Gotham Gazette

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Beyond the Mosque: Bloomberg and New York's Muslims

Photo by Ben Piven

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg strongly defended the proposed Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero last August even as polls showed most New Yorkers opposed the project, he garnered some favorable media coverage and praise for his stance.

A New York Times editorial called Bloomberg "the leader with the courage to make the case" for the center. Tom Robbins, a Village Voice columnist and frequent critic of the mayor, wrote, "Mike Bloomberg did a brave and good deed for this city" when he spoke out in favor of the project, known as Park 51. Errol Louis called Bloomberg's speech on Governors Island defending the proposed center "the finest speech of his career." And the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights organization, praised Bloomberg for "defending the rights of Muslims and other Americans to build houses of worship."

The mosque, while significant, is just one issue. Beyond that, many Muslim groups, faith leaders and activists who have applauded Bloomberg's forceful defense of Park 51 say his administration has had a mixed and at times disappointing track record on policies affecting the Muslim community. Among other issues, they cite his failure to speak out on proposals for other mosques around the city, his refusal to provide a school holiday for Muslim holy days and the attitude of the police department toward Muslims in the city.

"We appreciate that Bloomberg came out and took a stand in a very difficult political moment, particularly a backlash against Muslim communities," said Monami Maulik, the executive director of Desis Rising Up and Moving, a grassroots activist group serving the South Asian community. "On the other hand, we also saw it as window dressing in many ways because the bottom line is that it's the policies and practices that the administration puts in place that affects the members of our community day to day."

A Range of Concerns

An estimated 800,000 Muslims live in the city, and their numbers are growing. Not surprisingly, they have an array of concerns -- extending far beyond a mosque in lower Manhattan. Interviews with a wide array of Muslim community leaders indicate that the Bloomberg administration and the city's Muslim community have a complicated and nuanced relationship.

"It is a work in progress," said Adem Carroll, the former executive director of the Muslim Consultative Network and the former coordinator for the Islamic Circle of North America's 9/11 relief program. "He has hired some Muslims as commissioners who work very hard at being liaisons. He himself does not visit our community members very much, at least that's the perception."

Robina Niaz, the founder and executive director of Turning Point for Women and Families, a non-profit organization that seeks to address domestic violence within the Muslim community, said she has seen a "marked change in the last several months" toward the positive in how Bloomberg is perceived in the Muslim community.

Imam Al-Hajj Talib 'Abdur-Rashid, an African-American leader at the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem, describes the relationship between the Bloomberg administration and the Muslim community as "strained." But he said, "There has been a demonstration of some political sensitivity on the part of that administration toward some issues of importance to the Muslim community." For example, 'Abdur-Rashid said, after a September 2009 fire badly damaged a mosque in the Bronx that served a large West African Muslim community, "the Bloomberg administration was a great help and assistance to them, helping them to find a temporary place to worship."

However, a consensus exists that the Bloomberg administration needs to reach out more to the Muslim community, especially in a difficult political climate for Muslims.

"Just because he supported Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Park 51, that doesn’t mean every other issue should be taken off the burner," said Niaz.

In an interview, Fatima Shama, a Palestinian-American Muslim who is the commissioner for immigrant affairs under the Bloomberg administration, forcefully defended the administration's efforts.

Bloomberg "has engaged with the Muslim community more than any other mayor in this city," said Shama, noting that she was the first Muslim hired to be commissioner of immigrant affairs. Shama also pointed out that Bloomberg holds an annual Iftar dinner, to mark the fast breaking during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The Voice of Reason

With anti-Muslim prejudice seemingly on the rise across the country, many Muslims in New York would like the mayor to go beyond his speech on the mosque and community center near Ground Zero. In particular, they wish he would speak out on the battles over proposed mosques elsewhere in the city. In the Midland Beach neighborhood of Staten Island, the board of a Catholic Church blocked plans for a proposed mosque when, in the face of harsh condemnation, they refused to sell a vacant convent to a Muslim organization. In Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, a proposed mosque and community center has also sparked controversy.

"Bloomberg this time around chose to stand on the right side of history on the Park 51 controversy by making that eloquent speech, but I don't think that he should stop there. I think he's positioned uniquely as a mayor, as a national leader, to lead the charge against Islamophobia if he really wants to redeem himself in the eyes of Muslim New Yorkers considering that he's failed them a few times," said Debbie Almontaser, the founder and former principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, the city’s first dual-language Arabic public school.

In 2007, many Muslims and other New Yorkers believe, Almotaser fell victim of that prejudice when a right-wing campaign targeted the school and Almontaser. Following an article in the New York Post that claimed she "downplayed the significance" of T-shirts bearing the word "intifada," she was "forced to resign following a directive from Bloomberg, according to Almontaser. Earlier this year, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined that the Department of Education discriminated against Almontaser and "succumbed to the very bias that the creation of the school intended to dispel."

Almontaser's resignation remains on the mind of many community leaders.

Perceptions of the mayor’s actions don't stop at New York's borders. While Bloomberg does not have a role in formulating foreign policy, many Muslim activists disapprovingly cited his staunch support for Israel, and specifically his January 2009 visit to Israel while the country waged an assault on the Gaza Strip in Palestine.

"His relationship with Israel, supporting Israel with no limits, hurts us," said Zein Rimawi, a member of the New York City-based Arab Muslim American Federation. "Don't forget: We are Arabs, we are Muslims, and the people in Gaza are Arabs and Muslims and we support them."

Under Suspicion

In addition, Muslim leaders have concern about New York Police Department counter-terrorism practices in the Bloomberg era. Civil rights organizations like CAIR-NY and DRUM have of police harassment of Muslims in New York.

Arguably the biggest irritant came when the police department released a 2007 report, titled Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat. The report detailed the process by which it saw some American Muslims as being "radicalized" into terrorists and said that, while Americans Muslims are "more resistant to radicalization than their European counterparts, they are not immune."

The Council on American-Islamic Relations promptly criticized the report, saying, "Its sweeping generalizations and mixing of unrelated elements may serve to cast a pall of suspicion over the entire American Muslim community." In the wake of the report, the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition formed and critiqued the report for presenting "a distorted and misleading depiction of Islam and its adherents."

Following meetings with Muslim organizations, the police department quietly issued a two-page clarification that stressed that the "NYPD's focus on al Qaeda inspired terrorism should not be mistaken for any implicit or explicit justification for racial, religious or ethnic profiling."

While Muslim organizations welcomed the clarification, criticism of the report remains.

"It's not clear what the NYPD really thinks, because it's leaving the bulk of its assertions and its conclusions in place," said Faiza Patel, who works with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Project. The clarification "didn't address all of [the Muslim community's] concerns. The way it was done -- really kind of hidden there -- makes it seem as if the police department is talking out of two sides of its mouth."

The police did not respond to requests for comment. But Shama defended the department, saying it has many Muslims in the police force and also has a Muslim Officers Society whose mission includes promoting "a mutual understanding between the NYPD and the Muslim community."

"I don't think there are any broad brushes or generalizations in the report," said Shama, when asked about Muslim community leaders' criticism of the document. "But we do have a policy that if you see something, say something. … It's a new day in a new country," she said, referring to the post-9/11 world.

No Days Off

Bloomberg's opposition to closing public schools on two Muslim holidays -- Eid Ul-Fitr and Eid Ul-Adha -- disappointed many in the Muslim community -- particularly after the City Council approved the change in the school calendar. In July 2009, the New York City Council passed a nonbinding resolution calling for the inclusion of Eid Ul-Fitr and Eid Ul-Adha, two Muslim holidays, into the school calendar. Underscoring the issue, parent-teacher conferences this year are being held today, which is also Eid Ul-Adha.

The administration opposed the measure, saying that the school system can't celebrate every holiday. "One of the problems you have with a diverse city is that if you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school," Bloomberg has said.

Shama said the Bloomberg administration "absolutely listened to all the requests and concerns of the school holidays coalition" before taking its position. Despite that, 'Abdur-Rashid said, the administration stand "left a very bad taste in the mouths of many Muslims."

Faiza Ali, the director of community affairs for CAIR-NY, said her organization is still pursuing the issue. "We're looking to the leadership of the mayor and chancellor…[to] re-tool the school calendar to fit the needs of the community," she said.

Alex Kane blogs on Israel/Palestine and Islamophobia in the United States at, and you can follow him on Twitter here. His work has also appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, The Electronic Intifada, Common Dreams, Palestine Chronicle and Alternet. He is a former intern at the Gotham Gazette.

Much of Transit System Remains 'Out of Service' for the Disabled

Photo by Fredo Alvarez

Last month, advocates for the city's disabled filed suit against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for failure to adhere to requirements of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act while making renovations at Manhattan's Dyckman Street station on the Number 1 subway line. The groups claim the authority violated the act by not allocating 20 percent of the project's budget for improvements in accessibility, including the installation of ramps or elevators. Renovation costs are projected to be about $20 million.

For many activists, this failure is the latest in a long history of discrimination by the MTA and the city -- discrimination that makes it difficult for many New Yorkers to travel throughout their city. According to the suit, whose plaintiffs include the United Spinal Association and Disability Rights Advocates, only 86 -- or 18.5 percent -- of all subway stations are accessible to people with disabilities. That leaves 382 inaccessible.

"It is an absolute disgrace that 20 years after the ADA was passed, more than 80 percent of the subway stations in New York are inaccessible,” Julie Pinovar, an attorney for Disability Rights Advocates, said in a press release. While the agency has "no duty to put elevators everywhere," Pinovar said in an interview, "incremental access such as ramps to Metrocard machines would help.

