school offers an inclusive environment and teaches the importance of tolerance and respect.”

Klein announced the initiative to principals in a letter last week. He added the DOE remains committed to tackling harassment against LGBT students in the city’s public schools.

“Promoting respect for diversity is central to our mission as educators and leaders,” Klein said in a statement.

Phyllis Steinberg, president of the New York City chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians & Gays (PFLAG), praised the initiative as a positive step toward creating a safer environment for the city’s LGBT students.

“All children need a safe and secure educational environment in which to thrive [and] to ensure they achieve their full potential,” she said.

New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy chair Pauline Park is skeptical that that DOE is serious about helping its LGBT population. Park was among the coalition of activists who lobbied the City Council to pass the Dignity in All Schools Act (DASA) in 2004. The bill protected all New York City K-12 public school students, faculty, volunteers and visitors from bullying, harassment and discrimination on the basis of real or perceived race, national origin, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability.

Bloomberg maintained the bill violated state law and vetoed it (the New York State Senate struck down a proposed statewide DASA bill last year). Quinn, then-Speaker Gifford Miller (D-Upper East Side) and other Council members blasted the mayor’s opposition to DASA, and the City Council overrode Bloomberg’s veto in a 44-3 vote. Because the legality of the bill is still contested, it has not been implemented.

Park remains critical about the DOE because, she said, it doesn’t even follow existing state laws that mandate it fully disclose incidents of violence in general. An audit by New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson, who will likely mount his own 2009 mayoral campaign, of 10 city high schools found the DOE did not in fact fully disclose violence and other incidents as mandated under state law. The law doesn’t require schools to specify whether incidents are LGBT-related.

Thompson’s spokesperson, Jeff Simmons, pointed out that the Comptroller supports DASA. He added his office remains “extremely troubled” by the DOE’s apparent failure to report these incidents.

“The flawed reporting makes it difficult for parents, the public and government officials to honestly assess whether a school is safe,” Thompson concluded.

Brian Ellner, senior counsel to schools chancellor Klein, defended the DOE’s record, saying that the agency remains committed to combating anti-LGBT bullying in city’s schools.

“The Chancellor has made it abundantly clear to make sure every school system is safe for all kids,” Ellner said. “The commitment is absolute.”

Quinn remained confident in Respect for All.

“[We] look forward to continuing to work with the DOE and the [Bloomberg] administration to provide school leaders with the tools to create positive, supportive environments,” Quinn said.

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