The Carmel School Board approved revisions to the district’s Code of Conduct during its Sept. 5 meeting, incorporating New York State’s Dignity for All Students Act, which enables parents, teachers and school personnel to report and document incidents of bullying and cyber-bullying to the district and the state.
Dr. Mary Foster, interim assistant superintendent for pupil personnel services, presented data depicting a three-year trend beginning in 2019. A series of graphs highlighted the number of bullying and cyber-bullying incidents reported since DASA became law.
DASA seeks to provide the state’s public elementary, middle and secondary school students with a safe and supportive environment, free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment and bullying on school property, a school bus and/or at a school function. Incidents can range from physical contact to verbal threats, as well as psychological and cyberbullying.
The data presented by Foster showed a relatively small number of incidents reported at the district, to which board members indicated that it seemed the actual numbers were underreported. However, at three of the schools, there were no incidents reported before DASA was enacted; after DASA, incident reporting increased.
For example, prior to DASA, at Carmel High School there had been no reported bullying incidents, and after DASA, there were eight. At George Fischer Middle School, two incidents were reported prior to DASA, and four were reported after; at Matthew Patterson Elementary School, no incidents had been reported prior to the law, and two were reported afterward. No records were available for Kent Elementary or Kent Primary School.
DASA incidents by bias category revealed that the areas where bullying occurred began with race (the highest percentage), then focused on ethnicity, color and disability, followed by gender, sexual orientation and weight. These incidents occurred most often during school hours on site, as well as on buses.
Board member James Wise expressed concern that the data does not represent the actual number of incidents that likely occurred. “If we submit this data to Albany, we are doing a great disservice to the community,” he said. “We need to know: Are there incidents not being reported?”
Wise said he believes the board needs more information relative to district-size and the actual number of incidents. “Do you believe this data is accurate? That only four times in a school year students feared for their safety?” he asked. “These numbers are a slap in the face to every parent whose child was discriminated against.”
This led to further discussion about the data, which several board members said did not demonstrate the full picture of incidents that are actually occurring.
One parent at the meeting indicated that on the bus, her child, during the first three days of school, had been called the “N-word.”
“My child was affected by the incident,” she said. “Under New York State law, the bus driver has a legal obligation to report the incident.”
Foster said the district plans to hold DASA training session, to educate teachers and staff, as well as parents and community members, about reporting incidents.
“This is hard work that we are doing for our children,” said Interim Superintendent Joseph McGrath. “DASA is not only about culture – it’s also about the law.”
Foster said professional development activities have included an administrative retreat and bias awareness training for administrators, teachers and teaching assistants, and future training will include custodial and cafeteria workers. In addition, informative programs for students have been held, as well.
The board indicated that age-appropriate DASA training would be needed in all Carmel schools so that every student has an understanding of their rights.
The Dignity for All Students Board of Education Policy that was approved includes protections for incidents that occur off school grounds, and cyberbullying, prevention, intervention, training, reporting and investigation, confidentiality and non-retaliation. For details, parents can refer to the full policy on the district’s website.
“This is a policy the board wanted to move to the top of the list,” said board Vice President Valerie Crocco. “We have a lot to be proud about this policy.”
Board member John Curzio II indicated that eliminating bullying is not just a need in Carmel, and is “the start of an arduous journey. We have a great opportunity to be a lighthouse for this issue, which cannot be downplayed,” he said. “We can be that place where other communities ask, ‘How did Carmel do it?’”
Wise said his hope is for the board to define a unified policy across all the district’s schools. “It is important for everyone to see the data,” he said. “This has been a very robust conversation. A lot of questions were raised in the meeting to define what reporting actually looks like in the district.”
Crocco added that the board is still working on a more comprehensive Code of Conduct policy, “which is still a work in progress.”