Students leave Washington Irving High School under the gaze of the famous New Yorker for whom their school is named, the author of Rip Van Winkle. But Rip might be amazed at what has happened to the school, which is now patrolled by more than a dozen police officers and security guards. On a recent afternoon, police cars, police trucks, even police sports utility vehicles lined the street outside the school.
"Everywhere you go you see a cop," said student Monica McAllister on the sidewalk.
"It's like a prison," added Diabe Diaman, a classmate.
A police officer called out from his car, "let's go, ladies and gentlemen," and then sounded his siren.
The massive police presence at Washington Irving is repeated at the 11 other public schools that were deemed this month the most dangerous in the city. (see box). Flooding these dozen schools with police is just one part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's major new campaign. "We brought down crime in the city; everybody said it couldn't be done," Bloomberg said at a press conference. "There's no reason why we can't bring down crime in the schools."
No one disputes the need for safer schools. "The question is, does having police in class make schools safer?" says Jill Chaifetz, executive director of Advocates for Children, a non-profit group that works on education issues. "There's no indication that it does."
By most accounts, violence and crime in schools have actually declined in recent years -- both nationally and even locally. Serious crimes have gone down in NYC public schools by 23 percent in the last two years, and though it has crept back up a bit since July, Bloomberg says "we are not having a crime wave in the schools."
The discipline code for New York City schools, distributed to all students, is a 26-page book ranking infractions from level 1 (not wearing a school uniform, if one is required, or being late) to level 5 (selling illegal drugs or using a firearm in school).
Offenders face a range of penalties from a reprimand to suspension. A principal may suspend a student for no longer than five days. A regional superintended may suspend a student for up to a year and can even expel a general education (i.e. not special education) student who has turned 17.
Any student facing suspension of more than five days is entitled to a hearing. Advocates for Children offers a number of manuals for parents of students facing suspension.
All suspended students must receive some kind of instruction. For short-term suspensions, this can be provided in the school either during the normal school day or after school. Students who are chronically disruptive can be assigned to New Beginning Centers. So-called SOS - for Second Opportunity Schools - serve students with long-term suspensions usually for being violent. School officials say that such programs are designed to prepare a child for returning to regular classes.
But some question this optimistic picture. "No matter what the Education Department is saying, there is a growing problem in school violence," said City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, who is a likely mayoral candidate.
Clearly problems exist. Assaults on teachers rose from 105 in the 2001-2002 school year to 149 in 2002-2003, according to the United Federation of Teachers, and have risen another 40 percent since September.
Under the promise of anonymity, principals and others complained in a survey by Congressman Anthony Weiner's office this fall that school officials were slow to approve requests to suspend students. Because of the delays, a student who had committed a serious offense could remain in school for up to three weeks before being punished.
Delays have been blamed on the mayor's reorganization of the city school system. Officials in the five high school district offices used to process requested suspensions within 48 hours. But Bloomberg got rid of those offices, and the centralized office assigned to review suspensions seemed unable to handle them promptly.
Meanwhile, newspapers have fueled the sense of urgency by focusing on individual horror stories: A pregnant woman suffered serious injuries when she was struck by a chair dropped or thrown from an upper story window at Washington Irving. A 16-year-old student at Beach Channel High School in Rockaway smashed his former girlfriend's head into a glass trophy case. A ninth-grader tried to bring a loaded semiautomatic handgun into Adlai E. Stevenson High School in the Bronx.
Even a few incidents such as these affect education, distracting teachers and frightening staff and students alike. And many incidents that fall short of crime - verbal harassment, for instance, or shoving - can intimidate other students.
Disorderly schools cost money - as much as $240 million a year, Marc Epstein, a dean of students at Jamaica High School, wrote in the New York Post. To arrive at that number, Epstein estimates that literally hundreds of deans in city high school and middle schools spend most, if not all, their time on discipline and safety.
School violence has challenged New York City mayors at least since the Lindsay administration. In 1969, the situation at Franklin K. Lane was so extreme that the city shut down the school temporarily. Today, Lane is on the list of 12 dangerous schools.
