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16th December
2003

First Published in The New York Sun, December 16, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

  If Saddam Hussein had been captured by the New York’s Department of Education, he’d already be back in the palace, business as usual. 

The utter disaster that is the safety and disciplinary policies of our school system is was a part — a big part — of the problem before Mayor Bloomberg seized control of the school system. However, the reorganization of the Department of Education has greatly worsened this already grim situation. 

    That the mayor has assumed responsibility last week and pledged change is just fine. We expect no less. However, the change must be real, and real change in this case is radical change. 
    The ideology behind the safety and discipline path we have been following is part and parcel of the same touchy-feely programs that have been put in place on the instructional side. We expect little and we get less. 

    Just as we have promoted the concept of “student-directed” instruction, we now also have a form of student-directed discipline. 

    Last week, at an elementary school, Brooklyn’s P.S. 19, teachers spontaneously revolted and refused to bring their classes up to their rooms for the first two periods of the school day. Why? Because two children who were arrested the previous day for bringing a gun and a box cutter to school, and three other students who were involved in the incident but only suspended, were back in school. Business as usual. 

    Even at the elementary school level, the message the system sends is one of weakness. If a principal suspends a child, he must inform the parents of the right to appeal, and to have an “advocate” represent them.The result of this is that for many serious offenses, punishment, if it ever occurs, is deferred, sometimes for weeks or even months. Often the child doesn’t even recall what it is he or she is being punished for. 

    These hearings used to be held in the 32 now-abandoned Community School District offices. The Tweed gang decided to move all of the hearings in the city to 110 Livingston Street in Brooklyn, the former Board of Education headquarters. I question the idea of having hearings at all. 

    Come to think of it, to call this system a disaster is an understatement. For the first months of this school year, few hearings have been resolved. Even before the security issuepercolated to the front pages last week, the DOE had already committed to “decentralizing” the hearings to five borough centers.This is still unacceptable. 

    It is not just the children and their parents that must attend the hearing, but the complaining teacher and often a dean, assistant principal, or the principal herself. All of these hearings take place during the school day, which means that if a teacher is involved, a day’s instruction is lost. Moreover, accused children, even elementary school children, have the right to “subpoena” witnesses, which could include other teachers, as well as students (but only with the consent of their parents). Understand that most of these matters are unambiguous as to the culpability of the child. 

    Many of the scheduled hearings are postponed, causing teachers and children to lose even more classroom time. You see, students have the right to a postponement in order to “prepare” their case. And in the event that the child and parents don’t know about all of these rights, the “advocates” paid for by the DOE are on hand to be sure that they are well informed. 

    Frankly, the idea of “due process” for elementary and middle-school students is ludicrous. The lesson we must teach younger children is that when they misbehave, punishment is immediate and severe. The final word must be that of the principal. 

    The school is the highest level of the school system that children comprehend. If we send them the message that the principal is not the “boss,” we remove the aura of authority that is essential to maintain discipline. 

    It is not only the child accused of the infraction that is being given the wrong message, but the other students as well. What do you think the children at P.S. 19 were saying and thinking last Thursday when the pupils who were arrested and those suspended for this serious crime, just the day before, were back in school? 

    At a time when the “work rules” of the teachers are being brought into question, and the administration delights in recounting the difficulties in removing teachers who deserve dismissal, the concern for due process for children and teens whose conduct is sometimes criminal, often dangerous, and always disruptive is truly amazing. 

    This is at the heart of the horror stories we’ve been hearing over the past week. The students know that they — and their parents — can abuse the system. 

    Children, even young children accused of the most serious offenses, don’t take the system seriously because they know that punishment is neither swift nor sure. 

    By the time they arrive at high school, the biggest troublemakers have gotten the lay of the land. They know that they don’t need to respect or fear the system.That’s why schools such as Washington Irving High School have spun out of control. 

    The big losers are the students who do come into school to learn, pupils whose education is disrupted and compromised by the troublemakers. 

    Teachers devoting a disproportionate amount of time to controlling one or two disruptive children are shortchanging all of the others in their classes. If you don’t think that this loss of time and energy is reflected in test scores, think again. 

    If we send the right message to students when they are young, the anarchy we now see in some of our high schools will no longer have a chance to develop. 

    Some of the mandates that have undermined discipline and safety in the schools have come through the courts or by threat of lawsuit by those concerned for the “rights” of the troublemakers. It seems that only the miscreants get their day in court. 

    Chancellor Klein, a major-league lawyer himself, should vigorously fight to preserve the rights and safety of the school personnel who come in to do their job, and the vast majority of our students who come in to learn.

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

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