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A Series of Rallies Outside City Hall

Adult Literacy

 Adult Literacy Rally (Sofie Hecht / Gotham Gazette)

 A variety of activist groups and City Council members gathered outside City Hall on Wednesday morning to call for attention to their respective causes. New legislation was to be introduced at the City Council that afternoon and more budget money was being requested, or demanded, as the city’s new financial plan is due by the end of June and negotiations between the Mayor and the City Council continue.

The weather had finally begun to feel like summer and a series of hot rallies sought recognition from the media and lawmakers, especially Mayor Bill de Blasio, who, along with many City Council members, walked into City Hall throughout the morning. The central government building provided the backdrop for what felt like several attempts at the same scene from a movie - different actors in different clothes holding different signs about different causes, crowds of varying sizes trying to get the feel just right.

But, in reality, these were individuals and groups with very serious purposes, attempting to influence the legislative and budget-making process, with the City Council set to hold one of its two full-bodied meetings of the month in the afternoon, where Council members would introduce new bills and vote on previously considered items. Some Council members participated in the rallies beforehand, others may have taken note as they walked by.

The morning in photographs, with explanation below: 

City Hall Rallies May 25, 2016

Deed Restriction Reform
The day began at 9:15 a.m. with a press conference led by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council Member Margaret Chin, who announced new legislation being introduced to the Council that would change the city’s deed restriction practices. The move was prompted by the controversial lifting of a deed restriction by the de Blasio administration that is now being investigated by several entities - the “arcane process...surrounding the sale of Rivington House on the Lower East Side,” according to the Brewer/Chin press release. Council Members Mark Levine, Ben Kallos, and Vincent Gentile voiced their support at the press conference. Increased transparency and oversight are at the center of the reforms being proposed.

Parks Funding
Following the deed restriction press conference, about 25 people gathered on the steps of City Hall to rally for increased funding for parks and green spaces. City Council Parks Committee Chair Mark Levine, New Yorkers for Parks, the New York League of Conservation Voters, and others participated. Sporting signs with the hashtag #pitchin4parks or slogans like “Flowers Not Towers,” the group of gardeners, park enthusiasts, park workers, and advocates made their budget requests clear. Levine has been pushing his Council colleagues and the de Blasio administration for more parks funding before the budget deal is reached.

Library Funding
An even larger and more colorful group came out at 11 a.m. to lobby for funding for libraries. Library workers and supporters of the cause clad in bright orange or green t-shirts stood on the steps behind the speakers. City Council Members Brad Lander, Mark Levine, and Jimmy Van Bramer were among those who voiced their support for a $22 million increase in operating funding and $100 million of capital funding to New York City Public Libraries for restoring and maintaining the buildings. “Public libraries offer New Yorkers opportunities to strengthen themselves and their communities,” New York Public Library President Tony Marx said in a press release, expressing the same sentiment at the rally. Council Member Van Bramer, chair of the Council’s cultural affairs committee, echoed Marx, saying, “Libraries are our lifeblood.”

Adult Literacy Funding
“What do we want?” “Education!” “When do we want it? “Now!”

Approximately 1000 people gathered outside City Hall’s gates around noon on Wednesday, rallying for increased funding for adult literacy. They could be heard blocks away passionately calling for an end to cuts to High School Equivalency (HSE) and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. Seven hundred students from over 15 different adult literacy programs attended the rally, according to organizers, calling on Mayor de Blasio to invest $16 million in adult literacy programs this fiscal year so that their programs and education can continue.

Myra Less shared her family’s story, one very similar to many students and attendees of the Wednesday event. Less moved to New York from Ecuador when she was 21 and struggled to find work or enroll in college because she couldn’t speak English. She learned English from newspapers, TV, music, and “practice and practice and practice,” she explained. But others aren’t as lucky as her, she noted. Her mother’s English classes at an organization on her corner stopped because of funding cuts. “My mom wants to help [my sister] with her homework and she can’t because she’s still struggling with her English,” she said.

More than 6,000 adult literacy classroom seats were cut for fiscal year 2015. Of 2.2 million adults in need of either HSE or ESL classes, state, federal and city funding only provides services for 61,000 people, less than 3% of the need, according to UJA-Federation employee Sasha Kesler.

“You guys drive New York City,” Kevin Douglass of United Neighborhood Houses said to the crowd of students and advocates, “We need adult literacy.”

