2005-01-07 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

Seven students who were incarcerated for various serious crimes have joined in a class action suit against the city as well as the state Department of Education because they “suffered irreparable harm by being denied their constitutional right to a basic education.” The suit is backed by the Advocates For Children, the group that destroyed the school system in the first place, guaranteeing that kids who wanted to learn would be disrupted by those who didn’t.

Give me a break!

One of the students, listed in the lawsuit as Exhibit D, says he attended a high school in Brooklyn until he got arrested (he does not say what it was for, and neither does the Advocates). He was sentenced to a stretch in a detention center, but when he returned to the streets, he says that he tried to get into a number of schools, but was turned down by one after another because of his record.

Poor baby!

The Advocates managed to find seven like students.

“Schools in the community often refuse to admit class members upon their release from court-ordered setting,” the lawsuit avers. “Some have spent several months out of school or warehoused in alternative settings where court-involved youth are segregated ant that do not afford them the minimally adequate educational services.

It is hard for me to generate any real compassion for those students, especially after thirty years in the classroom, several of those working with MIS II [emotionally handicapped] students. I spent nine years at IS 53 in MIS II and never met a student who did not belong there or someplace else out of the mainstream.

Putting the disruptive students in those special, self-contained classrooms was the only way to insure that the other students, who would normally be mixed in classes with the disruptive students, got a chance to learn.

I suspect that the seven kids, all of whom spent time in the juvenile justice system, fall into the same category.

What are those kids like? Why must they be kept away from the other students like lepers from the healthy?

Newsweek magazine recently did a piece in response to Bill Cosby’s argument that the black community bears the burden for what its students have become. The magazine interviewed two teenagers about Cosby’s comments.

“I robbed because I was hungry,” Kenny, 17, a onetime stickup man, told Newsweek. “If he’s [Cosby] going to put food on my table, if he’s going to give me time to pursue education vigorously, then fine. But if he’s not, then I’m going to hold up my end of the bargain by making sure I get something to eat.”

Want to bet that Kenny “pursued education vigorously” while he was in school. It’s always somebody else’s fault, isn’t it?

Sonia, 20, says that at one time, black men put on suits and went to a job each day. Now, however, she says, “most black males don’t have good enough jobs.”

Good enough jobs. What does that mean. My dream job would be playing second base for the New York Yankees, but that is obviously never to be. We all do what we have to do to get along, except for those who believe that society has somehow robbed them of the executive jobs that they deserve. Many don’t want to start at the beginning any longer, They want to start at the top because the lower-paying jobs are just not good enough.

Those are the same kids who have filed the lawsuit. They disrupt their schoolmates, rob and riot and then demand their due.

I don’t think they have a due. They have forfeited their right to be in an educational setting with others and must earn their way back in by proving in an alternative setting that they deserve that chance. Alternative settings are not necessarily “warehousing” as the suit alleges, but they are sometimes a warehouse to students who do not want to learn and who only attend school because the court demands their attendance as part of their release from incarceration.

The city does not owe them anything, but they owe themselves many things. As long as the black leadership tells them that they are victims who can do no wrong because they have been wronged by society, there will be no change. Self-esteem comes not from being told how wonderful you are, but from doing a difficult task well.

“These are young people ready for a new start,” says a staff lawyer for Advocates For Children.

The majority, however, at least from my experience, are not ready for a new start. They are ready for more of the same and they will disrupt the school and its students because they believe that nothing they will do will earn them the job and the respect that they deserve simply because they “are.”

Second Opportunity Schools (SOS) were founded throughout the city to take those high school kids who could not be maintained in the traditional classroom – students such as Exhibit D and Kenny, students who have proven over and over again that they do not belong in a school with kids who want to learn. These are the alternative settings the lawsuit was talking about.

We do not have a SOS school in Rockaway because Regional Superintendent Kathleen Cashin put the kasbah on the contract to run the program on Beach 115 Street on the day it was set to open. She did so because she did not like the fact that the group set to run the program was opposed to her school reorganization proposals and said so in public.

We do have St. John’s Home for Boys, an organization that houses a public school for troubled young men and we all know what that organization has meant to the community from time to time.

Despite the educational mantra, not all children can learn. Not all children want to learn. Not all children are ready to learn.

Some young people need a more restrictive environment than others. That is what the Modified Instructional Services (MIS) designation was all about.

Should young criminals be allowed back in mainstream schools? Only once they have proven that they are ready.

For some, that means never. That is a sad truth, but one that we will have to live with if education in our city is to achieve its goals in the coming years.

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