Beyond subway station access, disability advocates fault the transportation authority for relying too much on -- and then cutting-- the Access-a-Ride program, the city's paratransit service. As for the city, they say it has not done enough to encourage, if not compel, taxi cabs to be accessible for riders in wheelchairs and others with physical handicaps.

Getting to the Platform

The issue of subway access has a long history, dating back even before the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990. The United Spinal Association -- then known as the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association -- first sued the Transit Authority in 1979. An agreement was reached in 1984 to make 100 "key" stations fully accessible by 2020. Currently, the MTA is ahead of schedule with 89 -- instead of the planned 67 -- completed in that time frame, according to Deirdre Parker, MTA press liaison. More than 110 MTA stations meet the requirements of the disabilities act. All MTA buses can accommodate wheelchairs and other mobility devices.

Many of these stations, Parker said in an e-mail, are equipped with AutoGate, "an automatic entry/exit gate that allows customers who have ambulatory disabilities ... to enter and exit the subway system." She said some stations that are not accessible also have these gates to help customers who are accompanied by service animals.

Advocates, though, do not think the transit authority deserves much praise for these efforts. For one thing, they say, some stations are only partly accessible. A given station may have an elevator from the street to the mezzanine level but not to the subway platform, or from a platform to the mezzanine but not to the street. In these cases, accessibility becomes a cruel joke. There are countless examples of wheelchair-bound riders having to call 911 and being carried by firefighters or emergency medical technicians just to exit the system.

Out of Service

Stations considered accessible become instantly inaccessible to many disabled people when the elevator goes out of service -- something advocates and others say happens all too frequently.

In 2006, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s office released a report on the MTA's shabby record of keeping the system's elevators and escalators in working order. Entitled "State of Repairs," the report details the authority's failure to comply with city law mandating elevators and escalators be inspected and tested a minimum of five times every two years. It found an average of 78 percent of elevators in Manhattan did not receive a mandated inspection each year between 2002 and 2005. For elevators in ADA-compliant stations, an average of 74 percent did not receive a mandated inspection. For escalators, that figure was 58 percent.

In 2007, the MTA began posting a list of broken elevators and escalators on its website to help users better plan their travel.

Average repair times, however, have barely changed since Stringer's report. In 2006, his office found the average elevator is out of service 10 days a year, and the average escalator is out of service 8 days a year. In 2008, the New York Times reported, "One of every six elevators and escalators in the subway system was out of service for more than a month," in 2007 based on transit authority data.

City Comptroller John Liu’s office released an audit of elevator and escalator repairsearlier this year, which revealed among other findings, "More than one fourth (27 percent) of the required preventive maintenance assignment for the test periods reviewed were not performed; scheduled maintenance system work is not constantly performed; five-year safety tests were lacking or not properly performed."

Taking Advantage of Renovation

Regardless of the number of accessible stations, advocates believe the transit authority should take advantage of projects, such as the one at Dyckman Street, to bring stations into compliance. James Weisman, general counsel for the United Spinal Association, called the renovation an "opportunity overlooked."

For the disabled, "the station is a transit waste land if you can’t climb the stairs, " Edith Prentiss, vice president of legislative affairs for Disabled In Action of Metropolitan New York and co-chair of the Taxis For All Campaign, wrote in an email.

"There are no buses on Dyckman," complained Prentiss, who uses a wheelchair and lives in the neighborhood. "The only accessible place to fill a MetroCard is the 207th Street A train on Broadway. MetroCard vans and buses are not accessible, either."

The MTA won’t comment on pending litigation, but said its plans for Dyckman Street include:

  • repairing stairs from sidewalk into station;
  • replacing stairs from control area to platforms;
  • demolishing and reconstructing north and southbound platforms;
  • installing new platform windscreens and repair guardrails.

The class-action suit has been filed in federal court for the Southern District of New York.

Above Ground

This is not the only legal action on disabled access confronting the transportation authority. In August, several disability-rights groups including Disabled in Action of Metropolitan New York and Brooklyn Center for the Independence of the Disabled sued the MTA, alleging its budget cuts disproportionately affected the disabled and elderly and violated a different provision of the disabilities act. Those cuts eliminated 89 bus lines -- particularly routes traveling between boroughs -- and slashed service on Access-a-Ride. Additional cuts eliminating station agents have also been points of contention, since riders can become stranded.

Access-A-Ride has long been controversial, both within the disabled community and between the disabled and the transit authority. Some fault the MTA for relying too much on paratransit, instead of upgrading its subway stations.

Weisman, who was involved in the 1979 lawsuit, said the MTA made an "unfortunate choice and believed the hype [about] paratransit being cheaper than an accessible system."

According to Weisman, transit officials believed Access-a-Ride would only cost $9 million a year, but that figure has now ballooned to $450 million. Disabled riders made 5.8 million trips on Access-A-Ride in 2008. Each Access-A-Ride costs the authority about $66, but riders pay only the standard transit fare. The cuts aim to reduce the number of trips by about 26,000.

Echoing Weisman, Prentiss said, "the MTA made a stupid decision in the 1980s when ... they [were] foolishly relegating people with disabilities to Access-A-Ride, not realizing how the cost would grow over the years if they didn't do more than make buses accessible. For years, bus lifts were as unreliable as subway elevators are today."

Access-a-Ride consists of eight different for-profit firms with often lax oversight by the MTA.

The city Taxis & Limousine Commission authorized dollar van services to replace five of the eliminated bus routes, but they are not necessarily equipped with wheelchair lifts. Because of this, groups representing the disabled just filed another lawsuit in federal court, this time against the taxi commission.

Challenging the basis for that suit, commission spokesperson Allan Fromberg wrote in an email, "We've made many public statements to the effect that these vans were never meant to replace the bus lines and in fact could not have possibly done so." Two of the van lines have already been discontinued due to lack of demand.

Cabbing It

Some disabled riders feel shut out of traditional taxis as well. Last year's Taxi for Tomorrow Request for Proposal created quite a stir because accessibility was seen as "desirable and not mandatory," said Weisman. Taxi commissioner David "Yassky is a huge problem; [he's] not committed to accessibility." Further, he said, the TLC operates "in a vacuum'' rather than coordinating with the MTA.

Fromberg, though said in an email that the commission does consider accessibility important. "The Taxi of Tomorrow request for proposal covers accessibility," he said, with language about “transfer from the curb to the car” and wheelchair accessibility.

"In every interview or public mention that I can think of, accessibility has always received equal billing to environmental aspects," Fromberg wrote. “I should also mention that the TLC has included the disability community and advocates in the process from the very beginning, which is consistent with our commitment to maximum accessibility.”

Currently, only 240 cabs out of the more than 13,000 in the city can accommodate wheelchairs. This, Fromberg pointed out, is “more than any other city in the nation" -- not surprisingly since New York also has more cabs of all types than any other U.S. city. Manhattan Assembly member Micah Kellner has proposed legislation that would require any new taxis in the city be accessible to people with disabilities.

Taxis equipped for wheelchairs, according to Fromberg, "are prohibitively expensive for a non-subsidized private industry -- $35,000 to $50,000,” as much as $15,000 to $20,000 more than a cab without the equipment.

As testament to the Bloomberg administration's commitment to accessible travel, Fromberg wrote, the taxi commission has “created a new class of medallions specifically earmarked for accessible vehicles, resulting in the city going from zero to the most accessible taxis in the nation. ... We tested numerous accessible vehicles for use as accessible taxicabs and wrote the first ever comprehensive set of technical specifications for accessible taxi vehicles to weed out unsafe vehicles that could not withstand the rigors of use as a NYC taxi."

The taxi commission recently admitted that a two-year $1million dispatch service for wheelchair users was a failure because it was underutilized. While not disputing that, Weisman has pointed out there was no marketing to people with disabilities and the program expected taxi drivers to travel, sometimes covering long distances, to pick up passengers. They did not receive any additional fee for the service.

In general, though, Weisman said, the taxi commission maintains that neither the vans nor the taxi fleet are subject to Americans with Disabilities Act rules because the city does not operate them -- third parties do. "The ADA specifically exempts TLC-regulated industries from accessibility requirements," Fromberg wrote. "There are no compliance issues.”

Spreading the Word

The MTA also has been under scrutiny for its public education programs, or lack thereof. In 2008, the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, a transit advocacy group that holds a non-voting seat on the MTA board, released an analysis of accessibility and the MTA. It recommended the agency "develop an accessibility courtesy campaign " because "people with disabilities, especially wheelchair users, are frequently disrespected by the riding public."

The report cited the public's failure to allow disabled passengers priority access to elevators and AutoGate exits. It also said other riders did not give the disabled maneuvering space on subway cars and platforms and often would not give up priority seating on buses.

"Passengers need to be reminded that they share the subways, buses and trains with thousands of other riders and should be courteous and considerate to all travelers, including people with disabilities, " the citizens committee wrote. The subways pose a particular problem with many passengers not even realizing some are designated for handicapped riders.

How much of the problem is New York and how much is an aging transit system? To put the issue in perspective, one can look at Boston’s public transportation system, the MBTA -- which is significantly smaller but also dates back to the 19th century -- has a total of 167 elevators. On average, from September 2009 to September 2010, they worked 96.6 percent of the time, according to Laura Brelsford, system-wide accessibility coordinator.

There are 176 escalators and 223 elevators within the New York transit system, according to Parker. She did not cite the average repair time.

The Boston system faced its own lawsuit brought by local disabled advocates, which was settled in 2006. Now, though, 406 out of 558 or 73 percent of its light, heavy and commuter rails are wheelchair-accessible.