Budget Crunch Time
As negotiations enter their final stages, expect more rallies outside City Hall as advocates and legislators look to push for more funding for their causes. A budget deal is due by the July 1 start of the new fiscal year, but many expect it to be completed sooner. Stay tuned!

by Sofie Hecht, Gotham Gazette

Council to Hear Bills on Providing Tampons at Shelters, Prisons & Schools

Gibson Ferreras-Copeland Mark-Viverito hearing

Council Members Gibson, Ferreras-Copeland, Mark-Viverito (l-r) (photo: William Alatriste)

The City Council is about to take the next step toward making feminine hygiene products readily available, and free, in New York City public schools, shelters, and correctional facilities. On Thursday, June 2, the Council’s Committee on Women’s Issues will hold its first hearing on a package of bills to improve access to tampons and pads after the legislation was introduced in March.

The three bills are being spearheaded by City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the lead sponsors, and the hearing will come as New York State is set to eliminate the so-called “tampon tax” - the sales tax on feminine hygiene products.

Representatives from the city agencies that would carry out the new mandates outlined in the bills and relevant advocacy groups have been asked to testify - leaders from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Department of Education, and the Department of Correction will attend the hearing, as will representatives from ZanaAfrica Foundation, UnTabooed, and PowerPlay NYC. Representatives from the Women’s Prison Association, Care for the Homeless, the YMCA, and other groups that participated in a roundtable discussion about access to menstrual products with Ferreras-Copeland last summer may be present as well.

Women who filed a class action lawsuit against the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance to end the tax on menstrual productsand Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a leading national and international voice calling for better access to menstrual products, have also been invited to testify.

During the hearing, questions about the logistics and costs of implementing the mandates will be addressed. According to her office, Ferreras-Copeland looks forward to hearing from the de Blasio administration about its views on the bills and the current policies of the relevant agencies in terms of access to menstrual products. Ferreras-Copeland, who is likely to lead the hearing with Mark-Viverito and Council Member Laurie Cumbo, chair of the women’s issues committee, is also looking to hear what barriers there may be in implementation of the requirements in the bills.

It is not yet clear how tampons and pads will be provided to women and girls in city shelters, jails, and schools, though no-charge dispensers have already been installed in the girls’ bathrooms of 25 middle schools and high schools in the city through a pilot program, and Ferreras-Copeland has previously mentioned the possibility of installing dispensers in shelters.

The three bills in the package are accompanied by a resolution, sponsored by Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, calling on the state to exempt feminine hygiene products from all state and local sales taxes, which the state is poised to do - on Wednesday, state lawmakers passed a bill to exempt feminine hygiene products from the tax on retail sales, prompting Governor Andrew Cuomo to release a statement saying, “I look forward to signing it into law.”

The Council bills and the elimination of New York’s “tampon tax” contribute to a growing movement to de-stigmatize menstruation and improve gender equity, as women end up paying hundreds of dollars in taxes buying tampons and pads throughout their lifetime, despite the fact that women cannot avoid buying the products. Fourteen states and three major cities have introduced legislation to eliminate the tax on feminine hygiene products since January, though few cities or states have taken action to make the products more freely available.

The city push to make feminine hygiene products freely available to the city’s most vulnerable women - students and those in prisons and shelters - is meant to correct the disparity that when men walk into a bathroom, they are provided with everything they need to take care of their normal bodily functions while women are not. While some have questioned the price tag involved, Ferreras-Copeland has said time and again, “I’ve never heard anybody complaining about how much it costs to buy toilet paper.”

One bill, introduced by Ferreras-Copeland, would require all schools to make feminine hygiene products readily available to students and would require DOHMH to provide schools with a supply of tampons and pads that is adequate to meet the needs of the student body.

In September 2015, Ferreras-Copeland and the High School for Arts and Business in Queens launched a pilot program of free tampons and pads by installing a free dispenser in the girls’ bathroom. In March, Ferreras-Copeland and the DOE expanded that program to 25 middle and high schools in Queens and the Bronx, providing access to free tampons and pads to the 11,600 girls attending the schools in the program.The principal at Arts and Business attributes a 2.4 percent increase in attendance rates in the months after the dispenser was installed to tampons and pads being freely available. Previously, when girls got their period and weren’t carrying tampons or pads, they often had to miss class time and go to the nurse’s office in order to get what they need.

Ferreras-Copeland says the DOE has been receptive and that conversations with schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have been productive, although the cost of freely providing menstrual products was initially raised as a concern.

