Jewish groups welcomed Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to amend the state law to strip school officials of their teaching/administrator’s certification if they fail to report a pattern of racial or religious discrimination or harassment to the State Education Department, the Division of Human Rights and the State Police.
Cuomo’s proposal, made in his State of the State address to the state legislature, followed news reports about alleged rampant anti-Semitism in the Pine Bush School District that had led to a federal lawsuit in behalf of five Jewish students. It was alleged that, among other things, swastikas had been drawn repeatedly in the schools and on a Jewish child’s face, and that coins and anti-Semitic remarks had been hurled at Jewish students.
“It takes real leadership to stand up against these issues,” said Rabbi Steven Burg, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s eastern director.
He added that Cuomo had made “his zero tolerance policy a priority for New York State and for that, the Simon Wiesenthal Center is greatly indebted.”
The Orthodox Union Advocacy Center’s director of New York State Political Affairs, Jeff Leb, pointed out that “bullying and harassment against schoolchildren compromises their ability to focus and to learn, and transforms an environment that should be a safe place into a place of fear and intimidation. We hope all New York state legislators embrace this proposed law to protect our students.”
Michael Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, pointed out that Cuomo “described his proposal as having two critical elements: building community and justice.”
“The governor spoke movingly of the rights of students to attend school without fear of discrimination or harassment and he recommended concrete, statutory changes that will give state agencies the power to intervene to protect those being victimized,” Miller said. “He clearly understands the problem and, once again, this initiative demonstrates his tremendous leadership.”
In his remarks, Cuomo said he had read in a newspaper last November about the alleged anti-Semitism and the federal lawsuit it had spurred in March 2012. He said he called the State Education Department, the Division for Human Rights and the State Police to find out more and learned that no one had heard about it.
Cuomo called the reported abuse “quite disturbing” and “troubling.” And he said he was concerned that no state agencies were aware of the alleged abuse that had gone on for five years before the federal lawsuit was filed. The suit is still pending.
After learning of the allegations, Cuomo immediately ordered the State Division of Human Rights and the State Police to conduct an investigation into the charges. A spokesman for the State Police said the investigation is continuing and that she had no date for its expected completion.
The Manhattan U.S. Attorney also announced that his office was launching a federal investigation.
In his State of the State message Cuomo said: “I want to propose a very simple law that gets to the heart of who we are. If a school official in the state of New York is aware of a pattern of racial or religious discrimination or harassment, that state official is under an affirmative duty to notify the State Education Department and the police, or that state official is no longer a state official, because that’s not who we are and that’s not how we perform.”
A spokesman for the governor said that means they would lose their certification to teach or be an administrator in the state.
Leb said Cuomo’s proposal would amend the state’s Students with Dignity Act by “stripping certification from schools and their administrators if they fail to report incidents of bullying and harassment taking place in their schools and school grounds.”
The law currently requires all school districts to appoint at least one staff member in each school to handle all bullying incidents on school property (including athletic fields, playgrounds, and parking lots), in school buildings, on a school bus/vehicle, as well as at school-sponsored events or activities. In addition, administrators must report incidents of bullying or bias-based harassment to the State Department of Education.
But Pine Bush school officials apparently failed to file such a report and there was no requirement that such reporting be made in a timely manner. The amendment would put teeth in the law by imposing the sanctions for failure to immediately report such incidents.
The governor’s office added that Cuomo is seeking to amend the Human Rights Law to ensure that the Division of Human Rights has the authority to handle all school cases. It noted that in a 2012 case involving a severe case of racial bullying targeting a young girl, the division was divested of jurisdiction to investigate on a technicality.
“As a result,” the governor’s office said, “the Division of Human Rights was forced to dismiss over 70 complaints filed against public schools by victims of discrimination, despite the fact that the division has asserted jurisdiction over public schools for almost 30 years.”
A spokesman for Agudath Israel of America commended Cuomo for “the emotional compassion he displayed when condemning anti-Semitism. Clearly, Gov. Cuomo was speaking from the depths of his heart when he articulated his zero-tolerance policy for such incidents. For that we are deeply grateful.”
The Anti-Defamation League’s New York regional director, Evan Bernstein, called Cuomo’s suggestion a “common sense proposal that will go a long way to protect our students.”
“Gov. Cuomo should be commended for both his strong response to the Pine Bush allegations, and for following through with this proposal to make sure discrimination and harassment have no place in any of our schools and is appropriately addressed,” he said. “We urge the New York State Legislature to act quickly on the governor’s proposals to protect our students.”
The New York Board of Rabbis also applauded Cuomo for his proposals, saying: “The Torah teaches us that ‘we cannot stand idly by’ when anyone is a victim of hatred. We will not be silent while there are others who suffer in silence.”