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Suit by Parents, Pro-Charter Group: N.Y.C. Schools Have School Climate Problems

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By Evie Blad and Arianna Prothero

A group of parents, grandparents, and a pro-charter school group sued the New York City Department of Education and Chancellor Carmen Fariña this week, alleging that unchecked problems with violence and bullying in the nation's largest school system have created an unsuitable educational environment for students there. They are seeking class-action status for their federal suit.

"Although the Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education ("DOE") has promulgated several regulations (the "Regulations") addressing in-school violence, these regulations have proven ineffective and inadequate to stem system-wide violence within New York City's public schools," the suit says. "The level of violence within New York City's public schools is already staggering but increasing precipitously. The 2014-2015 school year (the last complete school year) showed levels of violence not seen since the early 2000s."

The lawsuit is the latest chapter in an ongoing public debate over differing discipline policies between traditional schools in the city and some of its charter schools, which have faced criticism for more punitive discipline policies. The argument has flared up as the city's school system has adjusted its discipline policies to reduce reliance on classroom removals and suspensions.

The suit cites data about violent incidents, sexual offenses, and physical injuries in New York City schools. Most of the schools the state has deemed "persistently dangerous" are in New York City, it says. (The city also educates about 1.1 million of the state's 2.5 million total students.) Violence in the city's schools disproportionately affects black and Hispanic students, the suit claims.

"As several of the narratives provided by the Named Class Plaintiffs attest, unremediated bullying also has the sad result of causing copy-cat acts of violence against young student-victims, escalating the violence and destroying any chance of meaningful learning," the suit says, adding that such issues disproportionately impact lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students.

The plaintiffs claim that many schools fail to adhere to state regulations related to investigation, reporting, and remediation of violence and harassment; that the Education Department fails to force them to comply; and that teachers and administrators "either ignore, are unaware of, or are tacitly or explicitly permitted to deviate from the Regulations, resulting in a failure to remediate in-school violence." The suit cites a state comptroller's report that flagged unreported incidents of violence in the city's schools.

The children of the plaintiffs have all experienced various forms of violence, harassment, and bullying by students or teachers in their schools, and they have found the response to those incidents to be inadequate, the suit says. It asks the court to require the city's school system to comply with state laws, to review previous incidents of violence, and to appoint an independent monitor to oversee its handling of such issues.

In a media availability Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said school safety agents are "doing a remarkable job" keeping students safe.

"I was a public school parent as recently as last June," he said. "Each of these incidents is obviously troubling. We don't ever want to see a weapon in a school. But if look at the facts, school safety is doing a very good job continuing a trend —it started in the previous administration to their credit—continuing to drive down crime in our schools. And each and every time you report on one of these weapons it's because they have been found and taken from the student. And obviously the student will receive consequences for that. So, we have more work to do for sure, but school safety is showing us consistently that they can drive down crime in the schools."

The pro-charter school advocacy group helping to bring the suit, Families for Excellent Schools, released a report in February that said the number of violent incidents in New York's schools are on the rise and that de Blasio has mislead the public about the increase. The group has also run ads broadcasting its findings.

Questions about safety within New York's district schools were also recently raised by Eva Moskowitz, the founder of Success Academy, the city's largest charter school network. Success Academy has emerged as a flashpoint in the debate over charter school discipline policies.

After the New York Times published a video of a Success Academy teacher speaking sternly to a student and ripping up the student's paper, the charter network accused the newspaper of biased reporting and went on to publish a list of incidents where teachers in district schools had been accused of physical and sexual abuse.

You can read the whole lawsuit here.


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