2000-02-26 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

There are those who believe the old maxim that discipline follows instruction. If only a teacher can find the way to properly motivate and instruct the student, then the necessary discipline will follow.

That is about as true today as "there is no such thing as a bad boy."

Both are anachronisms, better relegated to the dustbin of history along with buggy whips and beta video recorders.

The fact is that there can be no instruction until the discipline question is addressed. As a matter of fact, those in charge of the educational community have often refused to address that issue in the past and it is not being adequately addressed even now.

The Daily News, for example, recently ran an editorial decrying "musical teachers," the policy of allowing inadequate teachers to transfer to another school in lieu of receiving an unsatisfactory rating.

While that does go on, and it should not, the paper should be aware of a much more destructive game – the game of musical students. That game requires that a student who has assaulted a teacher or another student be suspended and sent to another district school where he or she is free to attack again.

That game of musical students—not the game of musical teachers – is the one that disrupts the system most, and it is still going on in our district today.

Here is the way it works, a fictional case study in what happens each week in our schools. Student A attacks a teacher at JHS 198.

Unless the teacher is injured so badly that he or she needs hospital attention, the attack is legally not an assault, but only a case of Harassment Third Class, a misdemeanor hardly worth mentioning.

A teacher who does not accept transport to a hospital by EMS can expect that the attack will never be prosecuted.

There is a move to change the law to give teachers the same protection as police officers, firefighters and EMS workers. The law says that it is a felony to attack a member of any of those groups. The teachers want the same protection, but it is unlikely that the State Assembly will allow the change because that group has never met a person it did not want to protect against the minions of the law.

If the student is a special education student, then he or she is protected from any punishment for the assault unless a weapon was used. That is the stupid fact of life in today’s schools. A special ed student can be suspended twice for five days each. After that, every assault is free.

At one school recently, a special education student assaulted two teachers within two weeks. Neither teacher needed medical attention and both filed charges with the police. There was no action taken against the student by the school. Just days later, an assistant principal picked him up for cutting class and running around the school cafeteria.

"There is nothing you can do to me, and I know it," he told the AP and the school’s dean. He was right. He was later transferred to another district school pending transfer to an upstate facility. His mother will probably never allow him to go upstate and he will be another player in the game of "musical students."

There are students in our district who have attended all three middle schools in Rockaway and are now working on their first or second "mainland" school.

For a long time, the system had "600 schools" and programs for emotionally handicapped students that kept those students out of the mainstream, away from those kids who wanted to learn. The programs provided for extra adult help and for self-contained classroom situations where the students were not allowed out of the room without an adult.

The "600 schools are long gone, the victim of political correctness. The feeling was that there were too many minority kids in the program and that was prima face evidence that the program was racist.

Even the emotionally handicapped programs have been eviscerated by the fact that special education is no longer politically correct. Kids who should have been placed in MIS II (emotionally handicapped) programs with extra adults and a self-contained situation are being kept out of special education altogether. They are kept out by district administrators who put pressure on school based support teams to keep kids out of the programs, even if, in the best educational judgment of psychologists and educational evaluators, the kids belong there. In some cases, they are placed in MIS I classes, structured for the learning disabled. Those classes do not require extra adult help.

In some schools, those kids run wild, destroying all semblance of education in the building.

The new Second Opportunity Schools (SOS Schools) in each borough were supposed to take care of the problem of those kids who could not operate in a regular school setting.

There are two such schools in the Bronx, but there are none for students in Queens. That is because the proposed site for the school in Long Island City was across the street from a Citibank office building and Terri Thomson, the Queens representative to the Board of Education (who works for Citibank) vetoed the project. For that reason, we continue to play musical students.

It is not the fault of the education infrastructure that this happens. It is the law as set by the central board and by the "child advocate" groups that keep teachers from teaching and students from learning.

It is also the fault of a community that sees education as an enemy and sees violence and macho behavior as a good.

One day last week I stopped at a fish store in Far Rockaway. To get to the store I had to pass a group of kids, all about nine or ten years old, "playing" wrestling. They were bouncing each other around, using their elbows to hit each other hard in the back of the neck. They were rolling around on the ground. By the time I got my fish and walked out of the store, the "play fighting" has turned to a real fight and one kid almost went through the store’s plate glass window. The kids were really pummeling each other.

I went to stop it, but my wife reminded me that they were not my students and I had no jurisdiction on the street. I looked into the window of the wash and dry place next door and saw two women watching the fight. They had been watching the kids when I went in and were still watching.

As I got to my car, the parents of some of the kids came out of the wash place. They cheered the kids on, laughing at the fight and urging them to "kill each other," and to "give him the elbow."

How do teachers deal with those kids in school when they begin to wrestle and fight? What happens when the disruptive behavior leads to a call home and the teachers are told by the parents to leave their kids alone, that they are doing nothing wrong? What happens when a kid is suspended for extremely bizarre behavior in school and the parents come up and blame the school for his actions?

What happens when a kid is picked up by the police truancy patrol blocks from school at 10 a.m. and the school calls home, only to be told by the parent that "my son had my permission to stop for breakfast and the cops had no right picking him up?

No new standards or threats to teachers and principals will work until the discipline piece is in place.

If this system is failing, it is not because of teachers or administrators. It is because the society and the lawmakers refuse to face the fact that the discipline piece needs to be realistically addressed before anything else happens.

That is not going to happen, however, because it is not politically correct and it is easier for politicians who want to get elected to trash teachers and supervisors.

The school board will pick a new superintendent next Monday night. If that person is realistic, he or she will end the musical student syndrome and will make it the first piece of business to find a way to bring discipline to the schools.


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