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No Compromise on Dignity
Bills to protect students from bias-based harassment differ on “gender identity”

In 2000, New York state re sponded to the Columbine High School shooting and other incidents of school violence with the Schools Against Violence in Education Act, an anti- bullying and anti-harassment bill. But a further effort to prevent school violence by specifically targeting bias-based taunting has not yet made its way into law because of policy disagreements in the state Legislature. In 2003, for the third year in a row, the New York State Assembly and Senate each passed bills to combat bias-based student harassment in public schools, but failed to reach agreement on a compromise version. This year, the Assembly has again passed the Dignity for All Students Act (A.1118), and the Senate has passed the Schools as Safe Harbors Act (S.4023).

Both bills prohibit harassment of students on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation, and both passed with overwhelming majorities in their houses in 2003. But a coalition formed to support the Assembly’s Dignity Act says that this bill is more inclusive than the Harbors Act because it includes protections against taunting based on “gender identity and expression.” While the Harbors bill protects students from harassment based on their sexual orientation and gender, it does not define gender, which New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, a statewide transgender advocacy organization, says is vital.

Pauline Park, NYAGRA co-chair, explained at a March 9 forum sponsored by NYAGRA and the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network that including a definition of gender identity and expression is important because it protects students who do not conform to traditional gender roles, but who may not openly identify themselves as gay or lesbian. She added that since the Dignity Act is concerned with the k-12 school-aged population, where there are few openly lesbian and gay students, children called “fag” or “dyke” by classmates are often being labeled for how they express their gender, not their sexual orientation.

Nick Lanni, a senior at Albany High School, said that he often hears anti-gay slurs like “fag” or “That’s so gay” in his highschool’s hallways. Although he said he does not see a lot of serious harassment of gay students there, and that many teachers are sensitive to gay issues, he feels that a statewide policy against bias-based harassment would help students in areas that are less diverse and tolerant than Albany.

He also feels the Dignity Bill’s definition of gender expression and identity is needed. “Transgendered youth [are] becoming more common,” he said, “so it’s important, because those people do exist and they need to be protected just as much as other students. . . . you can’t just leave one group out because it defeats the purpose.”

While the Dignity Act would make forbidding this bias-based harassment into a statewide policy in public schools, some school districts have already adopted it into their school guidelines. In July 2003, the Rochester School Board updated its schools’ Code of Conduct by adding protections to students based on how they express their gender. The Code of Conduct, which summarizes the rights and responsibilities Rochester schools provide and expect of students, had contained protections from harassment based on gender and sexual orientation. But the change was made after a task force looked at the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in Rochester schools and recommended they add the phrase “gender identity and expression.”

While Dignity coalition members feel that listing specific categories of bias-based harassment will strengthen a school anti-discrimination bill, others think that a better approach is to not distinguish among them. Assemblyman Daniel Hooker (R-Sharon Springs) was one of seven to vote against the Dignity bill in 2003. He introduced a parallel bill (A.9985) that would allow the state education commissioner to make policies to combat harassment and discrimination against all students, and explained that since his bill does not mention specific categories of harassment, it would prevent more discrimination. “The so-called Dignity for All Students bill doesn’t cover all students. It doesn’t cover cases of obesity or same-race bullying, and mine does,” he said.

New York State Education Department Commissioner Richard Mills is not taking a position in favor of either the Dignity or Harbors acts. Tom Dunn, spokesman for the New York State Education Department, said, “Conceptually we’re behind both bills, but technically there are issues with each of them that need to be addressed.”

—Liz Healy


One more time: Iraq war protesters return to New York City. Photo by: John Whipple

War: Still Good for Absolutely Nothing
One year after the invasion of Iraq, peace activists show they haven’t gone away

‘There’s a counter- demonstration up ahead,” the young man shouted. “Don’t listen to them. Just keep moving. Keep moving. Don’t listen to them.” He wore a tag identifying him as a volunteer with International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), one of the groups responsible for coordinating Saturday’s protest march in New York and many other cities across the country and around the world. The most recent such march in New York, in February 2003, resulted in more than 200 arrests, a statistic the organizers sought to avoid.

