Report says, Schools under-reporting bullying and harassment

From NYS Comptroller's Office:

Schools Underreporting Bullying and Harassment

Audit Finds Staff Confusion Over What to Report and Many Schools Reporting Zero Incidents

Under the Dignity for All Students Act

March 13, 2019

An audit released today by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli found the NYC Department of Education (DoE) was not doing enough to report incidents of bullying, harassment and discrimination as required by the state’s Dignity for All Students Act (DASA).

“It’s been six years since DASA took effect, but in some ways providing a safe, supportive learning environment is still a work in progress,” DiNapoli said. “Even before school officials report bullying and discrimination to the state, there seems to be confusion at the local level over what needs to be reported. Underreporting and late reporting of bullying puts students at risk of further harassment. The city’s Department of Education can and should do more to protect students.”

“Fixing complex issues like bullying requires more than passing a law up in Albany, which is why we rely on school districts and administrators to provide us with feedback,” said Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell (D-Manhattan). “It’s undeniable that preventing bullying is both something to strive for and an incredibly complex and multi-layered issue to address. That’s why since DASA’s passage, we have amended the law multiple times to improve it, relying on analysis of the data recorded to do so. Accurate and transparent reporting — or communication on how reporting can be improved — is the only option, and the Comptroller’s report that these things are not happening is very troubling. Bullying in schools is pervasive and damaging, but treatable with enough support. Proactively addressing bullying can provide healing for both victims and perpetrators, who are often shown to be struggling with their own issues. I thank the Comptroller for his report, and call on school districts and administrators throughout the state to assume their responsibility to comply with the law, or become partners in fixing it.”

"Unfortunately, many students in New York are bullied every year by their peers because of their gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or some other characteristic that can be discriminated against in a school setting,” said Assemblymember Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan). “DASA was created to ensure that these incidents are taken seriously and are not simply disregarded as normal behavior among school age minors. It is clear that there needs to be some education among those who report bullying as to what qualifies as harassment and what truly is bullying behavior. This audit by the Office of the State Comptroller is a positive step toward making sure good legislation like DASA is even more effective in the school setting.”

“Comptroller DiNapoli’s report reveals alarming shortcomings in the New York City Department of Education’s work to protect vulnerable students,” said State Senator Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan). “Laws like DASA are only effective when administrators recognize and report instances of bullying in our schools. Our kids deserve better."

"The audit from Comptroller DiNapoli's office shows that while there has been some effort on the DOE's part to comply with DASA, there is much room for improvement,” said State Senator John Liu (D-Queens). “The study points to the necessity that the DOE works with more uniformity, especially on establishing what constitutes bullying and harassment, as well as, a clearer reporting timeline. If the DOE embraced the intention of DASA by making a true and consistent effort to implement it, their efforts to address bullying and harassment would be more effective."

“It is our duty to ensure that NYC schools are safe spaces for all students to learn and grow,” said NYC Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Queens). “The underreporting of bullying revealed by this audit is extremely troubling. LGBTQ youth in particular face disproportional rates of harassment, discrimination, depression, and suicide. The DOE must do better to protect students from bullying and to train educators on how to properly recognize bullying when it happens. Failure to report and respond accordingly can be detrimental to students’ health, wellbeing, and academic success.”

“This audit, exposing the inadequate compliance of DASA by the Department of Education, must lead to that agency taking immediate action to accurately document bullying and harassment in schools,” said former State Sen. Tom Duane (D-Manhattan). “Without comprehensive reporting, the prevention of incidents, including those that lead to violence, cannot be adequately addressed and remedied. In addition, DOE’s non-compliance with DASA, as documented in Comptroller DiNapoli’s audit, has exposed that damaging and dangerous conditions persist for children attending the city's schools. It is crucial that DOE truly becomes vigilant and verifies that all children are safe and that there is Dignity for all Students in every city school.”

"A safe and supportive school climate, one that is conducive to learning for all students is one of the cornerstones of academic success,” said Marina Marcou-O'Malley, Operations and Policy Director for the Alliance for Quality Education. “The Comptroller's audit shows that there is need for more resources to ensure that all school professionals are adequately trained to meet our students’ needs and address school climate issues consistently across the board. It also shows that more social workers, guidance counselors and school psychologists are necessary to address students and the trauma they may face. We support increased resources and urge the governor and the legislature to make that investment in the state budget."

“The LGBT Network applauds the leadership and important work being done by Comptroller DiNapoli to shine a light on the implementation of DASA,” said Dr. David Kilmnick, President/CEO of the LGBT Network. “The LGBT Network offers numerous educational resources and interactive, dynamic trainings that help school districts meet DASA requirements. These educational sessions help to foster a safe and supportive school environment that tackles the epidemic of bullying and hate that is unfortunately on the rise.”

“Transgender and gender non-conforming young people face significant rates of harassment and bullying in schools, which dramatically impacts their ability to learn and succeed in their classroom environments,” said Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund Executive Director Andy Marra. “DASA is extremely important for tracking and reporting this abuse and implementing programs to make schools safer for every student. We applaud the Comptroller’s efforts to hold school districts accountable and ensure this law is properly implemented throughout New York State. All students deserve the same opportunity to learn and thrive in school, free from bias, bullying and harassment.”

