by Jared Roebuck
Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration recently announced that a number of charter and district schools will become partners this school year in exchanging ideas and best practices. The subject of school discipline offers fertile territory—what we do when things go wrong. While suspension numbers may go down, it's also likely that school culture and safety will continue to be a challenge and an opportunity to get beyond the reductive charter-vs-district-school conflicts of recent years. Specifically, it's a chance for some district schools to learn from the charter experience about the importance of purposefully executing a vision for school culture. At the same time, it's also an opportunity for certain charters to move beyond their reliance on "no excuses" disciplinary practices (of the kind captured in the memorable viral video of a 1st grade Success Academy teacher) that don't equip students to become considerate, independent adolescents and adults.
The most hopeful outcome would be to expand on the current impetus for "restorative justice" in schools in ways that create "intentionally restorative" school cultures. My experience in both charter and district schools tells me that restorative practices aren't just useful for remedying student misbehavior; they also help students become empathetic, connected, and community-oriented citizens.
For many years metal detectors have been accepted as a fact of life for more than 100,000 New York City public school students. Now, some City Council members are questioning whether they are necessary—and taking first steps to have them removed.
"I don't believe we should have metal detectors in our schools," said Councilman Brad Lander, (D-Brooklyn) who has backed legislation that would require the Department of Education to report on the schools that have permanent metal detectors and those that are subject to random scans. "Telling our young people that we look to them as potential criminals in the schools that have metal detectors does more harm than good."
Lander hopes the bill, introduced by Vanessa Gibson (D-Bronx) and Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan), will encourage the Department of Education to clarify why some schools have metal detectors and others don't. He is also pressing the department to outline a clear policy on how schools can have metal detectors removed.
Five-year-old J.P. started kindergarten at his neighborhood school in September. Like many kids, he had never been to school before. Two days into the year, his mother received a phone call from the assistant principal complaining that J.P.’s behavior was disrupting the class. His offense? Getting out of his seat and playing with his shoelaces.
While the rest of the class would attend the full day of school, J.P. would now only attend half-days indefinitely, the family was told. After consulting with Advocates for Children, his parents asked for a specific action plan to target J.P.'s behaviors so that he might be able to return to school full-time. At his IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meeting in November, school staff told them, “We’re not behavior specialists.”
The school’s actions were not only unfair; they were illegal. Schools are mandated by the state to perform "Functional Behavior Assessments" (FBAs) and develop "Behavior Intervention Plans" (BIPs) when the actions of a student with a disability or a student referred for an evaluation are impeding learning or leading to disciplinary action. The problem is, most school personnel (and parents) have no idea what these assessments are.
The New York City Board of Correction released a report last week that documents the stories of three adolescents who were sentenced to more than 200 days in isolation on Rikers Island.
Each of the teens, who were 17 and 18 years old when they were interviewed by the Board, had been diagnosed with a severe mental illness—two with bipolar disorder; one with depression. They had been placed in what's known as 'punitive segregation' for behavioral infractions like fighting or assaulting a corrections officer.
Once in segregation, they spent 23 hours per day alone in their cells, according to the report. Their recreation took place in individual outdoor cages. They weren't allowed to attend school and received no special education services. The majority of their appointments with mental health providers were conducted through cell doors—the adolescent stayed locked inside while the clinician stood in the hallway.
I'm a parent who'd like to introduce a Peer Mediation Program to my daughter's principal. Can you provide information on any services that might provide training to staff members and students alike and are approved by the NYC DOE.
PSP (Problem solving parent)
If your principal doesn't already know about peer mediation, it's a good job for you to introduce it to him. But principals should know, peer mediation is among several recommended steps under the city's Discipline Code to solve programs without resorting to the most exteme punishments.
With peer mediation, kids work with each other to figure out why a specific problem occurred and how students can solve it. The program not only avoids violence, it develops leadership skills in the children who attend peer mediation training. There are programs which are apt for elementary, middle and high schools.
