2001-05-19 / Columnists

School Scope

School Scope

MS 53 in Far Rockaway has become the cover boy for what a school should not be, thanks to a front-page expose in last Sunday’s Newsday.

In fact, if suspension rates are used as the major indicator of what it means to be a "violent school," then two of the "most violent" schools in Queens are in Rockaway.

While the average middle school in the city has a suspension rate of 81.8 suspensions per thousand students (during the ’99-’00 school year), MS 198 (in Arverne) had a rate of 230.1 suspensions per thousand students – more than three times the average. MS 53 (in Far Rockaway) had a rate of 177.1 suspensions per thousand students, slightly more than twice the average.

To be fair, I have to say that I believe that not all of those suspensions are the old, "out-of-school" suspensions that are no longer politically correct. In fact, the majority of the suspensions in this district are "in-house" suspensions, where a student is placed in an "alternative setting" in the school building for the term of his or her suspension.

The fact remains, however, that each of those suspensions were meted out for some incident that was deemed to be bad enough to remove the student from the mainstream, even for a short period of time.

I was a staff member at MS (then, IS) 53 for more than a dozen years, from the early 1980’s until the mid 1990’s. Both of my kids graduated from the school. We had our problems at the school. We lived through the "Five Percenter’s" and through the school’s transformation from a middle class school to a minority school.

It never was, however, as bad as it seems to be today, judging from the Newsday article and from speaking with people who still teach at the school.

The Newsday article points to several incidents where one student was attacked by several other students. One student was physically scarred by the ordeal. Another was psychologically scarred and refuses to return to the school.

"In fact, a dozen different children, all claiming they were injured or assaulted in the school over the past three years currently have lawsuits against MS 53," the article says. "It is one of the most frequently sued schools in the city."

The article also points out that many of the students who perpetrated the assaults were never even suspended for their part in the events.

The former principal of IS 53 was forced to retire by superintendent Matt Bromme shortly after he took office. She had been a long-time assistant principal in the building and the parents badly wanted her as its principal.

The parents refused to accept any other candidate and she was appointed by the then superintendent, Brenda Isaacs, right after the new state governance law took away the school board’s right to appoint school supervisors.

By all accounts, she proved to be a disaster in the job, a supreme example of the "Peter Principle," which posits that many people rise at least one step above the level of their competency.

Bromme removed her, and in her place he put a man who had been a principal in another district.

When he left his spot as a principal in another district (at a better school), I questioned those who knew him why he would leave there to come to Rockaway. I was told that he was "looking for a challenge," and that the job meant more money for him.

Neither made sense. I called some contacts in his old district and was told that he was "asked to find another district," by that district’s superintendent.

That makes more sense. District 27 seems to be picking up lots of people from other districts.

Bromme says that it is because he is looking for the best possible people and that he steals them from other districts, wherever he finds them. Take a look at some of them and their records, however and you will realize why I am skeptical of that explanation.

Staff members at MS tell me that the principal has a fake fireplace in his office and that he has "fireside chats" with his assistant principals. He has reportedly told them that he is the "CEO" of the school and that they should not bother him with petty details such as discipline.

Staff members tell me about "chair races" in the halls during class periods and the fact that there are more kids in the halls during academic periods than there are in classrooms.

They tell me about the constant ringing of fire alarm bells and the number of teachers who are out on "line of duty injury" status.

They tell me of the fact that students constantly curse at teachers and refuse to listen to them.

They talk of roaming bands of students harassing and beating other students.

Talk about Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

Unfortunately, MS 53 is not alone. MS 198 in Arverne is even worse. Even the "good" schools on the mainland are starting to feel the effects of the lack of disciplinary standards.

In one district school recently, a male student accosted a female student in the stairwell. He demanded a kiss and when she refused, he grabbed her and kissed her on the neck, giving her the proverbial "hickey." The student was one of those who cut class, roaming the hall, causing problems for teachers and other students. He had previously been suspended and, under the rules of engagement that schools live with, he had a ‘get out of jail free card."

Her mother was notified and the police were called in. They arrested the student He was back in school the next day. His mother was asked to come up, but she did not show the first week. He remained in school, reportedly threatening the young girl who he had attacked in the first place. She did not feel safe in the school. The boy roamed the building, lording it over everybody, reminding them that he was above the law.

Finally, after two weeks, the girl’s mother called the chancellor and threatened to go to the daily papers with the story if something were not done. School and district officials quickly suspended the boy.

The Newsday article says what I have been saying in this space for a dozen years.

"For years, teachers in the middle schools have been pleading for a way to get disruptive students out of the classroom. Even when the schools resorted to suspension, teachers say, it was a short-term solution because a youngster could not be suspended more than twice, for a maximum of five days each."

At a recent educational forum held at Beach Channel High School, Bromme responded to my question about discipline by saying that he opposed suspension and that he was setting up in-house alternative education sites in each school. I do not believe that is the answer.

Perhaps the SOS school promised by Terry Thomson and the alternative school at the district office will address the problem of getting disruptive kids out of the building.

I would not, however, hold my breath waiting for either of those things to happen.

One of the students at IS 53 who was interviewed for the article told the tale.

"The kids would not cooperate with the teacher," she said. "They would throw stuff at the teacher, play around, curse at the teacher and walk out of the room."

Nothing will happen to improve our schools until the discipline issue is first resolved.

That is a fact of life that both the central board and district officials have to accept.

So far, they have not, and it does not seem that, in our politically correct world, that they ever will.

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