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26th December

First Published in The New York Sun, December 26, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein were quick to try and repair the damage done by two weeks of miserable publicity surrounding the school safety and discipline issue. 

    The low point was the sit-down in Far Rockaway High School between Mr. Klein, union leaders, and Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott. The United Federation of Teachers president, Randi Weingarten, insisted that the summit take place at one of the troubled schools, rather than in the comfort of the Tweed Courthouse. Right on cue, as the reporters stood by, a student gone berserk was subdued by cops. 
    So it’s no wonder that Ms. Weingarten was “discouraged” from attending Tuesday’s announcement of the administration’s suggested remedies. The new plans may quiet things for a while, but won’t do as much good as the nearly two-week holiday recess just begun. 

    There is much good in the new proposal, but the key is implementation. What is necessary here is not just tougher enforcement, but losing what Diane Ravitch called the “deeply held philosophy of wimpishness that makes it nearly impossible…to draw a sharp line between right and wrong.” 

    Not clear is how the plan impacts on schools in the lower grades, as opposed to the high schools. That is where the problem will be fixed in the long term. Once things spin out of control as we have been seeing in the high schools, the only answer seems to convert those schools into a mini police states. 

    This has an extraordinarily negative impact on the learning environment. For example, the introduction of metal detectors in the more dangerous high schools has led to long lines of impatient pupils waiting to get into these buildings. One doesn’t need to use too much imagination to see how this can start off the learning day with a push, a shove, or a fight. 

    However, once the school has come to the point where the metal detector is deemed necessary, who would ever advocate for its removal? 

    The mayor intends to designate a number of “impact” schools using methodology similar to the widely hailed Compstat program. So far, so good. 

    If the mayor is to be believed, these schools will literally be flooded with law enforcement personnel. School- based police officers will report to special precinct-based school safety sergeants. Probation officers will be assigned to work in the schools, and the number of school safety officers will be increased. 
    Of course, there will be increased “professional development” in security topics for principals, as if they’re not already being pulled out of their buildings far too often. 

    All this is necessary, but it is equally unfortunate. The key to the overall success of the discipline and safety plan is to prevent the high schools and even some junior highs from becoming such joyless places. That battle must be fought at the elementary school level, the place where we clearly telegraph our weakness and lack of resolve. 

    Even if they don’t learn to read, write, and do math, the weakness of the system to maintain control is the lesson that too many students are learning early on. 

    That’s why principals need to be empowered as the final authority in all matters of discipline. The concept of the appeal in the case of suspensions is insane. Toward this end, it appears that the mayor and chancellor have made some progress. 

    It appears that the current disciplinary code, which Ms. Ravitch brutally dissected in an article published in the New York Post on December 19, is in the process of being changed. It wasn’t said in so many words, so the scope and potential effectiveness of the changes remains to be seen. 

    The old document was clearly written on behalf of the due process rights of the miscreant rather than protecting the safety and learning environment of the majority of students. 

    The idea that a student can be removed from a school for a relatively minor infraction after having been suspended twice in a period of two years is a strong step in the right direction — if it is, indeed, enforced. That’s the rub. 

    In the past, principals were evaluated negatively if they issued too many suspensions. Will they be pressured to look the other way under the new plan as well? 

    Another positive development is that teachers and other school staffers will be permitted to testify by phone at suspension hearings. Outrageously, for the first few months of this school year, teachers were being pulled out of their classes and sent to “testify” at these hearings in Brooklyn. Every day, thousands of students were losing instructional time. 

    The question I have is why we are even holding hearings at all. The idea of due process in the schools is bizarre, particularly in the lower grades. A system that allows a third grader to “subpoena” an adult — taking a teacher away from the class — is a system that clearly has lost its way. 

    If it is the judgment of the principal that a child must be punished, that should be the end of the road. You cannot demonstrate to the child that she is controlling the situation. 

    The stakes in the schools are often far greater than in real life. An assault usually has one victim. However, every child in a class where there is a disruptive student becomes a victim as well. 

    It a sad that we have come to a point where a mayor must stand in front of reporters and announce that the school system will work closely with the criminal justice system so that the courts can “make the right bail and sentencing decisions.” 

    However, if we want to move from the awful reality we face today, we have to exhibit a new toughness (or perhaps the same toughness many of us knew as students) to our elementary and middle school students. 

    Perhaps. in five years, the students coming up to high school will enter with a different attitude, respect for a system that rewards right and punishes wrong. 

    In the meantime, don’t expect an end to the problems we have brought on by our past failures, or the resentments that will surely occur in a system now forced to overcompensate just to ensure the basic safety that is every child’s right.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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