Avoid it they did. The turnout, estimated by the city police to be 40,000 and by ANSWER to be more like 100,000, was an energetic, determined group, but cooperative enough that there were only four disorderly-conduct arrests, and three of those weren’t even on the parade route.

The protest began at 23rd Street and Madison Avenue, where the growing crowd listened to a succession of speakers that included presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich. Police again used metal barricades to block side-street access as the gathering filled, sending newcomers north for access to Madison Avenue. The march itself began at about 1:30 PM, traveling west across 23rd Street to Sixth Avenue, north to 40th Street, east to Madison and back down to 23rd, where more speakers closed the program.

Along the way were the sights and sounds typical of these events: banners and flags and individual signs, costumes and painted faces, music and dance. And the chants that rippled through the crowd: “Hey hey, ho ho, Bush and Cheney got to go!” “What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!”

But the sense of exhilaration was tempered by a sense of resignation. A year ago it still seemed possible to alter the government’s push for war; now there’s no end in sight and a demonstrated disdain for rallies such as this. “We’ve got a Democratic presidential candidate who talks about being our war president,” said Bob Rosen, a freelance writer who lives in Manhattan, “so how much can we hope for?”

Even the few confrontations along the route seemed halfhearted. An anti-Israel enclave brandished its own antiwar posters on the corner of 40th and Sixth, but prompted only a few catcalls. A small contingent of Billionaires for Bush seemed to confuse many of the passing marchers, who failed to grasp the satire that underlies the group’s street-theater performances.

Press reports were even more lackluster than usual. The Sunday New York Times relegated it to the third page of the second section, and it barely appeared within the pages of the New York Post. Only the Daily News ran a front-page photo with the hopeful headline “Peace.”

Nevertheless, organizers sought to put the best possible face on the event. “The streets of New York City were filled with people united in their opposition to the Bush program of war,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice and member of the ANSWER Coalition steering committee. “Members of the Arab and Muslim community marched shoulder-to-shoulder with military families and veterans demanding an end to the occupation of Iraq.”

Reuters estimated the global turnout as more than a million in the 45 countries where protests took place on Saturday. About 50,000 people marched in San Francisco; 1,000 gathered in Crawford, Texas, where George W. Bush owns a ranch; and 1,500 veterans and military families gathered outside Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

The Manhattan march was chaperoned by more than 6,000 police officers, a much larger presence than has been seen before, accompanied by the usual contingent of helicopters and surveillance cameras. Mayor Michael Bloomberg was booed as he briefly walked the route; he later gave his approval of the police department’s work and noted that this was a preview of the kind of security the city plans to use during the Republican National Convention, a weeklong event that begins August 29.

An upbeat mood persisted even after the protesters dispersed. People sported antiwar buttons on the subway and in restaurants, and talked about the convention and upcoming election. “It was a good event,” said Rosen. “I try not to get cynical about it. I can remember marching and shouting, ‘Fuck Mayor Lindsay! Free the Panthers!’ You work up a lot of hope, a lot of energy. But they’re saying only 40,000 people here today? You can find that any given day in Yankee Stadium, where people pay to get in.”

—B.A. Nilsson


Police Chief Robert Wolfgang. Photo by: John Whipple

The Whole Truth?
Documents and comments cast doubt on portions of Albany Police chief’s testimony

Documents obtained from a source close to the police department paint a different picture of the time leading up to former Cmdr. Christian D’Alessandro’s transfer out of the detective’s office than that portrayed by Police Chief Robert Wolfgang in his presentation to the Albany Common Council on March 15.

Wolfgang reported that the transfer happened after “an extended period of unrest,” in which “There was a general feeling that the commander was targeting individuals he disliked. He was alleged to be overbearing and was creating a hostile workplace filled with tension and low morale.”

D’Alessandro’s 2000 and 2001 personnel evaluations, however, give no indication of any such problems. The reports, completed by Wolfgang and signed by Public Safety Commissioner John C. Nielsen, are glowing. “He can be counted on to carry out the directives of the Chief and to look out for the interest of the Administration,” Wolfgang wrote in 2000. D’Alessandro has “excellent problem-solving skills,” is a “creative thinker” and is “able to interact well with peers and subordinates” the report continued. In the 2001 evaluation, Wolfgang wrote that D’Alessandro “can be counted on to shed a favorable light on the Department” and “always acts with the good of the department in mind.”

