On July 30, 2018, a New York district court approved a settlement between the New York City Department of Education (“DOE”) and twenty-three students (“students”) who sued the DOE for its alleged failure to prevent or adequately address instances of bullying. Although the DOE has Chancellor’s Regulations in place which purport to address all forms of bullying, schools frequently fail to implement a comprehensive system to report, investigate and remediate bullying. Thus, many students, particularly those attending schools in disproportionately poor and minority communities in New York City, become victims of student on student bullying, staff on student corporal punishment and staff on student verbal abuse.
Multiple federal and New York State laws exist to prevent and rectify bullying in school, including the No Child Left Behind Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), and the Dignity for All Students Act (“DASA”). DASA, passed by the New York State Legislature in 2010 and implemented in the DOE through Chancellor’s Regulations, requires each school to develop a code of conduct and mandatory reporting system to identify and correct bullying and harassment. In addition, all schools are required to train all staff as to DASA requirements, investigate all reports of bullying and prevent retaliation against those who file reports. Significantly, every complaint of bullying must be entered into the “Online Occurrence Reporting System” within 24 hours of the complaint.
In their lawsuit, the students stated that DOE staff regularly ignored parents who sought to report incidents of bullying. The students further alleged that DOE staff repeatedly failed to respond to attempts to report incidents of bullying, ignored or cancelled meetings with parents scheduled to report allegations and failed to document reports made. For those students who successfully reported incidents of bullying, DOE staff frequently failed to investigate complaints, refused to provide updates and documentation, blamed the victims, advised that it was impossible for the school to address the problem, took actions detrimental to the victim’s education (such as removing the victim, rather than the bully, from the class in which the bullying took place) and failed to take adequate disciplinary measures against staff and student bullies. Lastly, the students explained that DOE staff also misrepresented transfer procedures as part of their refusal to grant requests for safety transfers to other DOE schools.
As part of the recent settlement between the DOE and the students, the DOE agreed to a variety of relief requested by the students, including but not limited to proposing revisions to the Chancellor’s Regulations which would introduce an electronic reporting system that allows parents to lodge and follow up on complaints of bullying electronically. In addition, the DOE will mandate yearly staff training, direct principals to complete investigations of all bullying complaints within ten days, document even more investigation-related information, and designate a “Central Team” and “Escalation Staff” to ensure compliance with regulations and completion of investigations. Significantly, the DOE agreed to approve any school transfer requested by a parent of a child who was the victim of a substantiated bullying complaint.
Bullying is certainly not limited to the DOE. It is a state-wide, and in fact, a nation-wide, epidemic. Only time will tell if the changes brought about by this settlement in the DOE are enough to make a positive impact on the bullying crisis. If you believe your child is a victim of school bullying, do not be afraid to speak up! Legal protections exist to make sure your child can attend school safely and free from all forms of bullying and harassment.