A pro-charter school advocacy group, Families for Excellent Schools, filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court alleging that the atmosphere in New York City public schools was depriving students of the right to receive an education because of worrisome levels of violence, bullying, and harassment.
The class action suit claims that violence in schools is both increasing and underreported. It also alleges that violence disproportionately affects certain minority students, including those who are black, Hispanic, gay, bisexual, and transgender. The lawsuit, filed against the New York City Education Department, claims that the Department has failed "to address and remediate in-school violence in New York City's public schools."
The lawsuit is notable because it is the first class action suit filed against the Department of Education over violence in schools. "A school in New York City is seven times more likely than a school in other parts of New York state to be persistently dangerous," the suit says. According to Selim Algar of the New York Post, the suit lists 11 anonymous victims of school violence with their parents and grandparents as plaintiffs.
"We think the Department of Education is not following the law, and in doing so, they're jeopardizing the academic and physical livelihoods of kids across the city," says Jeremiah Kittredge, the organization's executive director. "Students aren't being protected, and the DOE isn't following their obligations under the law to remedy it."
For its part, the city government, led by Mayor Bill de Blasio, acknowledged that the violent incidents featured in the report are "obviously troubling," but it also pushed back against some of the statistics cited in the group's charges. As reported by Elizabeth Harris of the New York Times, the city government claimed that major crime in schools is down by 14.29% and other crime down by 6.77%. Families for Excellent Schools has been a major critic of Mayor Bill de Blasio's education policies.
Families for Excellent Schools have long argued that charter schools are not only a matter of offering quality education, but also one of racial justice. The group claims that without charter schools, struggling black and Latino students are routinely forced into failing New York schools. Molly Hensley-Clancy of BuzzFeed notes that the group is funded by hedge fund billionaires Dan Loeb and Julian Robertson, and that the group has previously tangled with New York City teachers unions.
"This lawsuit is nothing but a political ploy," says Zakiya Ansari, the director for the Alliance for Quality Education, a group allied with unions. "The right way to address discipline issues is through restorative justice and expanding community schools, which Mayor deBlasio is doing more of. FES doesn't care about public schools, and it's shameful that they have decided to perpetuate the false narrative that our black and Latino children are violent."
The lawsuit is just the latest episode in the ongoing conflict between pro-charter advocacy groups and teachers unions. After years of a multi-million dollar battle waged on behalf of charter schools to allow their use of space in city buildings, pro-charter advocacy groups have turned their attention to school violence. As before, they will meet equally fierce pushback from city authorities and pro-union advocacy groups.