Education

Incremental Progress in NYC Public Schools

By Anju Kaur | October 25, 2010

The lawsuit that began with a media blitz in June 2008 regarding the violent harassment of a Sikh student at a New York City public high-school, which resulted in significant amendments in September 2008 to bullying regulations, ended with modest concessions in March 2010 for Sikh kids at Richmond Hill High School and a modest settlement this month for the student’s family.

The client typically guides the litigation of a civil lawsuit. In Jagmohan Singh Premi’s case, he and his family just wanted to move on with their lives, his lawyers said.

“The settlement, we thought …sort of ends it for the student,” said Gurbir Singh, an attorney with the Howrey law firm in New York City, which represented Jagmohan pro bono. “He wants to move on. …The client’s happy.”

Jagmohan received a monetary settlement to end the lawsuit, initially filed by the Sikh Coalition, a national advocacy group. But that is not the end of the fight to force schools to stop students from bullying.

The lawsuit “puts them on notice,” said Gurbir Singh, the lead attorney in the case. They can’t just give “lip service on diversity and tolerance issues. It shows that we are more proactive and will hold them accountable.”

“The message to the Department of Education is that the Sikh Coalition will sue you if things don’t go well,” said Amardeep Singh, program director.

SIDE AGREEMENT

Jagmohan was adamant that the department should provide training for teachers and education for students about Sikh identity and practices, Gurbir Singh said. As a result, the education department made a side agreement that addresses acute problems at his former school, Richmond Hill High.

The school is located within one-half mile of three gurdwaras, it has many Sikh kids and it is within the Queens borough, which has the highest concentration of Sikhs in country. This school also had the greatest systemic problems and most egregious incidents of discrimination against its Sikh students. It’s staff failed to recognize and stop the harassment of Jagmohan Singh.

"Schools are supposed to be safe environments for children—not matter their religion or ethnicity—which is why the NYCDOE has worked to promote understanding of different cultures and religions through its Respect for All program,” said Connie Pankratz,
deputy communications director at the New York City Law Department. “The city’s discipline code clearly prohibits bullying for any reason, and DOE staff are expected to report any knowledge of bullying immediately."

Respect for All is an outreach program to inform and train school students and staff about its anti-bullying regulation, which was added to the Chancellor’s Regulations for public schools in September 2008. The regulation establishes a procedure for filing, investigating, and resolving complaints of student-to-student bias-based harassment, intimidation, and bullying.

“All this is well and good but our experience between teachers and school safety officers was that administrators had no knowledge about the regulation,” Gurbir Singh said. “It’s good to have a policy but if it is not disseminated properly kids don’t know what to do if they are bullied.” At the schools where the policy was disseminated, the training focuses on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues.

“We have this procedure in place but it does not deal with Sikh issues.” Gurbir Singh added. According to the agreement, lesson plans will include information about being respectful of religious identity as well as of people who outwardly show religious identity. They will be included in the Respect For All training. The school system will provide the Sikh lesson plans from its own internal resources and the coalition will review and provide comments and recommendations, he said.

The agreement is not legally bound, it only applies to the 2010 to 2011 school year and only to Richmond Hill High School.

But if it goes well, the coalition will argue for it to be included throughout the school system, Amardeep Singh said. If it does not go well, the burden will be on the coalition to file another lawsuit.

STRING OF BAD BULLYING INCIDENTS

The Sikh Coalition, a national advocacy group, began an effort in December 2006 to survey New York City students for civil rights issues. Its report, ‘Hatred in the Hallways,’ was released ahead of schedule, in June 2007, because of a hair-cutting incident involving Harpal Singh Vacher, 15 at the time, at a Queens high school a month earlier. The coalition said it wanted to bring attention to the staggering number of Sikh students that face verbal and physical abuse in public schools, and that about one-third of those who asked for help from school officials never received any.

In March 2008, Queens Supreme Court found his attacker, Umair Ahmed, 17 at the time of the crime, guilty on three felony counts of menacing with hate crime, coercion with hate crime and harassment. He was also convicted on a misdemeanor possession of a weapon. He faced up to four years in prison but was given only 180 hours of community service.

Negotiations with the Department of Education regarding bullying regulations were going nowhere.

In April 2008, the coalition’s civil rights report, "Making Our Voices Heard: A Civil Rights Agenda for New York City Sikhs," found that more than 60 percent of the 400 Sikh students that were surveyed had suffered bias-based harassment or violence in city schools because of their Sikh identity. About five percent also said they were harassed by school staff.

Then, another egregious incident of bullying.

When Jagmohan was punched in the face by a student who attempted to remove his patka (under turban), in June 2008, it was the last straw. His attacker, who lived in a home without parents, had bullied Jagmohan daily for almost a year but school officials failed to prevent the harassment.

‘Fed Up,’ was the message on placards held up by Sikh parents and students in front of the Department of Education building. The coalition held a confrontational news conference that was covered by major local news outlets.

The spectacle forced Chancellor Joel Klein to call Jagmohan inside for a private talk. He then made a public apology for the attack, in front of the media.

The coalition also filed a lawsuit against the education department, on Jagmohan’s behalf.

A few days later, Gurprit Kaur, a student at P.S. 219 in Flushing, discovered that another student had cut off a portion of her kesh, religiously mandated uncut hair. Sikhs then marched from the Sikh Cultural Society Gurdwara, picked up more marchers at the Baba Makhan Shah Lubana Gurdwara, and then ended 7 blocks later at Richmond Hill High School.

In September 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced an initiative to track, prohibit and prevent bias-based harassment among the city’s more than one million students. The new addition to the Chancellor's Regulations defined “bias-based” as any written, verbal, physical or electronically communicated act directed at a student based on race, color, creed, ethnicity, national origin, immigration status, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability. It went into effect on the first day of school that year.

“Some of these very bad cases helped us push the chancellor and other groups,” said Harsimran Kaur, the coalition’s legal director. “They were not good enough in responding to bullying. It took the worst possible cases for the Department of Education to move on that.”

RELIEF

Jagmohan was moved out of Richmond Hill High School and to a new school that fall. The school system designed an educational plan for him, and is now providing vocational training.

His attacker was found guilty in July 2009 of fourth-degree weapons possession, second-degree aggravated harassment and second-degree hate crime assault. His name and sentence were not disclosed because he was a minor. But the maximum sentence for this offense is 18 months in juvenile detention.

Jagmohan’s case was closed in March 2010. The announcement came late because the final piece, the settlement, was not paid until early October 2010.

“We have not received any (recent) complaints from Richmond Hill High School but that does not mean they don’t exist,” Harsimran Kaur added. “I think the school, given a lawsuit, is being more vigilant.”