Another bill, introduced by Speaker Mark-Viverito, would require DOHMH to provide feminine hygiene products to all female residents in temporary shelters (here meaning Department of Homeless Services family shelters and single adult women shelters, Department of Youth and Community Development shelters, and Human Resources Administration domestic violence shelters).

Tampons and pads are often in short supply in the city’s shelters, where women are already often unable to purchase the products. SNAP, WIC, and flexible spending accounts cannot be used to buy tampons or pads. Congressional Rep. Grace Meng of Queens has introduced a bill that would reclassify feminine hygiene products so that they can be purchased with flexible spending accounts.

The third bill, also introduced by Mark-Viverito, would require the Department of Correction to provide inmates with feminine hygiene products immediately upon request, “unless so providing would be unsafe, in which case products would be required as soon as possible.” This would be a slight, but potentially significant change to the current DOC policy, as it would allow women a form of recourse if their requests are denied. Currently, additional supplies are available upon request, but inmates allege that their requests are sometimes denied by correction officers for no legitimate reason or because those products are understocked in jails, forcing women to ration pads.

Under DOC’s current policy, each housing unit of female inmates in Rikers’ Rose M. Singer Center is given a box of 144 sanitary napkins each week (housing units hold up to fifty women, meaning each woman may get two to three pads a week - pads that are small and thin), according to an August, 2015 letter from DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte to Mark-Viverito and Ferreas-Copeland and shared with Gotham Gazette. Ponte said in the letter that he had “not heard of any issues or complaints regarding access to these items.”

Others say that’s not the case. During a roundtable discussion on access to feminine hygiene products last summer, Ferreras-Copeland said she heard from representatives of the Women’s Prison Association that “some women were reduced to using one pad for their whole cycle” and stories from women who have had “to show soiled pads before they get the new ones,” both of which are harmful to a woman’s menstrual health and dignity.

In an April interview, Ferreras-Copeland said her original idea was to have coin-free dispensers installed in women’s prisons as well, but “there was fear that the actual vending machine could be used as a weapon,” and so that option was scrapped.One county in Wisconsin approved a resolution last year authorizing Dane County to begin a pilot program to provide tampons and pads for free via coin-free dispensers in the restrooms of eight county buildings, including a correctional facility. Ferreras-Copeland added that she did not want to legislate the number of pads the DOC must provide to women because “who am I to say how many they need, I just want to make sure that they have enough.”

On Wednesday, Ferreras-Copeland expressed excitement about the upcoming hearing to Gotham Gazette, but was not available for a follow-up interview.

Weiss-Wolf said in a statement that she is looking forward to testifying next week. “The bills’ sponsors...and others,” she wrote, “have taken an important step by acknowledging that the ability to access and afford menstrual products is a necessity for half the population, and that it is impossible to be an engaged student or productive citizen without these products.”

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

De Blasio School Discipline Policy Shift Causes A Stir

de blasio school student discipline

De Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School (photo: Ed Reed, Mayor's Office)

In April 2015, the New York City Department of Education modified its discipline code and added an extra step to the process for suspending students from school. Principals are now required to receive authorization from the DOE before suspending students in grades K through 2 for any behavior or any student of any age for incidents involving insubordination, such as cursing at a teacher or refusing to leave a classroom. The change was made in an effort to move away from overusing suspensions and toward alternative disciplinary measures that address the root causes of disruptive behavior.

In its first year of implementation, the change in suspension policy and the overall culture shift related to school discipline that the de Blasio administration has sought have yielded a dramatic decrease in student suspensions. The shift has been praised widely, but has also been met with resistance as some say schools are under-resourced to work with students who need to be out of the classroom and others say the policy is leading to a deterioration of school climate.

When a school seeks a ‘superintendent’s suspension,’ which can range from six days to one year, an electronic request with a description of the incident is sent to the borough directors of suspension at the DOE, who vote on authorization. An affirmative vote will send the case to the hearing office and begin the suspension process. With the policy change, ‘principal suspensions,’ which range from one to five days, for younger students and cases of minor infractions will follow the same procedure. After the vote, a conversation with the principal is initiated to discuss potential alternative disciplinary measures.

“Suspension alone doesn’t change a child’s behavior,” Lois Herrera, CEO of Youth Safety and Development, told Gotham Gazette. “But, for example, restorative practices where the student has to take ownership of the behavior, explain the harm or understand the harm that is caused, and then come up with a solution for repairing the harm is so much more powerful in terms of changing behavior.”

