2001-03-10 / Columnists

School Scope

Stand outside any school in this district, any school in the city. Ask parents who are waiting for their children. Ask teachers who are going home for the day. Ask principals and assistant principals. Ask guidance counselors and aides. Ask them to state their major concern about the New York City school system.

You will not hear about promotion rates. You will not hear about standards. You will not hear about standardized tests. You will not hear about tenure or salary levels. You will not hear about supplies. You will not hear about bilingual education. You will not hear about charters or vouchers.

In almost every case, you will hear about one problem and one problem only. That problem will be discipline.

It might be stated in terms of "safety" or it might be stated in terms of "kids get away with too much today," but it will all come down to discipline.

The problem? There is little discipline in our schools today and it is getting worse.

You can blame the people in the individual schools for this lack of discipline, but you would be wrong.

The lack of discipline comes right from the top. It comes from the central Board of Education and from the district offices.

It comes from the Advocates For Children who forced suspense hearings to be more like trials and it comes from the courts, who ruled that the individual rights of a child to disrupt classroom education outweigh the rights of the rest of the kids in the class to get an education. It comes from district offices that are afraid that too many suspended students will make the superintendent look bad and it comes from parents who care only for their child’s education when they see a chance to bring suit against the system.

Take, for example, the case of Student M. This is a real case and the events are real. It is happening today at a school in this district. In the past several weeks, this MIS II student has assaulted four teachers, has injured a female student by throwing a pencil into her eye, has started a riot in the cafeteria, has wandered the hall continuously, cursing at teachers and other students and has had to be restrained by security agents. In one case, he was so violent that the security agents cuffed him because they feared for their safety and the safety of the other kids in the cafeteria. In each case he threatened the people who tried to stop him from committing these actions with bodily hard. Since Student M is approximately 6 foot 2 inches tall and 250 pounds, people have to take him seriously.

Student M continues to wander the halls. He has been suspended briefly for a couple of days, but that is the only sanction he has faced.

I know that Student M is a special education student, and therefore exempt from all the rules of civilized behavior and that is a major problem. Today, however, even students who are not in special education are treated in a like manner.

Take a look at the Citywide Standards of Conduct and Uniform Disciplinary Measures, (AKA, "The Discipline Code") a pamphlet put out by the chancellor and amended last in August of 1998. It is supposed to be the document that outlines the punishment for students who transgress in our schools.

The punishments range from a Level 1 (which calls for anything from a parent-teacher conference) to Level 8 (which calls for expulsion).

Student M has transgressed on a number of levels.

* He has "used profane or obscene language or gestures." That calls for a punishment anywhere from Level 1 to Level 4 (guidance intervention, referral to a community organization).

* He has "defied the legal authority of school personnel" (insubordination). That calls for a punishment anywhere from Level 1 to Level 5 (superintendent’s suspension for a fixed period of six to 30 school days).

* He has "engaged in intimidation or threatened violence, injury or harm to others." That calls for a punishment anywhere from Level 4 to Level 6 (in school disciplinary action to superintendent’s suspension for one year).

* He has "used force against inflicting or attempting to inflict serious injury against school personnel." That calls for a punishment anywhere from Level 6 to Level 7 (superintendent’s suspense to expulsion).

That’s what the city mandates say should have happened to Student M. Whenever the chancellor or the superintendent are asked about discipline, they always point to the code and effectively say, "see, we have it covered."

Yet, student M’s only punishment was to stay home for a day or two until his parents could come to school to speak with authorities.

I know what some people are going to say at this point.

They will say, "what good will it do to suspend this kid? He needs school more than he needs to say home."

I have heard that argument for years. My answer is, "I don’t care about Student M. He is not going to get an education whether he is in school or not." I do, however, care about all of the other kids in the school who cannot learn because of Student M. I do care about what he’s teaching them about life when they see Student M commit his transgressions without sanction.

They start to believe that they can also get away with those things without being punished. They begin to curse at teachers and to wander the hall. They begin to fight and become disrespectful to adults. That is what we are teaching students by not punishing Student M. If we continue to allow this to happen, we might as well close the doors and go out of business.

Last week in this space I quoted Michael Horn, the lawyer for Lakim Luster. Luster and Marcus Fyall were star ballplayers for prestigious Catholic high schools. Luster played football for Christ The King and Fyall played basketball for Bishop Laughlin. Both were on the way to stellar college careers. Now, both are in prison because they robbed and shot a health care worker in Far Rockaway. Both were reportedly "good kids gone bad." Horn put it all in perspective and every educator in New York City should pay attention to what he said: "In that part of town (Arverne), people get robbed all the time. (Even) Good kids think that there are no consequences."

And, it may get worse. In the past few weeks there have been very strong rumors that out of school suspense will soon be a thing of the past, thanks to a new district office plan. I am not sure if that is true or not, because I have yet to see it anywhere in writing. If that is true, it may well be another nail in the coffin because there will be even fewer sanctions for students who commit serious offenses against teachers or other students.

Everybody knows that students need limits, that there has to be more discipline in our schools, not less.

Everybody, that is, with the exception of our educational leaders. To them, this seems to be a game of smoke and mirrors. It does not matter what is going on in school as long as things looks good statistically, the bulletin boards are current and teachers have lesson plans.

One day, however, the mirror will crack and we will see what our leaders have made us. It will not be pretty.

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