New York State School Boards Association

Harassment, diversity among governor's policy initiatives

by Julie Marlette

On Board Online • February 5, 2018

By Julie Marlette
Director of Governmental Relations

One might assume that Gov. Andrew Cuomo's annual executive budget proposals are mostly numbers. But recent budgets have included plenty of policy language.

This year is no exception; appropriations bills were accompanied by several thousand pages of text. Some of the language was needed to implement spending plans and distribute the money while other portions had nothing to do with money.

This year, a number of proposals appear to be a response to federal initiatives and other issues of national debate.

For instance, the governor has stated his intent to propose changes to the state tax code to counteract the recent changes at the federal level. NYSSBA will report on those changes as soon as details are made available by the state Division of Budget.

Below is a summary of other policy initiatives that reflect national issues and could affect school districts.

New sexual harassment policy would cover schools

As part of the executive budget, the governor advanced a standalone bill advancing his "Women's Agenda."

To combat sexual harassment in the workplace, the plan would make sweeping changes to how state agencies handle sexual harassment reports and investigations.

If enacted, school districts and other governmental employers would be prohibited (in some instances) from using district funds to resolve lawsuits against their employees.

In addition, all school districts would be required to direct their attorneys to develop sexual harassment prevention policies that set forth uniform complaint and investigation procedures that protect the confidentiality of the victim.

The governor's proposals were informed by a report by the Council on Women and Girls, chaired by Melissa DeRosa, the first woman to serve as secretary to the governor.

"NYSSBA supports the governor's intent to reduce sexual harassment in the workplace and provide clear recourse and protections for victims in the event such harassment occurs," said NYSSBA Executive Director Timothy G. Kremer. "However, we do have concerns about the plan to delegate so much authority to school attorneys. The drafting and adoption of district policy should remain the purview of school boards."

Proposed curriculums on dating, diversity

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Gov. Cuomo included language in his Women's Agenda that would require the State Education Department to develop a "Be Aware, Be Informed" program in consultation with the Department of Health. This would include model curriculums and other resources to be made available to school districts that wish to use them.

The curricular resources would focus on healthy relationships and cover topics including self-esteem, self-worth and friendship. In later grades, subjects would include teen dating violence, age-appropriate definitions of affirmative consent and medically accurate information on sexual health.

The governor also proposed that the commissioner of education, in cooperation with the state Division of Human Rights, develop a model age-appropriate curriculum on "Respect for Diversity," focusing on of race, color, religion, weight, disability and gender for grades 8 and 9.

Finally, the governor proposed expanding the jurisdiction of the Division of Human Rights to public school students. Cuomo has advanced this proposal multiple times in the past.

No Student Goes Hungry program

Following the high-profile report in The New York Times last spring of instances of students in the western part of the country being penalized and stigmatized because they had unpaid meal charges, the governor has proposed a number of initiatives intended to improve the content and delivery of student meal programs.

To avoid "lunch shaming," districts would be required to adopt policies to prohibit behaviors and practices that identify or stigmatize students who cannot pay for meals and prohibit the provision of alternative meals. Districts would also be required to make a minimum of three attempts to enroll a student with an unpaid meal balance in the free and reduced-price lunch program, and would be prohibited from sending any communication regarding unpaid balances with or through students or debt collectors.

The governor has attempted to address the issue of access to meals in two ways. First, he proposed that students be provided with lunch, regardless of whether they are able to pay or not. Second, he proposed a "Breakfast after the Bell" program. Under this proposal, schools that do not participate in community eligibility and have 70 percent or more students that receive free or reduced-price lunch would be required to make breakfast available after the start of the school day.

Also, the governor proposed expanding the state's existing Farm-to-School programs. The Executive proposes increasing the amount available for grants to connect school districts with local farmers and technical assistance for implementing Farm-to-School programs from $750,000 to $1.5 million. The governor would also provide school districts that buy at least 30 percent of their food products from New York farmers, growers, producers, or processors during the prior school year with a 25 cent reimbursement per lunch served, which is 19 cents more than the current rate.

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