“For over 45 years, The Door has served as an invaluable resource for New York City youth, including those facing homelessness, unemployment, poverty, and deportation,” said Julie L. Shapiro, Executive Director of The Door. “We were thrilled at the passage of DASA because we know too many young people that faced discrimination and harassment in their school. The Door appreciates the leadership of Comptroller DiNapoli and other government leaders monitoring New York state schools’ compliance with the DASA.”

“Education is the cornerstone of our collective success and ensuring that students are in schools with adequate resources and educators with adequate training is imperative,” said Gabriel Blau, Chair of Equality New York. “LGBTQI students are disproportionately impacted by school experiences that are unsafe and unable to address their needs. We applaud Comptroller DiNapoli for shining a light on the needs of our state's students and teachers, and helping to move forward the promise of the Dignity for All Students Act. Our values compel us to examine the realities in the lives of our young people and face them with the industrious spirit that has created opportunities for generations of New Yorkers.”

Complaints of student-to-student bullying, discrimination and harassment in NYC schools are supposed to be entered into the DoE’s online database within 24 hours. Any incidents that DoE determines are material DASA-related incidents of bullying, discrimination, or harassment based on differences of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or other qualities, are to be reported annually to the State Department of Education (SED). While officials at the schools visited by Comptroller DiNapoli’s auditors said the reporting system itself can be challenging, the audit found many errors in identifying such incidents and evidence of significant underreporting that could be corrected through better training.

Comptroller DiNapoli’s auditors found during visits to 25 schools that incidents were not always recorded in DoE’s database because staff differed on when something had to be reported. For example staff at some schools told auditors that incidents were only reported if there was a physical fight, that behavior had to occur three times to qualify as bullying, that an incident might be minimized to protect a college-bound student and that only certain incidents were reported because recording all the incidents between students was too onerous.

The audit found DoE maintains conflicting guidelines on what constitutes bullying. The agency’s Discipline Code says bullying is “a pattern of behavior,” while the Commissioner’s regulations state bullying may be “a single verified incident or a series of related verified incidents.” This has resulted in an inconsistent understanding among staff, which influenced incident reporting.

Incidents recorded in DoE’s online database were often recorded late. About one-fifth of the 752 recorded complaints at the 25 schools examined in the audit were not entered on time. Some were entered as much as 56 days after the incident occurred. Delays in reporting complaints could leave a student subject to more bullying.

For school year 2015-2016, DoE did not report any material incidents to SED for 670 of 1,600 schools and in 2016-2017, it did not report any material incidents for 570 schools. Moreover, in both years, DoE did not report any material incidents at 387 of those schools. Among the schools with no reported incidents for three years running are some of DoE’s largest.

The audit notes that the high number of schools reporting no material incidents, particularly middle schools (20 percent) and high schools (17 percent), is indicative of a risk of significant underreporting.

DoE’s annual survey of parents, teachers and students in grades 6 through 12 seems to contradict the absence of incidents. At some schools with no reported incidents, a significant number of students responded to the survey that harassment, bullying and intimidation occurred “Most of the time” or “Some of the time.”

When incidents are reported, rather than specify the type of harassment or bullying as required, most are listed as “other,” including 58 percent in 2015-2016 and 56 percent in 2016-2017. Failure to categorize the incident not only makes it harder to identify and address a problem, but it also suggests some confusion or uncertainty over how they are to be reported. While DASA-related anti-bias/bullying web training is available to staff, it is optional. Staff designated to handle complaints and record them must complete a one-time, two-day Respect for All training course with optional refresher training. They are then responsible for training other staff. Some of the designated staff auditors spoke with could not recall when or if they received this training.

The audit offered several recommendations, including that the agency:

·Proactively identify schools at risk of underreporting incidents or incorrectly categorizing incidents as “other” and take corrective actions;

·Make the Discipline Code’s definition of bullying consistent with the definition in the Commissioner’s Regulations;

·Require more frequent training of staff to recognize and understand incidents of bullying, harassment and discrimination and how to properly record them; and

·Ensure incidents are reported promptly.

In its response, the DoE disagreed there were conflicting definitions of bullying or that the large number of incidents reported as “Other” reflected a problem. It stated that it is fully in compliance with DASA requirements. It did, however note that it has taken steps to increase awareness and means of reporting, including creating a parent portal for complaints and a web-based training module that’s been used by 3,900 agency employees since its launch in Feb. 2018. It has also changed its review process to include all incidents for possible reporting to the state, not just those listed under one of the 18 codes it considers DASA-related.

Read the full report, including the agency’s response go to: https://www.osc.state.ny.us/audits/allaudits/093019/sga-2019-17n6.pdf

The audit released today is part of Comptroller DiNapoli’s initiative focused on school issues. Upcoming audits will look at safety planning, after school programs, and operational and financial issues. In an era of limited resources, the Comptroller's Office will examine whether programs, such as DASA, are working as intended and if schools are making every dollar count.

To read Comptroller DiNapoli’s Oct. 2017 audit of the implementation of DASA in school districts outside of NYC, go to: https://www.osc.state.ny.us/press/releases/oct17/101317.htm

About DASA

DASA became law in 2010 and went into effect in July 2012 to help ensure a safe and supportive school environment free from bullying, harassment and discrimination. Its purpose was to promote concepts of dignity and respect for others on issues including, but not limited to, gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, weight, and physical or mental ability. The law created a system for reporting and responding to complaints of bullying or harassment and for education and training of staff to recognize and respond to such incidents.

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