New York City Comptroller

Widespread bullying persists in New York City schools, report asserts

June 20, 2018
City comptroller's office urges a greater focus on school-based mental health services, and fostering students' social and emotional growth.

Bullying of students in New York City public schools remains common and has increased in recent years, a report from the city's comptroller's office says.

In the report, "Safe and Supportive Schools: A Plan to Improve School Climate and Safety in NYC," Comptroller Scott M. Stringer also asserts that the frequent use of suspensions and arrests—which fall disproportionately on African-American and Hispanic students—damages school climate on many campuses.

"Progress in improving the climate of New York City schools has been uneven," the report states. "When surveyed, students disclose the fact that bullying remains common in schools, and has climbed in recent years."

To combat the prevalence of bullying and to improve the learning climate for students, the New York City school system "needs to adopt a system-wide and well-funded plan to build a positive and respectful climate in all schools, to reduce bullying, and to end harsh discipline practices that exacerbate the effects of trauma in vulnerable youth," the report says.

"Without investments in school-based mental health, fostering student social and emotional growth, and clear accountability measures for school climate improvement, too many students will be left to feel that schools are not doing enough to keep them safe."

The report delineates some of the statistics surrounding bullying, safety and discipline in the more than 1,500 schools in the nation's largest district. It raises doubts about the accuracy of some school statistics on bullying because the numbers often are based on adults' reports rather than students.

"In the 2016-17 school year, the most recent full year for which data is available, across 1,585 public schools that reported, there were only 3,660 total incidents of reported bullying or harassment," the report says. "In 42 percent of schools, there were no incidents reported, and in 96 percent of schools, 10 or fewer incidents were reported."

In contrast, when students are surveyed, bullying is identified as a consistent and common experience. 

"In 2017, 82 percent of students reported that students harassed, bullied, or intimidated others in school, up from 65 percent of students in 2012," the report says.

Other responses from the 2017 survey indicate that bullying is prevalent throughout New York City's schools.

•More than 17 percent of students in grades 6 to 12 disagreed or strongly disagreed that they felt safe in hallways, bathrooms, locker rooms, or the cafeteria of their school; 17 percent of students surveyed felt that there was no adult in the school in whom they could confide.

•Despite policies aimed at reducing suspensions, the most recent district figures show that suspensions increased in schools by more than 20 percent in the first half of 2017-18, compared with the same time period the year before. Black students are suspended at more than three times the rate of white students.

•Of the 612 schools reporting the most violent incidents in 2016-17, there were 218 (36 percent) with no full-time social worker on staff.

•School Safety Agents (SSAs)—police personnel stationed in schools—and other police officers issued more than 2,000 arrests or summonses in schools in 2016-17 for charges including marijuana possession and disorderly conduct. During the first quarter of 2018, there were 606 summonses and arrests, down from 689 in the same time period in 2017.

•In 2016-17, students were handcuffed in more than 1,800 incidents, including children as young as 5 years old. More than 90 percent of students handcuffed were Black or Hispanic. Similarly, 90 percent of all arrests or summonses involved Black or Hispanic students.

The comptroller's recommendations to prevent and reduce bullying and improve school climate:

Expand small social emotional learning advisories in all schools. "Students who have a trusted group of peers and at least one adult to confide in have greater academic outcomes as well as more positive social attitudes and behaviors," the report says.

Expand the ranks of social workers and guidance counselors in schools. "The City should invest in social workers, ensure they have dedicated time and space in schools to work with students, and ensure school management has the capacity to help them succeed," the report says.

Add more clarity to the role of school safety agents. School safety agents, the report says, typically are not trained in dealing with student behavior or managing mental health crises. "When Safety Agents' interactions with students hinder a supportive school climate, other efforts to build trust within a school are minimized," the report states. "The City should update the Memorandum of Understanding that governs [the school system's] relationship with NYPD to clearly outline the appropriate SSA interventions for specific student misconduct scenarios."

Fund a comprehensive mental health support continuum. "Schools need to support educators in taking a trauma-informed approach to students, through recognizing the signs in children and understanding how to positively respond to their academic and social-emotional behaviors," the report says. "Classroom discipline that is trauma-informed is consistent, non-violent, and respectful."

Expand baseline funding for restorative practices. Restorative practices, which emphasize empathy, personal responsibility, and restoring community in resolving conflicts, have been highly effective in improving school climate and reducing suspensions, the report says. "The City should adopt and sustain funding for restorative justice initiatives for a minimum three-year implementation period, and expand the initiative’s reach to more schools," the report urges.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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