West Side public and private schools cope with age-old problem
In the past year, bullying has become not only a pervasive danger for students to dodge in the hallways but a hot topic of debate in the media, among parents and around dinner tables nationwide. Tragic stories of bullied kids committing suicide show up alongside activists’ best efforts to combat the problem, but still it persists.
Lee Hirsh’s documentary Bully, which follows a handful of kids and families from around the country who have dealt with severe bullying, caused a stir before it was even widely released when the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) refused to grant it the PG-13 rating that would allow it to be shown in schools. Dozens of news stories and a petition half a million signatures strong later, the MPAA relented and will change the rating.
It’s clear that people care about bullying, but the question is, who can stop it?
One former local student and his attorney are asserting that schools are responsible for preventing their students from being subjected to bullying. Eric Giray, a former student of the prestigious Calhoun School on the Upper West Side, recently filed a lawsuit against his alma mater and his alleged former bully, classmate Daniel Dworakowski, centered on an incident that occurred eight years ago. He’s seeking damages of $1.5 million for what his attorney says was a blatant failure on the part of the school to protect Giray as a student there.
“The school was notified over time, several times, that bullying was taking place,” said Ric Cherwin, Giray’s attorney. “The former principal kept on saying, ‘We’ll take care of it, we’ll handle it, don’t take matters into your own hands.’ But the school, in fact, didn’t really do anything.”
According to Cherwin, what began as students taunting Giray with names like “elephant ears” and calling him “gay” escalated to one harrowing incident on which their case rests.
“My client was dramatically singled out by the defendant, who violently pushed him with malice into the bleachers, and he suffered a serious injury: broken nose, 18 stitches and pretty serious psychological trauma,” Cherwin said.
Dworakowski’s mother told the Daily News that the scuffle was just an accident, which is how the school may have characterized it at the time as well. Calhoun could not elaborate on what policies they have in place to prevent and address bullying, either then or now. Several other private schools also declined to comment on their bullying policies.
“We are not able to comment on the matters under litigation, but Calhoun has clear standards regarding bullying and a long record of being sensitive and responsive to the physical, emotional and psychological needs of all of our students,” wrote Calhoun’s head of school, Steve Nelson, in an email.
Giray is now in college and his attorney explained that he and his mother didn’t want to file a lawsuit against the school until he was through the college admissions process—the statute of limitations on this type of personal injury does not begin until the victim turns 18. His case has ignited interest in who’s to blame for bullying, even while schools struggle to keep their classrooms safe and civil places.
For public schools, the city’s Department of Education (DOE) enforces a discipline code that prohibits all forms of bullying and has trained some educators in how to teach respectful interaction to their students.
“We launched Respect for All training programs in 2007, and to date, more than 6,000 teachers, counselors, parent coordinators and other staff members have participated in various components of the Respect for All training program,” said DOE spokesperson Marge Feinberg in an email. “Each school has a Respect For All liaison that helps ensure schools comply with the regulation and work with the DOE central staff on programs that embrace differences in others.”
According to the DOE, the number of bullying incidents has remained fairly steady over the past 10 years, but experts say many students won’t always report bullying to authority figures and sometimes teachers don’t know the best ways to handle the problem.
“Teachers and school administrations need to be prepared to notice both the child who bullies and the child who is being bullied,” said Nancy Silberkleit, a former educator who has launched her own anti-bullying campaigns. “I have seen, too many times, teachers pushing children away for ‘tattletelling’ instead of encouraging them to come forward and dealing with their concerns.”
Upper West Side Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell has been working for years to pass legislation that would help teachers become better equipped to handle bullying. Last year, after many years of pushing the bill, the Dignity for All Students Act passed the state Legislature and was signed into law. It will take effect July 1.
“It requires training of professionals; there needs to be somebody onsite who understands that bullying is not just kids being kids,” O’Donnell said. The law also requires localities to report bullying to the state Department of Education so effective strategies can be compared and tracked.
O’Donnell, who said he has faced plenty of bullying himself, finds it especially important to protect kids in an age when bullying is ever-present—kids don’t escape harassment when they leave the school building anymore and can be driven to despair by a particularly pointed Facebook post.
“I think the changes in the culture, the changes in the exposure to information and the ability to immediately communicate without thinking, which is what 13- and 14-year-olds do, creates this explosive environment,” O’Donnell said. Since the Dignity Act passed, he has also authored an amendment that addresses cyberbullying.
He also said that kids are exposed to sex, and are thus defining their own sexual and gender identities, at earlier ages, making young children who identify as gay or somehow different potential targets.
“This was the first time in New York State history that gender identity and expression were written into state laws,” O’Donnell said. “I know all too well that those children who violate gender stereotypes are the first targets.”
While the law will expand the requirements for how teachers and administrators address bullying, some say that it will be difficult to implement if parents and communities don’t also get involved.
“Teachers are overwhelmed with outside requirements to get students through tests and standards,” said Silberkleit. “There is very little time and energy left to deal with the social aspects of the students’ lives. Bullying occurs primarily before and after school.”
Kat Eden, communications director for Education.com, which works on anti-bullying issues, said that according to the results of a nationwide survey they conducted of 1,000 principals, many schools don’t have the resources they’d like to have to combat bullying.
“Principals surveyed reported a lack of resources to prevent and manage bullying—only 38 percent of principals report that they have sufficient resources to effectively implement bullying programs, curriculum and policies in their schools,” Eden said.
O’Donnell acknowledged that that is a particular challenge for many cash-strapped school districts, but insists that changing behavior is mostly a matter of awareness and education for current educators.
“We need to get rid of the idea within school environments that kids will be kids with regard to bullying,” O’Donnell said. “That’s just not OK.”
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