Boston shares with New York its old streets and sidewalks, infrastructure, fragile buildings and historic landmarks, begging the question why is that system so much more accessible? Commented Weisman, it's a question of “priority not technology.”

Jillian Jonas is a freelance journalist focusing on local and national politics, government and public policy. She is a former national political analyst for U.P.I.

Governor Signs Bill to Combat Bullying

p.s. 59
Photo, office of Gov. David Paterson
.Supporters celebrated Wednesday as Gov. David Paterson signed the Dignity for All Students Act.

It took 10 years for the New York State legislature to pass the Dignity for All Students Act to deal with bullying in the schools. While the bill has some shortcomings, supporters at the bill signing at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in Greenwich Village Wednesday hailed the measure for having the potential to change the culture of schools and to spare thousands of children from humiliation, anger and despair.

The bill, some noted, also will be the first New York State law to protect people facing discrimination on the basis of "gender identity and expression."

To dramatize the need for the measure, State Sen. Thomas Duane, its Senate sponsor, told the story of an Ithaca mother whose daughter, the only black child in an otherwise white school, "was subjected to harsh bullying and harassment every day on the bus." He said that the school's solution "was not allowing her daughter to ride the bus. That will never happen again!"

What It Does and Doesn't Do

The act aims to do nothing short of affording "all students in public schools an environment free of discrimination and harassment." It calls such conduct "inconsistent with a school's educational mission." The new law aims to end bullying by requiring schools to adopt explicit policies to create harassment-free environments; inform students and parents about the new policies; develop guidelines for training all staff on how to develop a school culture that stops bullying; create guidelines on how to make curricula and counseling non-discriminatory; build awareness about issues of discrimination and bullying into courses on citizenship, civility, and character; train at least one staff member in human-relations counseling; and report incidents of bullying to the state education department. The act also will require the department to help local school districts implement the law by providing model policies, regulations and direct services.

The new law covers harassment or discrimination based on "a person's actual or perceived race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, gender or sex." It defines "gender" as "perceived sex and shall include a person's gender identity or expression."

Stamping out bullying may sound impractical and almost against human nature, but over the course of years of writing on this subject I have interviewed city teachers who work in schools that do such a good job of creating supportive environments for their students that the kids don't want to leave.

A group called Bully Police gives the New York law a grade of B-plus, falling short in terms of addressing cyberbullying and providing "victim counseling." Duane told those assembled at the signing ceremony that he is working on a cyberbullying amendment to the law that will be sensitive to "First Amendment issues."

The bill also does not go into effect for two more years. Udi Ofer, advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, one of the lead groups in the Dignity for All Students Coalition that pushed for the bill, told Gotham Gazette the two-year delay "is a good thing. This law is largely preventive and not punitive," he said. "School districts are going to receive model training programs for teachers, students, and administrators and model guidelines on how to prevent bullying in the first place --- not an easy task!"

In addition, that new state law only applies to public schools, one of the political compromises that was made to get it passed. The city anti-bullying law covers independent non-religious schools, but as explained below, the city Department of Education does not accept the validity of the city law.

Behind the Bill

The state measure emerged after years of debate and wrangling about what it would include and not include.

The inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected class was an initial sticking point for more conservative legislators in 2000. Many of the speakers at the bill signing -- City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, State Assemblymember Daniel O'Donnell and Duane -- are gay (and Irish for that matter). After the passage of the state’s Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act in late 2002, the objections moved on to involve "gender identity and expression" covering people of transgender experience, among the most abused people on the planet.

Pauline Park, director of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy and transgendered herself, was one of the most tenacious advocates in the coalition that worked on the legislation. There was a time, she said, when Republicans offered to support the bill if "gender identity and expression" was taken out. At another juncture, some legislators tried to put the words "identity and expression" before all of the covered categories including gender, but Park balked because the protection would not have been as explicit. The coalition backed her up.

The signing ceremony is "a very important day," said Park. "It is the first time legislation has been enacted in New York State that includes gender identity and expression."

Transgendered people still are not covered under the hate crimes law or the state human rights law. (The city human rights law, enacted in 2002, does cover those who are transgendered.) The state Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act would correct that, but it failed to pass the Senate.

For the record, the vote in the Assembly on the Dignity for All Students Act was 138 to 4 and when the Senate finally voted on it they passed it 58 to 3. Makes you wonder what all the fuss was about.

Unpleasant Memories

Speakers at the ceremony emphasized the need for the measure, many harking back to their own experience.

Paterson, a longtime proponent of the bill from his time as a state senator, caused a bit of a ripple when he talked about how he coped with being bullied as the first blind student in his elementary school. "I hit the bully in the face with my lunch box," he said. "That is not the way to handle the problem."

Many tormented children do, on occasion, lash out. Some of the more notorious school shootings have been by bullied children. But most often, the victims of bullies become depressed, dropping out of school or attempting suicide -- sometimes successfully.

"Bullying was considered part of going to school in those days," said Paterson, noting that while the beatings pass into memory, "I never forgot the insults."

O'Donnell, the lead Assembly sponsor, noted that the category of "weight" was added recently in response to concerns about how overweight children are tortured in schools. "I was a fat kid," he said and remembers how badly he was treated at times because of that.

City Comptroller John Liu recalled his experience of being bullied as the only Asian child in his class in Queens. "You never forget the epithets and the insults. They stay with you for life," Liu said. "As a fifth grader, I went to my teacher to ask for help and was told, 'John, you are just going to have to learn to get along with the other kids.'"

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers whose members will be charged with implementing the new law, expressed his support for it. "Bullying creates fear, frustration and anger, creating an environment where children do not learn," Mulgrew said. He talked about the need to "change the culture of schools" to stop bullying "and said the law "gives us the tools to make this happen."

State vs. City

The enactment of the city bill provided an opportunity for some to indirectly chide Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was not at the ceremony, for his stand on the issue.

Quinn spoke of the city version of the law, the Dignity in All Schools Act of 2004 that the council passed. The mayor vetoed it but the council overrode him. Despite that, Quinn said, “"It was not implemented into law."

Bloomberg had argued the measure infringed on mayoral control of schools and dismissed the bill as “silly.” The council did not take him to court. But under pressure from advocates, mainly the Sikh Coalition whose turbaned children are often the targets of bullies, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein eventually issued a regulation against bullying and a Respect for All anti-bullying program. That policy is gradually being implemented in the schools but is still far short of what was required under the council bill.

The city Department of Education never took the issue seriously, Liu said, adding that the state bill "makes them take it seriously. It is going to be their job to track bullying and harassment."

In March, I reported on how statistics on bullying collected by the city were scant, despite some progress on new regulations against bullying and much more training of staff on how to combat it. Sonny Singh, community organizer with the Sikh Coalition, was thrilled about the new state requirements. "Now we can tell the Department of Education that they are not complying with state law if they don't clean up their act and make what's on paper a reality so that it makes a difference."

Moving Forward

Now, though, the work begins on making the measure work. Ofer of the Civil Liberties Union said the dignity coalition is "meeting with advocates and state education officials to create a Dignity for All Students Act implementation task force," a collaboration he called "historic."

Given that many of the advocates themselves come from the ranks of the bullied and harassed, this is their chance to make a difference and they are determined to do so.

"This is the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end. I will make sure the task force works," Park said.

As Paterson closed the program to sign the bill, he could not resist one more dig at his former colleagues. "We are taking bullying out of the schools and putting it where it belongs -- in the legislature," he said.

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.

Action Taken on Bullying in Schools and No-Fault Divorce

For more than a decade, the State Senate has resisted passing legislation to combat bullying in schools -- partly because it targeted bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

You have to wonder what the real controversy was because when the bill was voted on by the Senate on June 22, it passed 58 to 3. The “Dignity for All Students Act,” however, does not go into effect until July 1, 2012.

New York City passed its own version of the law back in 2003, but Mayor Bloomberg refused to enforce it, citing his sole control over the schools. In recent years, under pressure from a variety of groups concerned about bullying, including the Sikh Coalition, the Department of Education issued a Chancellor’s Regulation on bullying. It then stepped up a program called Respect for All, which is supposed to reach into every school and give all students access to someone who will take their bullying complaints seriously.

As we reported in Gotham Gazette in March, the city has scant data on the extent of bullying in schools. The new state law requires reporting instances of bias harassment to the State Department of Education as well as mandated trainings for staff, among other provisions. It lacks a cyber bullying provision, according to Bully Police USA. It has been hailed as a huge step forward by most advocates.

The U.S. Department of Education just held its first national summit on school bullying on August 11 and 12 in Washington. The National Center for Education found that in the 2007-08 school year, almost a third of students aged 12 through 18 reported being bullied -- mostly teasing and being subject to rumors, which sometimes led to harassment and violence, including suicide.

No-Fault and Gay Divorce

Back in 2006, I wrote about why New York was the last state to adopt a no-fault divorce law. The odd couple of the conservative Roman Catholic Church, who opposes divorce period and doesn't want to see it get easier, and the feminist National Organization for Women resisted it. NOW was concerned about the plight of the poorer spouse (most often a woman) who could be outmaneuvered by a rich spouse in court. The current law had the drawback of forcing many partners to lie about engaging in adultery in order to legally justify the divorce.

Gov. David Paterson just signed a no-fault divorce law on August 15. He also signed another bill that creates “a presumption that a less monied spouse in a divorce case is entitled to payment of attorneys' fees,” according to his press release.

While no-fault is a big change for New York, it is also the first time state law explicitly recognizes married same-sex couples.

Gay couples cannot get a marriage license in New York. But if they legally marry elsewhere, they are recognized as married here for legal purposes (except in the case of state taxes thanks to a narrow interpretation of the tax law by the state Department of Taxation and Finance).

