2011-05-06 / Columnists

East End Matters. . .

Chancellor Walcott: Schools Should Not Be Run As Police States
Commentary By Miriam Rosenberg

When did our schools start being run as police states? Last month a 7-yearold special needs child was handcuffed after he reportedly acted out in class because the Easter egg he was coloring didn’t turn out right and his teacher wouldn’t let him redo it. The Daily News reported that the first-grader from PS 153 in Maspeth was “taken to Elmhurst Hospital Center in metal cuffs, even though his mother told school officials she was on her way to pick him up.”

The Department of Education defended the act of calling the police, saying that, “The school tried to defuse the situation and then called for outside assistance when there was a concern the child would harm himself or others [including other children in his class],” according to DOE spokeswoman Marge Feinberg.

An NYPD spokesperson defended cuffing the boy, Joseph Anderson – who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, delayed speech and emotional problems – by saying in a statement that he was “acting in a threatening manner …He started spitting and cursing at the officers. The handcuffs were used to restrain the child because of his behavior. He was a danger to himself.” It was also reported that the boy was waving a pair of small plastic safety scissors.

Yet, according to reports, his classmates had been cleared from the room and staff actually gave him the scissors so he could have something to do while he waited for his mother.

While new school chancellor Dennis Walcott said he was investigating the April 13 incident, he also said about handcuffing children of that age, “There are occasions when it may need to be done, and I think it’s the responsibility of the principal and school safety to work together to make that determination.”

This is not the first such incident involving special needs children in the city. Last year a 7-year-old autistic boy, Dillon Lynch, from the Bronx, was led out of his school in handcuffs. According to the Daily News, “an inexperienced special education aide physically restrained the boy – despite [Mrs.] Lynch’s warning to the school that restraining her son could exacerbate any problems. Dillon lashed out at the aide and was ultimately locked in a small room until police arrived to cuff him, escort him out of the building and ship him off to a hospital.”

A report released earlier this year by the Student Safety Coalition and the New York Civil Liberties Union said that students with disabilities are four times more likely to be suspended than students without disabilities.

“The Bloomberg administration must end its zero tolerance approach to school discipline and instead provide resources to schools to address the emotional and mental needs of children,” the report concluded.

As someone who knows children with special needs, I worry that teachers or aides who have not been trained to handle such youngsters will use the zero tolerance policy to its fullest extent without taking into account, or knowing how to handle, the problems these children face. The mishandling of situations by school staff could have profound effects on a child. Siobhan Lynch said her son couldn’t stand to hear sirens or be near anyone in uniform. “If he sees cops, he cries,” she said. Anderson told reporters that he can’t “go to sleep or eat” because of the incident.

It is not just special needs children who are caught up in the zero tolerance policy. The report says that total suspensions are up and “students, some as young as five, have been handcuffed, taken to jail, and ordered to appear in court for infractions such as writing on a desk or talking back.”

Some of the report’s recommendations are: end zero tolerance and use suspensions only when necessary; as in the Los Angeles Unified School District (the second largest in the country) the DOE should ensure that all the city’s 1,600 public schools implement effective positive discipline, including restorative justice and positive behavior interventions and supports; students’ constitutional rights in suspension hearings should be protected by making sure administrators are fully aware of, and respect, the procedural requirements for suspending a student; increase transparency around discipline and school safety practices; and provide support services for students’ emotional and psychological needs. Schools must invest in guidance counselors, social workers and school aides who are trained in conflict resolution and restorative justice methods to handle disciplinary infractions.

School is supposed to be a place of learning, nurturing, and caring. It’s supposed to be a place where parents can feel secure when they leave their children for the day.

Walcott must make changes to the disciplinary policy a priority.

The first step is to end the broad and unequal brush of zero tolerance.

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