New York Education Dept. Is Sued Over Violence in Schools

The mother of a New York City public school student, a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit, spoke about her son’s mistreatment outside the Education Department’s headquarters on Thursday.CreditDave Sanders for The New York Times

A group of public school families and a pro-charter advocacy group filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court this week alleging that the atmosphere at New York City public schools was depriving students of their right to receive an education free of violence, bullying and harassment.

The class-action suit, filed on Wednesday in New York’s Eastern District against the New York City Education Department and its chancellor, Carmen Fariña, claims that violence in schools is increasing, and that it is often underreported. The suit also says that school violence disproportionately affects certain groups of students, like those who are black, Hispanic, gay, bisexual or transgender.

The suit, which claims the Education Department has failed “to address and remediate in-school violence in New York City’s public schools,” was filed by 11 students and their families. They were joined by Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter advocacy group that has been a fierce and frequent critic of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education policies.

The group’s chief executive, Jeremiah Kittredge, held a news conference on Thursday morning in front of the Education Department’s headquarters in Manhattan, to encourage other public school parents to join the suit.

The group’s picture of violence in the city’s schools directly counters Mr. de Blasio’s. In a statement, the mayor said he viewed “each incidence as obviously troubling,” but challenged the group’s facts, saying that “this year to date, the major crime in our schools is down 14.29 percent and other crimes down 6.77 percent.”

Mr. de Blasio’s figures are drawn from a database that is collected and reported by the New York Police Department.

Toya Holness, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said those figures track any occurrence in which a member of the Police Department is involved, whether a uniformed officer or a school safety agent. If an episode is witnessed by a classroom teacher but does not reach the school safety agent, it is not included.

By that count, the total number of recorded episodes dropped slightly, to 6,875 in the 2014-15 school year from 6,950 the year before. During the same period, reports of “seven major felony crimes” fell to 614 from 654. In the 2000-1 school year, by contrast, there were 1,575 of those major crimes reported.

In claiming that schools are increasingly violent, Families for Excellent Schools relies on data from New York State. Those figures are collected by school administrators and might include classroom incidents that are not included in the Police Department’s numbers. This city data is then reported to the state, Ms. Holness said.

Based on that data, the complaint says the number of violent episodes rose 23 percent in the school year ending in June 2015 from the previous year.

The validity of the state data has been widely criticized, not least by the federal education secretary, John B. King Jr., when he was New York State’s education commissioner, who said that it “rarely reflects the realities of school health and safety.” Critics have said that the state’s system does not differentiate enough between minor infractions and more serious complaints, and that because the data are not verified, it is difficult to know whether schools are accurately reporting violent situations. A task force is working to revise the system.

Nonetheless, the individual claims in the lawsuit were troubling. One student, a 9-year-old boy at a school in West Harlem, is said to have been grabbed by the ear by his math teacher, who “dragged him down the stairs and threw him onto a landing,” according to the complaint.

An 11-year-old girl at school in Chelsea was bullied and assaulted for years by another student, who then began to attack her 7-year-old sister. The Education Department “refuses to discipline or transfer” the bully, the suit said.

The suit asks the city be compelled to devise a plan to address issues of violence and harassment, and asks the court to appoint an independent monitor to oversee the Education Department’s efforts.