But even though the Senate voted against a bill opening marriage to same-sex couples, it passed the Assembly. Now the no-fault divorce bill includes explicit reference to same-sex married couples: “It is the intent of this legislation to grant full recognition and respect to valid marriages of same-sex couples to obtain relief under New York State laws and in New York's courts.”

So, the Senate won’t let gay couples marry here but they have no problem with them divorcing here.

The bigger news on the same-sex marriage front was federal Judge Vaughn Walker’s overturning of California’s Proposition 8 that banned recognition of same-sex marriages in the state constitution (except for those performed before the ban went into effect in November 2008). On appeal the U.S. Supreme Court could eventually find a federal right to marriage for same-sex couples the way it found one for interracial couples in 1967.

The Ninth Circuit stayed Judge Walker’s decision on August 13, setting oral arguments for the appeal on December 6.

The California case overshadowed a July 9 decision by US District Judge Joseph Tauro that found the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional insofar as it bars legally married same-sex couples in Massachusetts from any federal recognition of benefits like Social Security. While same-sex couples can marry in five states (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont) and the District of Columbia, none are entitled to federal rights including those recognized as married in New York. It remains to be seen whether the Obama Justice Department will appeal this decision to the First District.

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.

Behind the Hate Crimes on Staten Island

hate crimes
Photo byThomas Good
A recent rally against hate crimes on Staten island.

Let’s start with this inescapable fact: If you are a Mexican immigrant living in Port Richmond on Staten Island you are being targeted by some black young people.

There have been 11 such attacks since April and another on a white gay married couple. The violence has attracted citywide and national attention in what is being called an epidemic of bias-related crime. Such assaults are proliferating on Staten Island’s North Shore.

These incidents have revived debates over what constitutes a hate crime, whether these attacks are borne out of bias, whether enhanced penalties are just and effective, the roots of the tensions, and what the response should be.

I write as a Manhattanite who has done work and played on Staten Island but who must relay mostly on the testimony of native islanders to get this story.

It turns out that the tensions are by no means a new story, even the black-on-Mexican attacks in Port Richmond. Debbie Nathan documented similar neighborhood conflicts for City Limits in an article called "Race Wars" in 2004, questioning the “hate crime” paradigm.

But never has more attention been paid to it.

The Tensions Beneath

Staten Island has changed over the years from a bastion of insular white conservatism to a multiracial borough with an increasingly progressive bent. You only have to ride the Staten Island Ferry -- as I did on a recent Saturday night -- to see African Americans, Latinos and Asian residents.

The boat I rode was named for former Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari. In 1994, he infamously declared Karen Burstein, the Democratic nominee for state attorney general, “unfit for public office” because she was a lesbian. Today one of Staten Island’s Assembly members, Matthew Titone, is an out gay man and one of its City Council members, Debi Rose, is African American.

And Staten Islanders embrace this.

A white woman on the ferry named Israela called the current crisis “crazy.” She said of the perpetrators, “Their parents should talk to them.”

Daphne Burton, an African American woman from Queens going to the island for a visit with her grown children, said of the situation, “We all have a right to be free, but a lot of people don’t look at it like that.”

Staten Islanders and public officials have turned out in force to denounce the attacks. A broad and diverse coalition of elected officials and groups has started the “I Am Staten Island” campaign to “take responsibility for ensuring the Island is a safe and welcoming borough for people of all backgrounds.” Their 10-point plan to address the crisis includes public and school education programs on tolerance, installing more security cameras, aiding attack victims, increasing recreational opportunities in the affected neighborhoods, and expanding intergroup relations efforts by religious groups and other community-based organizations.

As laudable as these efforts may be, they may not get to the heart of the problem or reach the young people behind the violence, some longtime residents and advocates say. Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of Make the Road by Walking, an advocacy group with a presence on Staten Island, says Port Richmond’s is afflicted with a “total abandonment by government,” “disaffected African American youth” who have no employment or hope, “the fastest growing Mexican community in the city,” and a lot of “confusion and resentment.” She sees the current wave of violence as an outgrowth of anti-immigrant campaigns across the country.

“Every community has bad apples,” said Assemblymember Titone. But, he added, “Thugs probably don’t go to church and school and can’t be reached. They need to be apprehended.”

Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a former director of the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, said that it is difficult to determine the source of this wave of violence. It could be economic factors, although theft did not occur in four of the 11 attacks. Nonetheless, she said, “No one should think we only have a problem on Staten Island.”

"A large response from all parts of society is a good thing because it sends a message to everyone who might want to act out against immigrants that the City of New York absolutely will not tolerate it,” Quinn said. She noted the I Am Staten Island group includes everyone from gay and lesbian groups to the Sons of Italy.

A Full Swing Response

The City and the FBI have responded with an increased police presence in Port Richmond.

But the most recent attack on a Mexican, Christian VĂ zquez, 18, occurred on July 31 while the show of force was in full swing. Police later arrested a suspect in that case, Derrian Williams a.k.a Romeo Stevens-- a 17-year-old Liberian immigrant. He faces 25 years in prison if convicted of all robbery and assault charges -- each charge could include additional prison time because his assault is classified as a hate crime. Police believe five men were involved in the attack.

The police response has not pleased everyone.

Archila of Make the Road said the constant police presence has hurt Mexican businesses whose customers, some of whom are here illegally, shy away from law enforcement. “There’s less crime,” she said, “but it doesn’t feel sustainable.”

Others question whether singling out these crimes is the best strategy.

Bill Dobbs, a longtime gay and civil liberties activist, said, “Criminal law cannot fix social problems. The cry for hate crime prosecutions is raised once again in Port Richmond but it cannot reckon with race relations or intergroup tensions. That requires hard work and community intervention Using the New York hate crimes statute also contains the seeds for backlash, creating resentment that some criminal acts are punished more severely because certain words were spoken during the crime.”

In the Other Boroughs

Crime is up in most categories across the city, but hate crimes have increased disproportionately citywide. According to the Daily News, hate crimes jumped from “111 to 200 through July 11 -- an 80 percent surge from the same time period in 2009.”

The police department did not respond to several requests for a breakdown of hate crimes statistics by borough. A representative from the Hate Crimes Bureau itself said it does not give those statistics out. According to the Wall Street Journal, there were 21 bias-related crimes so far this year on Staten Island versus nine over the same time period last year.

Crime overall is climbing on Staten Island. From mid-July to early August, the number of murders was up 150 percent and robbery is up 100 percent compared to the same time period in 2009. The increase is almost all within the 120th Precinct on the North Shore. Citywide the murder rate is up 3.4 percent and robberies 6.4 percent over the same time period.

Some of the spike in reported hate crimes may have to do with the public attention and official encouragement to report them. Maria Morales, who runs a taqueria in Port Richmond, told the Journal that she believes it is the reporting that is up, not the number of incidents.

Behind the Crimes

Some speculate the attacks are part of a gang initiation. Others call some of them “crimes of opportunity” -- when youthful offenders prey on Mexican day laborers coming home late at night with cash in their pockets. The explanations have not warmed the chilling effect of the crimes on the Mexican and gay communities on Staten Island.

Alejandro Galindo, 52, was attacked by four black men on June 24 while riding his bike home from his job as a dishwasher. He told the News that he could not explain the attack. His daughter, Blanca Galindo, told the paper, “He still lives in fear. They did not take anything. He was attacked just for being who he is.”

There is no doubt that the attack on Richard and Luis Viera, 13-year residents of Staten Island, at the Stapleton White Castle in July was unequivocally an anti-gay hate crime. As they ate very late one night, a group of teens came in and said to Luis: “What the fuck are you looking at, faggot?” and then hit him on the back of the head.

When the couple followed the attacker out to the parking lot, more than a dozen teens surrounded them. Luis was able to run back into the restaurant, but Richard was beaten, leaving him with multiple bruises and ongoing dizziness. (White Castle, whose employees did nothing to aid the men on the night of the attack, sent them a corporate letter offering them a free meal!)

Luis wrote in an e-mail that, other than the Hate Crimes Task Force, “no other police outreach ever made an attempt to assist us. On Staten Island the local police are very close-knit unit, and dealing with these issues and other ethnic issues is of the least importance to their daily work assignments. The mentality here on Staten Island is one of ignorance, which I was quite familiar with having grown up in a small town in Alabama during the '70s and 80s.”

A Night Out Against Hate

Staten Islanders are trying to fight back. Richard Veira was among those who participated in a march against hate crimes in early August. The march ended at the now-infamous White Castle.

While there, he said, “It’s not a gay cause. It’s a human issue. If I give in to fear, fear will win. I’ve got too much life to live.” He acknowledges that hate crimes don’t happen in a vacuum, citing the terrible economy and the lack of constructive outlets for these young people.

At 2 a.m. the night before this march, community members held a vigil at the White Castle to counter the idea that gay people would be cowed into not going out at night.

Jim Smith, who was the grand marshal of the first Staten Island gay pride parade in 2005 and grew up in West Brighton, said the gathering “was amazing. There were packs of young people in groups of 20 to 30 -- probably looking for trouble and most of them not old enough to drive.” He said that three young girls came over to offer support, but other youths reportedly taunted those keeping the vigil.

“Some people only feel powerful by putting other people down,” Smith said. “You can’t preach to them. It is hard to preach against hate.”

Ed Josey, 70, the president of the Staten Island chapter of the NAACP and an African American, said that the kids committing these crimes “are falling through the cracks.” He said when the crime in Port Richmond was just black-on-black, “there was not the police presence that you see now.” Still, this current wave of violence on Staten Island “is the worst that I can recall, but by and large people get along pretty well here. It’s a small element doing this.”

