Issue of the Week

Teachers As Cops?

by Tracey Middlekauff

29 October 01

In a Manhattan public school, a boy kissed a girl while they were alone. She complained to a teacher. He protested that she wanted him to kiss her; she said that she did not. The teacher called the cops. The boy was taken away in handcuffs.

"I'm not going to defend what he did, I have three daughters," says Jill Herman, who was principal of the school at the time. "But I don't know if it was criminal. I don't know if it was harassment. I felt it could have been worked out."

But Herman had no discretion to do so, she says, because Board of Education regulations dictate that such an incident must be reported to the police.

On November 6, voters have an opportunity to weigh in on an issue that is more complicated than recent headlines might suggest. One of the proposals that will be on the ballot, called the school reporting proposal, would, if passed, "require Board of Education officials and employees to report immediately to the New York Police Department information relating to suspected crimes in public schools, including sex-offenses and violent crimes." It would turn policy into law, and levy a legal punishment on those teachers and others who did not contact the police.

It would be difficult to find anyone who would argue that teachers should not report cases of adult misconduct towards children. But what about peer shenanigans such as that incident in Jill Herman's old school? What exactly are "suspected crimes," critics ask, and should teachers under threat of punishment take on in effect the role of cops?

A RISE IN INCIDENTS?

Several recent cases of sexual assault perpetrated by students have contributed to the perception that the situation is spiraling out of control. In October of last year, a 12-year-old girl at MS 2 in Brooklyn was allegedly pulled to the ground and sexually assaulted by a 13-year old boy; the Daily News reported that the school did not allow the girl to call home after the incident. Three students at IS 158 in the Bronx were charged with attempted rape against a 14-year old girl last May, and a teacher there told the Daily News that sexual activity in the school was rampant. In another case last spring, two 6th grade boys at Community School 66 in the Bronx were charged with trapping two girls, 11 and 12, in the stairwell and then fondling them; school officials reportedly failed to notify police of the incident.

In May, second-grade Bronx teacher Milton McFarlane was charged with sexual abuse, sodomy, sexual misconduct and endangering the welfare of a child after allegations that he victimized a 9-year-old boy in his classroom. What shocked many, beyond the act itself, was that McFarlane had been charged with the same criminal counts involving an 8-year-old boy in an earlier instance and was still teaching.

Taken at face value, the statistics paint a bleak picture of the situation as well. The New York Times reported in June that sexual incidents for the year 2001 jumped 13 percent to 354, four times the national average, while other crimes in schools appeared to be down.

The problem, many say, is that these statistics do not paint an accurate picture. Three-quarters of the incidents are classified as third degree, the least serious, which can include a wide array of offenses, and does not differentiate between acts perpetrated by students or teachers. It is also unclear whether the number of incidents have risen, or whether reporting has risen. Additionally, it is unclear from the statistics what sorts of incidents, if any, have increased. Donna Lieberman, an attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union, says, "Nobody has an accurate assessment. It is all being lumped together."

A REPORTING PROBLEM

Faced with highly publicized incidents in which school authorities failed to do anything, Schools Chancellor Harold Levy distributed a policy directive in June, 2000 to all school principals which mandated, upon threat of disciplinary action, that all incidents of a criminal nature be reported to the police.

In June 2001, the City Council Education Committee drafted legislation that would legally require all Board of Ed employees to report any crime or suspected crime to the police; failure to do so would risk being found guilty of a misdemeanor, with a possible one-year jail sentence or a fine of up to $1,000. A vote has been indefinitely postponed.

But now the charter proposal on school reporting will be on the ballot.

Levy was careful in his testimony before the City Council to emphasize that "we do not [want to] act in a way that criminalizes behavior that in some cases could be developmentally appropriate." But many experts say that over reporting has already led to criminalization of such behavior.

PRO AND CON

Jill Chaifetz of Advocates for Children, a group which, among other things, works in educational advocacy, says that no one is against making schools safe. However, she adds, "Ever since Levy announced you'll get fined if you don't report everything, reporting has skyrocketed. ... We're getting the craziest cases. A 6-year-old girl had a pointy comb and was suspended for bringing a dangerous weapon. ... We've had 6-year olds accused of sexual harassment." Chaifetz says that there has been a "general complete overreaction." The passage of the legislation or the charter revision proposal would only make things worse, she feels.

Detective Terrance Wansley, a co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement, says that he can see merits on both sides of the issue. At the same time, he feels that a blanket mandate to report all suspected offenses could lead to problems. "I can say, as it stands, unless they get very specific, it's going to be a mess," Wansley says. Of course, he points out, as everyone agrees, all cases involving an adult must be taken very seriously and be reported. But in cases of alleged peer-on-peer misconduct, he points out some difficulties he has faced.

"I've found it difficult, as an investigator, to go into certain schools and interview students--victims or perpetrators," he says. In addition, he says, "I've seen school officials relay just the bare, incomplete facts. School officials aren't trained in criminal activity."

Indeed, better training for teachers is an issue some point to as not only a good preventive measure, but also a good way to deal with the current reporting situation. Advocates like Chaifetz and Lieberman argue that the Board of Ed needs to draw a clear line between criminal and inappropriate behavior, and then give the teachers the skills necessary to accurately perceive the difference. "If the school system holds principals accountable and gives them the means to train their staff, we'll go a long way towards dealing with disciplinary problems," Lieberman maintains. "Kneejerk penalties with criminal sentences is counterproductive."

Chancellor Levy, in his testimony on the school crime reporting bill, pointed to prevention programs such as conflict resolution, mentoring efforts, and gang preventions programs as steps the board has taken to help keep students safe from violence of all kinds. But Jill Chaifetz does not see enough emphasis on the right kinds of prevention. She cites measures such as peer-to-peer training, teaching students about inappropriate behavior, and more clear training for teachers as steps in the right direction. Jill Herman, the principal with the smooching boy, concurs. "We need to have real discussions about gray areas, and about what is expected adolescent behavior."

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