What Herrera is explaining is the move toward the “restorative justice” model of school discipline, where students are guided in repairing relationships and investigating the causes of their actions. The process has been panned by some, but the de Blasio administration and the City Council have both committed to it for New York City schools.

In the first half of the school year, the number of suspensions decreased by almost 32 percent compared to the first half of last school year, according to a report from the DOE. While many saw this as a mark of success, criticisms of the new suspension policy also began to pick up steam. Representatives from both charter school advocacy groups and the teachers’ union expressed concerns, claiming the new policy interferes with discipline and jeopardizes student safety.

The DOE does not oversee disciplinary practices at charter schools. Some charter schools, especially the Success Academy network, have come under scrutiny for their “zero tolerance” discipline code and high suspension rates. Education reform groups like Families for Excellent Schools and StudentsFirstNY, erstwhile de Blasio critics, have become especially vocal in criticizing the de Blasio administration’s discipline policy. A group led by Families for Excellent Schools even filed a class action lawsuit against the DOE for its “refusal to take action to keep children safe.”

A typical de Blasio ally, the United Federation of Teachers, has seen its president say the DOE has not provided adequate support for schools to begin using alternative discipline.

The DOE has received $47 million from the city to fund restorative justice programs and mental health supports in schools throughout the city during the next academic year. According to DOE officials, the funding will be used for staff training in social-emotional learning, youth suicide prevention, and therapeutic crisis intervention. It will also allow the DOE to hire more social workers, on-site mental health consultants, and counselors.

Staff trained in restorative disciplinary practices will learn to conduct restorative circles, which engage students in repairing and developing relationships, and restorative conferences, which hold a student accountable for his or her actions and the resulting harm and also provides an opportunity to repair the harm.

“It isn’t just about taking away something,” said Herrera. “It’s about also providing support and a new way of thinking. It’s a little bit of a mindshift, and in a system as large as the DOE a mindshift can take a number of years.”

After years of advocacy by some, the changes began last November when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to reduce the use of punitive school discipline and lower school crime rates.

“Parents in all neighborhoods across New York City deserve to the peace of mind to know that their children are empowered to learn and succeed in a safe, inclusive environment,” Mayor de Blasio said in a press release. “This roadmap will ensure that schools across the city bring families, educators, safety professionals, and community leaders together to support one of New York City's most prized resources – our students."

The release also stated that harsh discipline policies disproportionately affected students of color and students with disabilities. Last October, Chalkbeat NY reported that black students received about 52 percent of the previous year’s suspensions, even though they represent 28 percent of students. Students with disabilities - 18 percent of the student population - received 38 percent of the suspensions. Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director at Alliance for Quality Education, a teachers union-backed group, believes that suspensions for childish behavior, such as writing on a desk or yelling, drive this racial disparity.

“The disparities are clear. The racial lines are very clear, not only in New York but across the country, of what children are being suspended,” Ansari said in a phone interview. “It’s important to remember that the DOE hasn’t eliminated suspensions as an option for schools, but that it created another level of authorization for suspensions for minor infractions.”

With this added authorization, Ansari hopes that school officials will continue to have in-depth conversations about what supports students need and that students will learn better conflict resolution skills.

Relying on disciplinary measures other than suspension can also benefit students’ futures, research has shown. When de Blasio created a Mayoral Leadership Team on School Climate and Discipline last year, researchers studied the negative effects of suspensions and repeated behavioral referrals. According to NYU Professor Eddie Fergus, who served as the co-chair of the team’s data and research group, suspensions result in loss of educational time, attendance issues, and a higher likelihood of involvement with the criminal justice system.

A majority of education advocates, academics, and other experts agree that students should not be suspended from school for things like talking back to a teacher or engaging in a verbal argument with a classmate. All agree, though, that schools must have the proper resources to work with students in conflict. If there has been a choppy first phase of the new DOE discipline policy, it has been around those resources. The ratio of students to guidance counselors in city schools has been the subject of controversy recently, and the de Blasio administration has increased funding for more counselors.

There are also always those resistant to change, some point out.

Advocates for Children began the School Justice Project to address the root causes of suspension and help keep students out of the criminal justice system. The project also helps students in juvenile detention or those returning from detention stay on track to reach their academic goals.

“When students are suspended, it increases their likelihood of not graduating from high school, it increases their likelihood of being involved in the juvenile justice system,” said Paulina Davis, supervising attorney of AFC’s School Justice Project. “There are high stakes outcomes on the line every time a student is suspended. So it’s really a process that we need to be very thoughtful about.”

by Carmen Russo, Gotham Gazette

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