Josey was raised on the South Shore, had maybe three black classmates in high school “and never had a black teacher.” He said that the Staten Island Expressway was essentially a “Mason-Dixon line” on the island with few black people only allowed to the south of it. Today he says that the racial climate is far different. “There are far more interracial couples. The lines have fallen today. Progress has made things better.”

For more on civil rights related actions this summer, check out Action Taken on Bullying in Schools and No-Fault Divorce.

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 p.m.

The City's New Dollar Menu for Bus Riders

Photo (cc) 2010 Andrew Silverstein. Dollar van riders reach their destination in Jamaica

Eric Simit, a Jamaican immigrant, has been driving private commuter vans, most commonly known as "dollar vans," for 15 years in western Queens. He works six days a week -- from morning rush hour to the end of the evening commute, charging $2 a ride.

It's harder to make a profit lately, Simit says, as more vans hit the pavement. With little enforcement, many have found driving a “dollar van” an easy alternative to unemployment.

"It is the fastest way to make money fast," he said.

But Simit, other van drivers and their fast-cash business are becoming a more formal means of transport. In what Baruch College Professor E.S. Savas calls "privatization by default," Mayor Michael Bloomberg with the Taxi and Limousine Commission announced a yearlong pilot program in June, which allows vans to run on the discontinued B23, B71, B39, Q74 and Q79 routes. The target start date is Monday.

Faced with an $800 million deficit, Metropolitan Transportation Authority cut these five Brooklyn and Queens routes, along with several others, earlier this summer, because they were money pits. While the MTA could not break even on the routes despite large tax subsidies, immigrant entrepreneurs like Simit hope to operate vans along them and make a profit.

All five routes cost the authority over $4 per rider -- the Q79 was the highest at $8.08. The vans will charge $2 a ride. Vans save on expenses by escaping the high labor costs, American Disability Act requirements and environmental standards that face the transportation authority.

Supporters of the program, including Transportation Alternatives, see the private vans as the best, if not the only way, to serve city neighborhoods in a time of decreased resources and rising costs. But critics see a creeping privatization of transportation that means less service, lower wages and more pollution.

Privatizing Public Transportation

Dollar vans have a proven record of operating at the fraction of the cost of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. While less than 300 vans are licensed, thousands operate unauthorized across the city. Most vans illegally shadow city routes and undercut the authority's fare of $2.25, charging only $2.

The Taxi and Limousine Commission plans to have clearly marked vans that seat up to 20 passengers on the road by Monday. Currently, they are evaluating over 20 bids. For each route, prospective companies have outlined the frequency and hours of service, plus a list of stops. The commission will choose the companies which best serve the community, but riders should not expect the same service as the MTA.

“This is not a replacement of the MTA,” says an agency spokesperson.

If the program is successful, the administration plans to expand it.

Transit Workers United Local 100, the union representing many laid off bus workers, seeks to block the program. They have filed a lawsuit, claiming the commission has illegally created a “substitute transportation system” in “essence replicating the bus service” of the five routes. The union says they expect a ruling by the end of this week.

The TWU calls the pilot plan “a backdoor way to cut bus service.” (Ironically, the vans first emerged during the 1980 transit strike when West Indian immigrants began picking up stranded commuters in Brooklyn and Queens. After the strike, dollar vans remained, and again played roles in the MTA Strike and Green Bus strikes of 2005.)

A Taxi and Limousine Commission spokesperson claims the vans differ from the discontinued buses in that "drivers have specific stops but not a set route." Drivers can negotiate stops with passengers and change routes to avoid traffic. Taxi Commissioner David Yassky insists that the program is not a form of privatization. He says the agency’s “commitment to the MTA as the provider of public transportation is absolute.”

But suspicion by critics -- like the TWU -- that the plan is a form of deliberate privatization isn’t easily dismissed. The program was announced as Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith takes his post at City Hall. Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis, briefly privatized public buses during his tenure. He is also chairman emeritus of the Manhattan Institute, a group that has promoted the competitive contracting of New York City transportation.

Despite the Taxi and Limousine Commission's claim that turning over bus routes to livery vans is just “to fill in the service gaps,” the idea far predates the recent cuts. A 1992 MTA report floated the idea of abandoning bus routes in favor of vans in some areas. Later Mayor Rudolph Giuliani pushed the City Council to loosen van restrictions. For Giuliani the vans were "American success stories" of immigrant entrepreneurs adding needed competition to the MTA.

But already the MTA had estimated vans reduced revenue on some routes by 15 percent. In response to so-called union pressure, the City Council limited the number of commuter van permits and placed heavy restrictions on pick ups -- citing the vans' reputation for aggressive driving and the vulnerability of MTA funding and jobs.

But where the City Council once saw a threat, they now see opportunity. Several council members including Speaker Christine Quinn support the pilot program.

Reductions in labor costs enable the dollar vans to keep running when city buses cannot. A 1995 report commissioned by the US Department of Transportation found that economic benefits are sacrificed if “labor costs are effectively locked in from one provider to the next.” This means the key for dollar vans to operate at a lower cost than the MTA is to pay workers less.

Despite that, many people are eager to drive the vans.

Getting Paid

At Jamaica Center, a large sign advertises the “Q5 van” and dollar van drivers load a steady stream of mostly Caribbean riders.

Gregory McDowell was one of them. He is the owner and sole driver for the one van company, Guymack. As he waited for his van to load on a 90-degree day, McDowell, his flowered patterned shirt half unbuttoned, explained the economics of running a dollar van: "$550 every two years for the permit from the TLC. … $9,000 to $10,000 a year for insurance," he said. (A customer interrupted him complaining of the heat. "I’ll open the back door,” he responded, not offering to turn on the AC.)

“Sometimes over a $100 a day for gas,” the 12-year driver continued.

McDowell works five days a week, driving about ten round trips a day mimicking the Q4 bus route. Sometimes the van is full. Sometimes it's less than half occupied. On his better days McDowell says he takes 160 passengers.

Drivers can make up to $40,000 a year, said another driver, Milton Brown. But those earnings are never guaranteed.

Alternatively, wages and ballooning pensions have often been a subject of criticism at the MTA (Former parks Commissioner Henry Stern opined recently that the MTA suffers fiscal problems because they are “incapable of containing their labor costs.").While MTA drivers earn more than $60,000 a year with generous benefits, little is known about van drivers' wages even amongst their biggest advocates.

Brown, a Q111 van driver, owns, maintains and fuels his van but works under a company. He paid his boss an initial fee of $2,000 plus $50 a week to use a van permit. If he didn’t have a van, he could rent one from the company for $550 a week. Brown says his earnings vary. During the school year he pockets over $500 a week without any benefits; during the summer he makes less.

At a Cost?

Sure the vans are cheaper -- both Brown and McDowell drive Ford Econolines, which cost them about $30,000, a fraction of the MTA’s hybrid-electric buses that go for over a half a million dollars.

But some say they come with an environmental and quality of life cost. For instance, MTA buses are environmentally and disability friendly.

While New York reverts back to the dollar vans, cities like Bogota to Jakarta have won praise for replacing fleets of informal private mini-buses with a system of eco-friendly public buses.

Now riders accustomed to hybrid buses will be picked up by less green, older vans. Mary Barber, a managing director at the Environmental Defense Fund, says they would prefer that the MTA buses remain fully funded, since “the more people you can carry on a vehicle with cleaner fuel, the better.” The TLC has not required vans to meet any special green standards or be handicap accessible.

In addition to reducing labor and capital costs, the dollar vans will also offer less service than the MTA. While city buses may run empty during off peak hours, few dollar vans operate late at night and in the middle of the day. “I prefer the rush hour in the morning and the evening. Midday is break time,” McDowell said.

Also dollar vans do not take unlimited metro cards, reduced fare cards or accept or give transfers. The MTA says only 14 percent of fares are the full $2.25. So while savings will be had by the city, many riders’ pockets will be hit harder.

Bloomberg dismissed such concerns at a press conference saying, “The issue here is not whether it’s more expensive or less expensive; it’s whether the service exists or not.”

UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal reports the TWU has won a bid to run vans on the B71 bus route. Still a judge is set to rule on the union's suit against the pilot program. Also the TLC has delayed the program's start date until September.

Andrew Silverstein is a freelance writer based in Queens.

The Price of Increased Surveillance

times square, security camera
Photos by Andy Humm
One of the dozens of cameras -- government and private -- that keep watch on Times Square.

There are 82 police cameras and others cameras from stores trained on the streets in and around Times Square -- not to mention thousands in the hands of tourists -- but none of them seems to have picked up an image of Faisal Shahzad who is in custody for trying to set off a big homemade car bomb at the height of the theater rush May 1. The video most circulated by police of a suspect showed a white man changing his shirt on the sidewalk near the SUV packed with explosives. Lucky for him, a mob didn't find him and tear him limb from limb.

The bombing was averted that night due to conscientious community-minded vendors who contacted police as they often do when they spot something suspicious -- especially difficult in a district full of eccentricity. Shahzad was apprehended through good, old-fashioned police work -- tracking this bumbling would-be terrorist through identifiers on the vehicle that he had recently purchased.

Nevertheless, the early response of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, police and at least one editorial board to this incident was to call for more high-tech security. While most public officials seem to support that idea, a few critics have questioned the efficacy of such a system and the effects it would have on privacy and on our basic civil liberties.

Expanding the 'Ring'

New York is already in the process of blanketing the financial district with a "ring of steel" surveillance system modeled on London's. Now it wants to extend that to Times Square.