During his tenure, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried to address the problem by putting school security agents under the supervision of the New York police department. Two years ago, after two students were shot and seriously wounded at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Manhattan on the birthday of the civil rights leader, the school chancellor, Harold Levy promised to improve security.
The most recent school safety plan borrows terminology and techniques from the efforts of the last 12 years to bring down street crime.
Bloomberg says his plan will:
- Identify particularly dangerous schools - so far, 10 high schools and two middle schools. According to statistics released by the mayor's office, these 12 schools together accounted for 13 percent of all serious crime in New York City's more than 1,200 public schools. The police department will assign approximately 150 additional officers to the schools, and teams of police and Department of Education officials will evaluate attendance, safety and discipline. Calling these "Impact Schools," the mayor said he was modeling the plan on Operation Impact, which, he said, brought down crime by deploying additional police to specific locations in the city where there had been a high incidence of crime.
- Use the city's computerized crime tracking COMPSTAT system to identify dangerous schools.
- Crack down on minor offenses, such as cursing and insulting other students. Taking a page from the broken windows approach to fighting crime, which holds that "quality -of-life" offenses set the stage for more serious infractions, the mayor says that disruptive students "can create an atmosphere conducive to more serious incidents."
- Focus on habitual troublemakers. Students with at least two suspensions in two years could be immediately removed from school, even for a non-violent offense, such as smoking, cursing or being disruptive on a school bus. Here, the mayor is using the model of Operation Spotlight, which targets people who repeatedly commit minor crimes. "Just as 'Operation Spotlight' has resulted in the quick removal of chronic miscreants from our streets," said the mayor, "Spotlight students will be quickly removed from our schools."
- Create more centers for suspended students. This would include centers in school for students suspended for a matter of days and so-called "New Beginnings" schools for chronically troublesome students. The program also calls for putting more students in the SOS, for second-opportunity schools, that serve students under long-term suspension, usually for violent offenses.
- Streamline the suspension process. The mayor promised that all suspensions will once again be reviewed within five days.
- Have principals take increased responsibility for making their buildings safe.
Some politicians and educators hailed the mayor's program. "It's a good plan," said City Councilmember Peter Vallone. "It shows what happens when the mayor and [police commissioner] Ray Kelly get together. They come up with some good ideas."
But others had doubts.
"If it's done well, students will feel more safe," said Richard Arum, an associate professor at New York University's Steinhardt School of Education and the author of a book on school discipline. "If it's done in an authoritarian way, it will alienate more kids."
The Dangerous Schools
The 12 schools listed as being the most dangerous in the city and receiving extra police are:
"Many of the 12 schools on the mayor's list already feel like minimum-security prisons, with metal detectors at the entrance and security officers with billy clubs and squawking walkie-talkies," Clara Hemphill, editor of Inside Schools, wrote after the mayor's announcement.
Even students in generally safe schools gripe about what they see as abuses by guards -- being questioned in the halls, not being allowed to hang out near the school building when classes end for the day, and being treated rudely. This is nothing especially new -- two years ago at relatively safe Midwood High School, a boy approached the security desk asking if he could speak to someone about how to enroll in the Brooklyn school, only to be told brusquely that he had to leave immediately: "People in there have better things to do than to talk to you," a guard said. But more and more students seem to be complaining about the security procedures. Metal detectors at some schools and the checking of identification create long delays, forcing them to arrive very early at school.
For adults, though, the question usually comes down to whether all these measures will make schools safer. By focusing on 12 buildings, the mayor's plan does not cover enough schools, says Eva Moskowitz, chair of the City Council Education Committee. "What about school number 13?" she asked. "If you have ten fewer incidents, you get no police presence."
To address problems at every school, Vallone, who chairs the council's Public Safety Committee, has proposed a bill to place security cameras at all entrances to all schools. "I have not spoken to anyone who does not think cameras in schools are a good idea," he said. Many, including people in the administration, do object to the projected cost, which Vallone estimates at $100 million.