Like other great additions to a school, it won't just spring into action. If you really want peer mediation in your school, you need to start preparing now. Contact not-for-profit organizations that do peer mediation training, find out what staff they use and how much your school may have to pay. Contact schools with successful programs, to find out what school staff is needed and how they keep the program going.
Why do 40 percent of New York City high school students miss a month of school each year? The Center for Court Innovation went directly to the source and asked 17 high school students serving on its Youth Justice Board to research the issue. On Tuesday night at City Hall, students made ten recommendations to Chancellor Dennis Walcott on how to reduce chronic absenteeism. Suggestions ranged from taking a closer look at school security to providing peer mentors to students who are frequently absent.
The problem is huge: More than 20 percent of New York City students in grades kindergarten through 12 are chronically absent for a month out of each year --that's five percentage points higher than the national rate.
The Youth Justice Board brings “the voices of young people into issues that affect their lives,” said Steven, a rising senior at Benjamin Bennaker High School. The diverse group of teens represented all five boroughs. The students came up with their recommendations after a year of research that included meeting with student focus groups, teachers, parents, and policy makers. One issue they identified: metal detectors and security at the front door.
On Tuesday, Jan. 15, Insideschools and the Center for New York City Affairs will co-host a conversation with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn on the future of schools in New York City.
Quinn will discuss her vision for "building a 21st century school system," including college and career readiness. She will also participate in a Q & A with Insideschools' founder and senior editor, Clara Hemphill. This event is one of a series of events with potential 2013 mayoral candidates sponsored by the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School. (See a write-up of a 2012 event with mayoral hopeful Tom Allon here.)
Quinn also spoke about city education policy, along with other potential mayoral candidates, at a GothamSchools event in November. See a rundown of that event here.
The Jan. 15 forum will be at The New School, at 65 West 11th Street, from 8:30 am to 10 am. Tickets are free but you must reserve a seat; RSVP here: http://strongerschools.eventbrite.com/. Do it soon! It's a small venue and seats are going fast.
My 16 year old 10th grade daughter received a safety transfer from her very dangerous high school. How do I go about finding a new high school for her?
Confused and anxious
Dear Confused and Anxious.
Transfers are hard to get so your daughter’s experience in an unsafe school must have been harsh. Take the time to find a school that is known for a warm and nurturing atmosphere and which puts emphasis on respectful interactions among student and faculty.
In an effort to prevent the sexual abuse of children, my daughter’s elementary school now requires parents to wear little white nametags when we visit classrooms. I’m pleased to report that Operation Nametag has been a success: No charges of child abuse have been filed since it went into effect.
Well, no new charges. The school is still reeling from the arrest in February of a paraprofessional who has been charged with attempting to molest an 8-year-old boy. As the criminal case creeps through the legal system, parents at my daughter’s school are sad, fearful, confused and, above all, angry that the school can’t guarantee their children’s safety.
I personally don’t expect such a guarantee. I agree with Helen Keller, who wrote, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.” But Helen and I hold the minority view. Other parents are proposing a number of reforms that they insist will make my daughter’s school a safer place.
Sadly, many of the ideas are terrible.
My son has been physically attacked several times in elementary school – I call it bullying—but the classroom teacher is no help when it happens and the rest of the staff has not been helpful either. What can I do to help my son?
Frantic mother in Queens
Dear Frantic Mother in Queens,
Considering all the attention to combating bullying these days, it is really disheartening to hear that your school still has no clue about how to handle it. The week before schools closed for the winter break was Respect for All week – to highlight activities associated with the Department of Education program to combat bullying.
The goal is to make the schools safe and supportive for all students. Under the Respect for All (RFA) program, schools are to create a school wide atmosphere of respect for all kids regardless of their race, gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, religion, weight or disability. The program calls for training at least one staff member to be the RFA – the one person in school that kids can tell about bullying without fear of reprisals, and who knows how to help. That person's name and where to reach him or her should be posted all over the school. Under city regulations both victims and bystanders are encouraged to bring their story to the designated RFA but they, and their parents, can also report online at www.RespectforAll@schools.nyc.gov.