The system includes "cameras, sensors and analytical software," AFP reported, that, according to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly would trigger alarms when it "noticed an unattended bag or car circling a block too many times to be considered normal."

"Every public nook and cranny of midtown Manhattan should be covered by an integrated network of supersharp digital cameras that are monitored in real time,” the Daily News wrote in an editorial. "The only obstacle is money -- which actually should be no object given that lives are at stake." It will cost an estimated $110 million to expand the downtown system into Times Square.

Security vs. Freedom

Public officials are not oblivious to the concern about civil liberties. Speaking at a joint press conference in London with Mayor Boris Johnson shortly after the Times Square incident, Bloomberg said expanded surveillance "is controversial, but we have to make a balance between civil liberties and protection. We live in a very dangerous world."

Johnson, whose Underground system alone has 12,000 closed circuit TV cameras (to New York's 4,300, only half of which work), said, "Of course everybody understands the civil liberties arguments and the concerns, and they're very, very strong in this city and country, just as they are in New York."

Civil libertarian Bill Dobbs worries that the cameras are another sign that we are slowly giving up our basic rights. "All searching people does is get people used to the idea of being stopped and searched. We're getting to the point where when someone resists this, the public will wonder what they're hiding," he said.

Dobbs added, "Now, everything and everybody is under suspicion; some simply because of their race or religion suffer even more police and public scrutiny. ... We are continually pushed to give up cherished freedoms to fight an unseen enemy."

Sahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, raised similar issues. "While surveillance is in some ways the antithesis of profiling (surveillance is broad and limitless, whereas profiling seems focused and targeted), both government practices offend the same constitutional principle of individualized suspicion inherent in the First and Fourth Amendments," he wrote.

Do They Work?

Dobbs also questions the effectiveness of the plan. "The [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] put up cameras in the 1980s but gave up on them because they couldn’t monitor them," he said. "Technology provides false hope."

In light of the various concerns, the expansion of the ring of steel needs more discussion and review, said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

"National security and warding off terrorism are enormously vital jobs and we all hope the police department is doing it well -- fantastically, in fact. To do it right, we have to not simply accept at face value every proposal put forward because it ought to work. The City Council and the mayor have to use the same high standards they put on other areas of government on the police department and its security effort," she said.

Philadelphia resident Ann Marie Carter, with her grandchildren, Nicole and Peter Godleski, said the police presence relieved her anxiety about being in Times Square.

While she acknowledges "cameras can be helpful," she said New Yorkers need to "demand more than just assertions that they will do the job," particularly in the current economic climate.

The proliferation of cameras and images is “creating a big haystack of information and we're looking for needles," Lieberman said. "We need to be strategic in our surveillance."

And she noted that, in the case of the attempted bombing in Times Square "it was the alertness and civic mindedness of ordinary people and police" that led to a resolution of the incident.

Fate of the Footage

So far, the administration has not said what it will do with the information and images it collects with its surveillance cameras. This bothers Lieberman.

She believes adequate safeguards do not currently exist to protect people against the improper use of their images. And she said that the "potential for abuse is more than imagined," starting with the potential for identity theft if the information is compromised.

Example of possible abuses abound. CBS News recently did an expose on how photocopy machines memory cards store tens of thousands of images of documents that are not wiped clean when the machine is sold secondhand. One of the machines in CBS's investigation had police records from Buffalo, another medical records from a hospital.

In an example closer to home, Kelly has said the police department plans to createthe city police maintain a searchable database of the hundreds of thousands of innocent New Yorkers -- mostly African American and Latino young men -- who are stopped and frisked every year. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilmember Peter Vallone, Jr., chair of the Public Safety Committee have written to Kelly expressing concern that such a retention of records would violate the spirit of the law mandating that criminal records be sealed. Quinn told me on May 17 that the council and police department staffs were in the process of setting up meetings about the matter.

The civil liberties union filed a class action lawsuit on May 19 to stop the police from keeping this database of innocent people. The police department has stopped and frisked 3 million people since 2004 and 575,000 just last year, a record. About 80 percent were African American and Latino.

Two of the plaintiffs tell their stories in a short film. Clive Lino, 30, an African American Harlem resident who works with special needs kids, was stopped "at least 13 times by NYPD officers between February 2008 and August 2009," but never was guilty of anything, the NYCLU said in a release. "They make me feel like a criminal or suspect when I haven’t done anything wrong," Lino said in the release.

"Innocent New Yorkers who are the victims of unjustified police stops should not suffer the further injustice of having their personal information shared indefinitely in a sprawling NYPD database” that may contain the names of more than 100,000 innocent New Yorkers, Lieberman said.

In general, Lieberman wants to require government to do "a privacy impact statement" when it seeks to expand surveillance. But trying to get information out of the government agencies that do this work -- from the New York Police Department to the FBI -- is "like trying to take blood from a stone," she said.

The police department did not respond to an e-mail request for comment on any of these issues. In the past, its spokespeople have deflected questions about security measures by citing security concerns. For this story, they would not answer questions about how many personnel will be needed to staff the expanded surveillance system, how long images will be kept, who will have access to them, and what evidence they have that these expensive methods are more effective than traditional police work.

Trusting the Police

Public officials I spoke with said they had few worries about the increased surveillance. Quinn said she was "confident" Kelly was conducting surveillance "in an appropriate way," despite her concerns about his retention of data on innocent people who have been stopped and frisked.

State Sen. Tom Duane said, "I'm 100 percent civil libertarian" and the trend to a surveillance society "makes me uncomfortable," but it "is important that we do everything we can to stay safer." While he said he did not oppose investing in reasonable security measures, he added, " People should also invest in groups like the NYCLU."

Gov. David Paterson, for one, does not think current efforts go far enough. "The cameras in use now don't emit strong enough images for identification," he told me, adding he wants a better system that can.

At the Crossroads of the World

Neither privacy concerns -- nor the attempted bombing that prompted the discussion -- seemed to be of much concern to the people filling Times Square on the beautiful Saturday evening of May 15. Two weeks after the failed bombing, Ann Marie Carter was sitting outside there with her two grandchildren, Nicole and Peter Godleski. She acknowledged being "a little leery" of visiting Times Square, "but I talked with my daughter who told me it would be covered more by cops. We feel safe."

Indeed, police and police cars were everywhere in Times Square that night, including many from the counterterrorism unit.

Many in Times Square wondered whether people on the streets might be more effective at finding problems than costly surveillance equipment.

"We spend all this money on anti-terrorism and it was a vet [one of the vendors] that saved the day," said Jason Esponiza, 19, of the Bronx.

Police security cameras don't bother actor Ryan Cavanaugh "I don't do anything that I'm ashamed of a camera seeing me do," he said.

Amadou Doye, who has been selling art in Times Square for 20 years, said he always watches out for suspicious things as do his fellow vendors who, he said, constitute a community.

Vendors and people leafleting for shows and restaurants are a constant presence. Actor Ryan Cavanaugh, wearing a sandwich board for "Everyday Rapture," has been out there since winter. While he hasn't had to report anything to the police, he is more aware of the people selling illegal CDs on the street since an incident where one of them got involved in a gunfight some months ago.

But even those who question the cameras' effectiveness are not bothered by having them there. "I don't do anything that I'm ashamed of a camera seeing me do," Cavanaugh said.

"Certain things are necessary," Esponiza said, though he said this kind of surveillance might bother him more if it were taking place in his neighborhood.

Doye doesn't care how long the police hold on to the images they get . "If it is only for safety, they can keep them forever," he said.

Jason Faust, who leaflets for the long-running "Naked Boys Singing," said he was there the night of May 1. He saw the crowd gathering around the SUV and "didn't think much about it -- it's New York!" When the "pops" were heard coming from the vehicle, "the crowd started running, but I'm a New Yorker. I stopped."

He said that surveillance "has been around for years" and doesn't feel in infringes on his rights. While the cops were being a lot more watchful on this night, prior to the incident "half the time they were taking pictures of tourists" for them.

I tried to see if it would bother people to have a stranger they could see take their picture. It didn't. In Times Square where almost every tourist has a camera and police camera keep almost constant watch, no one seems to notice yet another camera -- or care.

The people who feel they just barely dodged mass death in Times Square are not thinking much about infringements of their civil liberties, but by not drawing a bright line somewhere, they may be forgoing rights they will never get back.

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.

Council Approves Business Bill of Rights

Photo (cc) 2009 Light Snaffler

The City Council offered small businesses their own version of the first amendment yesterday by requiring every city inspector give shop owners a business bill of rights during city inspections.

The bill, approved unanimously by the council, is one part of Council Speaker Christine Quinn's agenda this year to snip away at red tape for the city's small businesses.

Bill of Rights

The (Intro 118) bill of rights will notify business owners of their right to consistent enforcement of agency rules and to appeal violations. It also will notify owners that inspectors must behave in a professional and courteous manner, be able to answer reasonable questions relating to the inspection and be knowledgeable on the city laws and regulations.

"By passing this legislation we will cut away at red tape that can often strangle small business in our city and will make the process of complying with city regulations more business and user friendly and much more accessible," said Quinn.

The city already has established a bill of rights for passengers of livery and yellow cabs. Council officials say putting a similar document in business owners' hands will assure they are protected from any unscrupulous city inspectors.

It may be no freedom of speech or religion, but the city's business leaders say the measure is a step in the right direction.

"It’s a great first step," said Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Carl Hum. "Business owners are going to realize, 'I can contest this bill [from the city] and I can contest this violation, or I have the right to actually complain about an inspector.' It is a very empowering initiative."

Toxic Parks

After the parks department installed crumb rubber turf in an East Harlem park, leading to elevated lead levels, council officials said it was time to monitor what went into city playgrounds and fields.