Wolfgang said Wednesday that this seeming disparity arose because all complaints about D’Alessandro were forwarded to the Office of Professional Standards, and until OPS made a determination in May 2002, he based his evaluations solely on his own observations.

Wolfgang did note on the evaluations that D’Alessandro “may at times attempt to bring about change at a pace that is quicker than practical” and said he may benefit from an “improved system of accountability for supervisors under his command.”

According to a series of memos from 2001 and 2002, D’Alessandro was trying to set up exactly such a system. The memos, addressed mostly to a lieutenant under his command, raise questions about the integrity of record keeping in the office. In one dated Dec. 18, 2001, he wrote that “a sergeant is photocopying overtime slips with your signature photocopied on,” and noted that this was not the first time the lieutenant has been alerted to this problem. In January 2002, a series of memos discussed bonus days for a year without sick leave that had been approved for a detective who in fact had had 21 sick days in 2001.

In another, dated Aug. 15, 2001, D’Alessandro noted that the sign-in sheets for detectives were not being filled out in chronological order, and attached a copy of one on which a single detective is recorded as showing up for work at 1 AM, then calling in sick at 1:15 AM, and then calling in sick again in an entry written down after 5:25 AM, but labeled 1:15 AM.

In March 2002, D’Alessandro began sending memos to the chief requesting stronger support in dealing with resistance within the detectives office to improving administrative oversight. In an April 4, 2002, memo, he wrote, “Supervisory paralysis is setting in without your support and direction. . . . Quite frankly, I am concerned about my ‘job’ but I will not allow it to deter me from faithfully discharging my duties.”

In a May 6, 2002, memo he informed the chief that he had retrieved some deleted computer records of unauthorized compensation days, known as “atta-boy” days, and encouraged the chief to have the Office of Professional Standards use technology professionals to retrieve the rest, which he estimated to total about 330 days, with a minimum cost to the taxpayers of $90,000. A week later he was transferred out of the office.

In his statement on March 15, Wolfgang, in discussing the atta-boy days, said “No records exist that would provide us with a true picture of the extent of the practice.”

After the March 15 meeting, Wolfgang emphasized that the controversy over D’Alessandro had nothing to do overtime issues. He acknowledged Wednesday that D’Alessandro had raised questions about “inaccurate recordkeeping,” but said that “we found in some cases that he was charging, and making allegations against supervisors for things they were not resposible for or were not allowed to be involved in.”

In his report to the council, Wolfgang said D’Alessandro was terminated based on the outcome of the investigation into the creation and distribution of a derogatory flier, and emphasized the “hateful bias-based” nature of the flier.

A source close to the police department questioned Wolfgang’s statement that “there can be no disparity between the way we discipline our command staff and rank and file,” noting that while Wolfgang said that D’Alessandro had been terminated over the flier, other officers who distributed the flier, and even showed it to members of the public in the presence of a commander at the Gateway Diner, have not been disciplined.

“The flier, we weren’t saying it was a good thing, but it isn’t at the heart of [D’Alessandro’s firing],” responded Nielsen. “If an officer is questioned, we hold them responsible for what they say. If it isn’t the truth, then we have in the past, with officers protected by contract, union contracts, moved for dismissal and had arbitrators support us.” When asked if he meant that D’Alessandro was fired for lying under questioning, the commissioner said, “I’m not saying that. I said what I said. . . . I’m not commenting on what was the reason. I’m commenting on what wasn’t the reason.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute
maxel-lute@metroland.net, 463-2500 ext. 141

Trailmix: Primary, Primary Again

The outcome of the 3rd District Albany County legislative primary remains up in the air. On Friday (March 19), state Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi approved a settlement in cases brought by candidates in three districts. The legal battle centered on more than 100 absentee ballots for the March 2 primary, obtained and returned—and in some cases allegedly filled out—by 3rd Ward leader Jamie Gilkey [“And in This Corner. . .,” Trail Mix, March 18].

