Pro Bono/Good Government

Families for Excellent Schools, John Doe Plaintiffs

When concerned parents saw that the New York City Department of Education (DOE) was turning a blind eye toward bullying and abuse in public schools, they enlisted WMHW to file a class-action lawsuit. After lengthy negotiations, WMHW lawyers reached a settlement that established landmark anti-bullying protocols in the largest school system in the United States.

In April 2016, WMHW filed a class action lawsuit against the DOE on behalf of the parents of 23 students – all of whom had been subject to pervasive and unchecked violence at school. The suit accused the DOE of failing to enforce regulations against assault, threats, intimidating, and bullying.

Our team deployed a combination of traditional and novel claims in court. Working closely with a prominent child psychologist who specializes in bullying, we showed that abuse often produces an unproductive learning environment, leading to disproportionately poor outcomes for bullying victims. Consequently, we asserted that bullied students were being deprived without due process of their protected property interest under New York law in the right to a safe education in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  We also alleged a violation of the Equal Protection Clause arising from the disparate impact from the DOE’s failure to mitigate bullying in accordance with its own regulations, and brought claims under state law as well.

Despite pursuing an aggressive litigation strategy, we seized the first available opportunity to negotiate a settlement, cognizant that current and entering students desperately needed updated protections. WMHW lawyers engaged in nearly two years of discussions with the DOE, navigating the varied interests of teachers, departments, and other stakeholder groups. We focused on crafting practical solutions that complied with the DOE’s requirements and could be implemented swiftly.

A final settlement was reached in March 2018. The DOE agreed to our demands of a structural overhaul of its safety policies, including the creation of an electronic reporting system for parental complaints and a separate system for parents to report and track incidents of physical or verbal abuse by DOE staff. WMHW lawyers will also be monitoring the DOE’s performance through the 2021-2022 school year. In a statement to the press, Jim Walden noted, “This settlement finally brings meaningful reform to a troubled and broken system that placed every New York City school student in dire and dangerous circumstances.”