So the council approved legislation (Intro 123) Wednesday to establish an advisory panel that will examine materials used in city parks and playgrounds. The panel will not have veto power over what materials the Department of Parks and Recreation can actually use, but will provide the agency with recommendations.

The eight-member panel, half appointed by the mayor and half from the speaker, will report to the department every six months. No new material can be installed without a review from the panel.

Saving a Church?

The council also voted to give landmark status to the West Park Presbyterian Church on the Upper West Side. The status was approved by a vote of 47 to 2, with council members Vincent Ignizio and Peter Koo voting no.

Leaders of the church, which is 116 years old and is an example of Romanesque Revival architecture, opposed the status, and had wanted to tear down part of the structure for development.

Ignizio said the city should defer to the property owner during landmarking disputes.

Affordable Housing Revision

The council unanimously approved a small revision (Intro 66) to its 421-a affordable housing program to allow developers to receive benefits faster.

Currently, a developer must file several different permits to prove construction has started and to trigger the receipt of tax exemptions. The revision would no longer force developers to show plumbing permits, which they argue are issued later in construction. The revision will affect projects as far back as January 2008.

Disabled Fear Cuts to Van Service Will Force Them to Stay Home

access-a-ride paratransit

After work, Milagros Franco wheels home in her motorized chair across the 2½-mile pedestrian walkway of the Brooklyn Bridge and then waits for a bus to her Manhattan apartment. "It saves time," Franco said. But she depends on an Access-A-Ridevan to get to work every morning, again, because that too saves time.

Now, though Franco worries that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's proposed cuts to Access-A-Ride could triple the time it takes her to commute to her job at the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled.

Access-A-Ride, the New York City Transit's service for people whose disabilities prevent them from using regular mass transit, now carries vans full of passengers door to door. Everyone is picked up at their home or office and then taken to their individual destinations. Under the service changes prepared by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, some passengers, instead of being taken directly to their destination, would be driven by the van to a bus, subway station or to another Access-A-Ride van.

The MTA also proposes to make access to Access-A-Ride dependent on weather conditions, so that service would change day-to-day and has proposed a number of other changes.

Spokespeople from disability groups charge that the cuts would add hours to a client's commute, making Access-A-Ride almost worthless. They say a trip that would take 15 minutes by a bus or subway now can last two hours on Access-A-Ride. The proposed service changes, they say, would add another two or three hours to the round trip, leaving many people with disabilities stuck in isolation in their homes.

The City Council will holding a public hearing on Access-A-Ride cuts on Tuesday at 1 p.m. at City Hall.

While some people with disabilities can and do use mass transit, approximately 20,000 people use Access-A-Ride every week. The program costs more than $451 million a year, and the MTA sees its proposed $40 million in cuts to Access-A -Ride as necessary to help alleviate the system-wide budget deficit of more than $750 million, according to Aaron Donovan, a spokesperson for the authority. The MTA has proposed an array of cuts including eliminating the free and reduced subway rides for students.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority chief Jay Walder has conceded that many of the reductions will be painful. "It's tearing my heart out right now," Walder said at a hearing earlier this month, "Last night at 1 o'clock in the morning I'm turning over in bed trying to figure out how to make the choices."

Longer Rides and Less Reliable Service

The MTA also has recommended applying more rigorous eligibility criteria for using Access-A-Ride, transferring more overnight service to taxis and other car services, making it more efficient and reducing personnel. The reduction in direct service, though, most alarms advocates.

Being driven to a bus or subway stop for part of the trip "would really discourage people with disabilities from going anywhere,” says Linda Ostreicher, director of public policy for the Center for the Independence of the Disabled, New York, a non-profit advocacy and support group. "Access-A-Ride is not able to keep a schedule, is not reliable now. Imagine waiting at home for an Access A Ride vehicle, getting dropped off at a bus stop, waiting for the bus, getting off the bus, and waiting for another Access-A Ride to get to your doctor's office on a day that you feel sick. Then imagine doing the whole thing again on the way home," Ostreicher said.

Evaluating every trip by weather conditions would be "time consuming and complicated," Ostreicher said. "It would require increased staffing, additional training and upgrading the current scheduling systems," and that, she believes, would wipe out any cost savings.

Advocates remain unclear how the transit authority would determine how weather conditions affect an individual's ability to travel on a given day. Many disabilities cause symptoms that vary from day to day, sometimes hour to hour. For example, some people with multiple sclerosis can experience heat intolerance that can cause decreased cognitive function, numbness, fatigue, blurred vision, tremor and weakness. For some people with cerebral palsy, cold can cause a tightening of extremities that makes it difficult to walk. Weather conditions like snow, ice and slush and rain create obvious problems for people in wheelchairs. Bad weather also makes it more difficult for people with low vision and blindness to navigate their path.

Franco said the cuts could affect her dramatically. Now, she takes a 7:45 a.m. Access-A-Ride van to her Brooklyn office, a 10 to 15 minute trip that gets her to her office one hour early.

The commute home is a completely different story. "Either Access-A-Ride doesn't show up, or they show up three hours later … or they may take a joy ride through the boroughs." Because the two wheelchair-accessible seats on the regular bus usually are already occupied by the time Franco would get on, she generally opts to wheel herself across the bridge.

"You gotta do what you gotta do to live," said Franco. She has had cerebral palsy since birth and has been wheeling across the bridge since attending Long Island University where she earned a bachelor's degree in social work.

On a bad weather day, though, she can't wheel. So she takes Access-A-Ride home on those days. "I can see that if I was subject to the service changes it would take so much time to get to and from work that I would not be able to keep my job. Both my clients and I would be stuck at home. I want to be an active participant in society. I want to help other disabled people," Franco said.

Fighting the Cuts

A numbers of local officials, including City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, council Transportation Committee chair James Vacca and other council members oppose many of the MTA's planned cuts. They say the reductions can be averted or reduced by reallocating federal stimulus funds and using capital money for operating costs.

"If these changes go into effect, the mass transit system would not be in compliance with the mandates of the Americans with Disabilities Act," Vacca said. The act makes it a violation of civil rights law for public transportation agencies, such as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, to discriminate against people with disabilities in providing service. As part of that, the agency must make good faith efforts to operate accessible buses, subways and trains and, in cases where that would result in an "undue burden" to provide paratransit, such as Access-a-Ride.

Obstacles in the System

New York's transit system presents a number of barriers to people with disabilities. While the bus system is 100 percent wheelchair accessible, riders say there are not enough buses to meet demand. And subway and taxi service are not accessible for the majority of New York's disabled.

Service changes could also strand clients with other physical disabilities, infirmities due to age, those with cognitive disabilities that make it difficult for them to remember bus routes and directions, some people with certain psychiatric disabilities, and some people who are hearing-impaired.

Only 70 of some 470 subways station are accessible, according to James Weisman, counsel to the United Spinal Association, a disability rights and veterans service organization.

The others pose various obstacles. Some feature a six to eight-inch gap between the platform and the train. "For people with physical disabilities and the blind, the fear of being dragged by the train is an anxiety that deters its use," Ostreicher said.

Elevators frequently do not work. And for some trips, elevators exist on the downtown trip but not the uptown trip or vice versa. A broken elevator can present a disabled person with a major problem. Weisman explains, "If a passenger arrives at a station where the elevator is out of service, they have to travel to the next accessible station in the direction they don't want to go, go back and re-board a train in the opposite direction and come out on the other side of their original station."

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority says that its 110 accessible subway and commuter rail stations have, among other features, elevators or ramps, large-print and tactile-Braille signs, audio visual information systems, telephones at an accessible height with volume control, and text telephones.

With all city buses accessible to wheelchair users, the buses provide 100,000 trips to wheelchair bound people a month, according to Weisman. On the other hand, with only 300 New York City taxis at least partially accessible to wheelchair users, it is "a happy coincidence if one … happens to be accessible when you hail it," Weisman said. "And it is impossible to tell which ones are accessible."

Cabs and Buses for All

Access-A-Ride costs the MTA $66 a trip. The rider pays $2.25 each way. In light of that, some advocates believe the transportation authority and the city government should look for less expensive alternatives that would still give people with disabilities the mobility they need.< For example, Weisman notes, if buses were not accessible, the additional Access-A-Ride van trips would cost the authority an additional $79 million a year.

More accessible taxicabs could also reduce Access-A-Ride trips. The spinal association supports MV-1, billed as the world’s first mobility vehicle. With production slated to begin in October, the taxi meets the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act, without requiring conversions or retrofits. It can accommodate even power wheelchairs and scooters and up to five other adults. Power wheelchairs will board the taxi by driving up the ramp. Manual chairs will be pushed in by the driver. The wheelchair using passenger sits next to the driver in the front seat which is empty space where a wheel chair can be secured.' It would operate by both dispatch and flagging and would be accessible to everyone. They will begin to be manufactured.

If a sufficient number of MV-1 taxis roamed city streets, paratransit riders could get a debit or credit swipe-card and pay $2.25 for a cab ride with the Access-A-Ride system making up the difference. The MTA would still come out ahead.

"Even the longest taxi rides are less than half the cost of paratransit rides," Weisman said.

State Assemblymember Micah Z. Kellner, Assembly member, proposed the swipe-card system back in 2009. He estimated then that it could save taxpayers $50 million a year in paratransit services – $10 million more than the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Says it must cut from the Access-A –Ride budget.