The settlement allowed the results from contested Democratic primaries in the 2nd and 4th districts to stand, making Marilyn Hammond and Virginia Maffia-Tobler the respective winners over Lucille McKnight and Ward De Witt, but established that a new primary will be held to decide a winner in Albany’s 3rd District.

So on April 8, incumbent Wanda Willingham will yet again face off against Jestin Williams to see who will hold the Democratic line in the general election on April 27.

The new 3rd District primary will see increased polling place precautions including a limited number of poll watchers and increased law- enforcement presence. Furthermore, any one agent can collect only five absentee ballot requests for this election, as opposed to the 115 that Gilkey and his assistants, including City Council President Pro Tempore Michael Brown, collected for the 3rd District race.

To Willingham, the five-ballot rule is significant because “that absentee ballot process is what was used to control especially the lower wards,” she said. “If you have the control of the absentee ballots, then you have control of the wards.” Although Willingham risks losing the slight lead she held over Williams after March 2, she said that making the problems with the absentee ballots public will be worth it even if she loses.

And it will be a tough race. “People are not used to voting in April,” said Willingham, who notes that the first special election in March was bad enough. She anticipates a low voter turnout and is trying to get the word out by making calls “and just doing a lot of talking to people about what went on,” she said. “People have a lot of questions.”

Williams agrees that many in the community have questions about the election and why their votes were invalidated, and he is also working on voter outreach. “They’re concerned about voting, they want their votes to count,” he said, adding that people were troubled by what occurred. “They want a fair process. They don’t want to be intimidated.”

Gilkey was Williams’ campaign manager, but going forward, Williams said, “I don’t really know at this time whether Mr. Gilkey will be involved or not.”

Williams and Willingham each point fingers, blaming the other side for the problems in their election. Willingham said she would like to see further investigation of Gilkey’s activities leading up to March 2, and expects that others will pick up the ball. “There are so many other people who were involved in this,” she said. “This is far from being over.”

Williams said dragging their constituents into court caused legitimately cast votes to be thrown out and took voters through testimonies that even Willingham, who brought the case, characterized as “embarrassing” invasions of privacy. Still, both candidates express optimism about the outcome of the upcoming reprimary.

There is also a pending complaint that was filed with the State Board of Elections by Lillie Mae Saunders, president of the tenants’ association at Townsend Park, a public housing property at 45 Central Ave. owned by the Albany Housing Authority, Gilkey’s employer. She said Gilkey was in the building on Sunday Feb. 22.

When stopped by a resident on tenant patrol, Gilkey said he was there for the housing authority to fix a leaky pipe and gave a fake name. But the housing authority said there was no one sent to fix a pipe and no employee by that name, and instructed tenants to call the police. By the time Saunders arrived, Gilkey offered his real name, and while they were waiting, Michael Brown arrived. “As the officers came, [Brown] vouched for the guy and they let him go,” said Saunders. Brown did not return calls for comment.

At that time Saunders said she did not know Gilkey had come to collect absentee ballot requests, which he later delivered. There is a polling place at 45 Central Ave. A week later, she learned Gilkey had helped tenants fill out their ballots, in some cases not showing them their vote. “They just signed and he checked off who they wanted to vote for and took the envelope with him.”

Though Gilkey declined to comment on a complaint he said he had not read, in his testimony before Judge Teresi on March 18, he acknowledged that he visited 45 Central Ave. several times, one of which was on a Sunday “a couple of weeks before the primary,” in an effort to counter absentee canvassing done by Willingham’s husband. He also noted that Saunders had held a rally in support of Willingham.

Lee Daghlian, director of public information for the State Board of Elections, confirmed that Saunders’ complaint is being reviewed.

—Ashley Hahn
ahahn@metroland.net


With This Sticker, I Thee Wed

Pride Alliance “married” pairs of same-sex students in the UAlbany Campus Center on Tuesday as a demonstration of support for same-sex marriages in New York state and an opportunity to distribute information on same-sex marriage. Students stood under an arch, affirming their commitment to marriage equality for same-sex couples, and, as Pride Alliance member Brandon Conner said, “uniting people in the fight for civil marriage.” Couples recited a pledge and stuck stickers on each other (in lieu of rings) that read, “Equal rights. No more. No less.” Then they high-fived, hugged or kissed.

—Ashley Hahn


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