Other proposals call for improving conditions for the 4,000 school security officers. Although the police department supervises school security, the officers are not members of the New York City Police Department. At a recent rally sponsored by Teamsters Union Local 237, which represents the officers, speakers complained of poor equipment, low pay - it peaks at about $28,000 a year regardless of seniority and the officers have not had a raise in three years - and few, if any, opportunities for advancement.
"It's a rewarding job," says office Joanne Johnson, but it's also difficult and dangerous. The officers, she says, are fighting for more money, for better equipment and for more respect, particularly from the police department. "They look at us like they wouldn't do what we do."
HELPING DISRUPTIVE STUDENTS
What becomes of the disruptive and particularly the violent student forced to leave school? "Will suspensions help?" asks Jay Gottlieb, a professor at the Steinhardt School. "Yes, but not the kids who are suspended."
National experts agree. Suspension "contributes to the achievement gap and starts the chain of events that leads to kids dropping out," David Richart, the author of a Kentucky study on suspension told NEA Today.
Over the years, city schools have launched a number of programs for disruptive students. One, the so-called "600" schools, was closed by court order because the overwhelming majority of students in them were black and Hispanic boys. Others still exist, although with new names.
Concerns still exist over the makeup of the student body at the special programs. More than 90 percent of students at Second Opportunity students last June were black or Hispanic, compared to 73 percent of the general school population, according to Advocate for Children. Over 70 percent were male, and 43 percent were receiving special education.
Joseph Collins is director of education for The Door, a Second Opportunity School, run by University Settlement. His program serves students who have been suspended for a year. It provides an academic program as well as counseling and less traditional approaches, such as music and art therapy - all aimed at preparing youngsters to return to a regular school. Because the program is new, few statistics exist on its success, but, Collins says, "kids are coming here every hour, every day all year so we must be doing something right." On an average day 75 percent of students attend.
Whatever the merits of such programs, it would be better to keep kids from getting into trouble in the first place. Beyond increasing security, what can - and should - be done?
Some problems, such as an era in which there is less adult supervision in general, fall beyond the reach of school officials, says Arum. But other problems can be addressed.
Teachers need more training in how to control classes, says Jay Gottlieb "Many kids don't know the appropriate way to behave in the classroom," he says. "It really has to be taught to kids, and it's not." Such instruction he says must take place in elementary school and requires the commitment of principal.
Others say discipline problems reflect basic problems in city schools, particularly high schools. Certainly the 12 "Impact" schools are not paragons of academic excellence. Students at Washington Irving fault the quality of teaching they receive. Only 55 percent of students there graduate in four years, and just half pass their English Regents. Other schools show even more dire results. At Adlai E. Stevenson, for example, only 37.1 percent graduated in four years and a mere 21 percent passed their English Regents.
And other problems confront these schools. Sheepshead Bay High School is "so sprawling and confusing that even the principal has difficulty finding her way around," says the Inside Schools web site. "Corridors are so crowded during class changes that kids complain the human gridlock makes them late to class."
"Almost every one of the high schools on the list is severely overcrowded," says Jill Chaifetz noting that one, Christopher Columbus, has so many students that it is on triple session. Chaifetz says smaller classes and smaller schools would make for safer classes and safer schools.
Many students, says Arum, have no interest in traditional academics. To make the curriculum "more relevant and engaging" to such students, he says, schools should bring back vocation education. "The purpose of vocational education," he says, is not so much to prepare students for particular jobs as "to get people to interact with school in positive ways."
Like Arum, Collins says that high school education must change to keep students from ending up in programs like his. "The system needs an overhaul," he says. "The culture of kids today is very different from five years ago and you need to address that." As an example, he says that The Door has a recording studio and uses many youngsters' enthusiasm for hip-hop to get them to become engaged and work on language.
In this era of standardized testing, uniform curriculums and little money, the chances for many of these changes seem remote. And many would argue that nothing will work unless students feel safe and secure in their classes and corridors. The mayor seems determined to do just that. "If I have to put a police officer next to every kid, we will," he said.
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