Data on Bullying Remains Scant, as City Touts Its Efforts

div> Mister Wiki at en.wikipedia

March 8 to 12 is Respect for All Week in the New York City public schools, a chance to intensify efforts around increasing respect for diversity in this incredibly diverse student population. The city, after a concerted effort by advocates, instituted the Respect for All program to combat bullying and has hailed it as a success. But critics say the system has not collected enough data to show whether the campaign has really managed to reduce what almost everyone agrees is a prevalent problem in the city schools.

In September 2008, the chancellor issued anti-bullying regulation A-832, which set up a procedure for filing, investigating and resolving "complaints of student-to-student bias-based harassment, intimidation, and/or bullying." The announcement, made with much fanfare, came after years of delays and the administration's adamant refusal to implement the Dignity in All Schools Act enacted by the City Council over the mayor's veto.

The administration continued to trumpet its achievements a year later. On the eve of the mayoral election in October, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, schools Chancellor Joel Klein and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn held a press conference hailing the "added mandated reporting and investigating guidelines" for the program. In a release, Bloomberg said, "We have set an example nationally in our efforts to combat intolerance and reduce bullying in our schools."

Dearth of Data

Critics, though, charge that the program was slow to get off the ground and that data simply does not exist to back up the administration's claims of success. Bloomberg likes to say that everything he does -- particularly when it comes to the schools -- is data-driven. However, when the anti-harassment program launched, the department did not collect any baseline data on the extent to which bullying was a problem. Since then qualitative data is not being collected on the impact of the regulation, and the numbers that do exist has been called into question.

The department did not issue a report on the results of the first year of the program, and even the second year of the regulation began in September 2009 without an analysis of the data on it.

Finally, in January 2010, the department released a brief "audit of bias-related harassment incidents" that reporting a total of 6,207 "bias-related incidents" in the 2008-09 school year among a total of 130,827 infractions of the Discipline Code. Of the bias-related incidents, gender accounted for 55 percent; race/color for 21 percent; gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation for 13 percent; ethnicity/national origin for 6 percent; religion/creed for 3 percent; and disability for 2 percent. The audit did not find out the extent to which students knew about and understood their rights under the new regulation.

In releasing the audit findings, Klein said in a statement that the "new data provides unprecedented information in helping us track and respond to bias-related incidents, and to prevent similar incidents from recurring." The release said the department this year charged principals with "creating rigorous anti-bullying plans" and that they will be held accountable for them in a school’s quarterly review.

Assuming the audit's figures are accurate, in a system of 1.1 million students and 1,600 schools, there were a little more than 6,000 bias-related infractions reported by about one half of 1 percent of students or an average of less than four per school.

This could be cause for great celebration. But the small number of students reporting bias harassment under the chancellor's regulation does not remotely approach the number of students who say in surveys that they are being victimized. As my colleague Ann Northrop, who spent four years in the schools in the late 1980s and early 1990s conducting trainings on gay and AIDS issues, said, "There are more like 6,000 incidents a minute."

The Department of Education's own Learning Environment Survey for 2006-07 found that 76 percent of city students in grades 6 through 12 reported seeing other students "threaten or bully other students at school" with 50 percent observing it "some of the time" and 29 percent more "all of the time."

Prevention and Detection

The program and the regulations include a number of measures aimed both at reducing bullying and ensuring that what bullying does exist is reported and addressed.

All students are supposed to have received a brochure about the program, many staff are supposed to have been trained on it, and a sign is supposed to be posted in every school on how to make a report.

Last June, the Department of Education reported that "two full days of training have been provided to approximately 1,800 teachers, counselors, and parent coordinators in schools serving students in grades six and above." Officials told Gotham Gazette they hope to have at least one staff member trained in every school by the next school year.

The data being collected around the Respect for All program does not try to determine how, or if, it has affected the level of harassment. In addition, critics charge the administration has not met all the requirements. In June 2009, at the end of the school year, advocates for the regulation complained that the department had fallen woefully short in terms of educating students about their rights to file a complain and that children still experienced high levels of bias-based harassment.

A coalition of groups, led by the Sikh Coalition, the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families, and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, issued its own study and devastating report, "Bias-Based Harassment in the New York City Public Schools: A Report Card on the Department of Education’s Implementation of Chancellor's Regulation A-832." It gave grades ranging from C to F to the department on implementation of eight aspects of the regulation. The groups found that 54 percent of students were not aware of the regulation and 80 percent received no training on it. More than three quarters -- 76 percent -- were unaware that they could report harassment to an e-mail address. (They can, and here it is: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

Of students who did report harassment, 41 percent signed a statement that they were supposed to write and sign under the regulation, and 66 percent did not have their parents notified as required. What's more, 84 percent who of them did not get a written report from school officials on the results of the investigation as required.

Only 10 percent of cases involving bias-related harassment get "appropriate follow-up investigation and action," according to Sonny Singh, community organizer with the Sikh Coalition and a leader in the campaign to stop bullying in the schools, particularly of Sikh students who are often taunted for wearing their distinctive Patka head covering. "That means 90 percent of the time a student told a school official they have been harassed or bullied because of their race, sexual orientation, religion, etc. the school did not follow up the way it was supposed to," he said.

The coalition has criticized the data release in January as lacking "geographic specificity" at least by district. (The department has said it would consider this.) In addition, the coalition wants regular reporting mandated and is calling for "specific information about the discipline and intervention methods used in each case of harassment." It also wants a specific prohibition on bullying by teachers and other school staff, something school officials say is covered under other regulations.

Pauline Park, leader of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, told the Gay City News that she faulted the program "for a lack of quality control."

The Department's Efforts

Elayna Konstan, chief executive officer of the department's Office of School and Youth Development, and Connie Cuttle, director of professional development, sat down with me to explain and defend the anti-bullying program. Konstan said "reporting is getting better" and that "amazing work" is going on in the schools around Respect for All.

Cuttle said that with the additional training and outreach, "kids are going to be more forthcoming we hope." She notes that middle school students in particular "are often embarrassed to say that they have a problem" with being bullied.

Since the majority of the incidents are based on gender, the department is testing a program, "Shifting Boundaries," in 50 schools. It aims to help young people understand what kind of language is appropriate in a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship and, school officials insisted, in a same-sex relationship though they would not share the curriculum, with me to show me how. The department also conducts a Relationship Abuse Prevention Program in 61 schools and a Safe Date program in 150 schools.

The Department of Education's partners in implementing Respect for All remain enthusiastic. Mark Weiss, education director of Operation Respect, said, "We are seeing deeper work being done in the schools as a result of the trainings." Eliza Bayard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network praised the department for "recognizing the importance of data to the on-going project of providing safe and effective learning environments."

In addition to the anti-bullying initiative, the Department of Education encourages students who are aware of imminent violence -- particularly but not limited to gun violence -- to anonymously call a national hotline, 1-866-SPEAKUP, to report it. Speak Up is run by a violence prevention program called PAX. Jamie McShane of Quinn’s office said that PAX will pilot a training program in 15 schools where principals have requested it to help young people understand that "snitching" in these situations is the right thing to do and can be done without fear of reprisal.

A Stubborn Problem

No one knows how many students bear the brunt of repetitive bullying. At an April 2008 lobby day for a state anti-bullying initiative, a high school student named Anthony talked about the ubiquity of bullying. He said bullying lead to drop out "every day" for fear of bullying. A student he knew took his life due to bullying. (You can see the video here.)

The regulation of September 2008 and Respect for All surely have some impact, but the Department of Education has not provided any data on what effect they have on school atmosphere, other than raw statistics on reports of incidents. And it can be difficult to assess even those figures. If those numbers go up this school year, it might not mean that bias-related harassment is worse, but perhaps that students are more willing to make complaints. That would represent a kind of success in that it might indicate that more students are aware of their rights. But all that will remain speculation unless the department begins to track the kinds of issues that advocates have.

Meanwhile the city's main tool in fighting bullying might well be that the public school system is so vast that those with the worst problems can be moved elsewhere in it. That is not the case in the upstate Mohawk Central School District where the New York Civil Liberties Union is settling a suit on behalf of a 14-year old student named Jacob. Over two years, according to a release from the group, Jacob "endured escalating harassment for his sexual orientation and for not conforming to masculine stereotypes. He suffered near-constant verbal assault, his personal property has been defaced and broken, and he was regularly pushed and had things thrown at him." He was also thrown down school stairs by another student and threatened with a knife by another. The boy's affidavit in the case is a harrowing read.

Because the district failed to investigate the incidents or discipline the perpetrators, the Civil Liberties Union sued in federal court and were joined by no less than the United States Department of Justice citing Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Department of Education has a Harvey Milk High School with a special mission toward gay and transgendered youth where it can place a student such as Jacob. That school, though, only has about 100 students. Most students facing harassment for reasons relating to sexual orientation attend mainstream schools where it is far from safe to be out or known as gay or transgender.

Thomas Krever, executive director of the Hetrick-Martin Institute for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, which is home to the Harvey Milk School, said a year and half after the institution of the chancellor’s regulation in the schools, his agency's clients in mainstream schools "aren't feeling the effect yet." But he added, "Anything systemic is not going to be fixed overnight."

Krever hopes that Respect for All Week will heighten attention to the regulation and the problem of bullying, calling it a "good attempt" by the Department of Education for "creating safer environments."

Marisa Ragonese, director of Generation Q for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender young people in Queens, believes more needs to be done. She wrote in an e-mail, "While I always applaud any effort to make our schools a bit safer, the chancellor’s new regs, like the old ones, seem to be responding to this desire to appease a (gay, immigrant) special interest portion of the general population, and then continue with the real business of schooling." But, she went on, "homophobia and lack of respect for humanity is a big problem and needs to be approached as a public health issue." Addressing it, is "an integral component to our educational system, not an add-on or after thought."

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.

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