safetyofficers.PNGIn our most recent poll, we asked how you felt about your school security officers. "Great!" said 35% of respondents.  But 63% had concerns, and of those, 18% felt police officers don't belong inside our schools.

If you or your child have experienced problems with school safety officers, and would like to communicate with a member of the NYCLU, ACLU, and Dorsey Whitney legal team about the recently filed class-action lawsuit -- which alleges that NYPD personnel assigned to New York City's public schools have repeatedly violated students' civil rights through wrongful arrests and the excessive use of force -- or share a story about policing in our schools, please click here. You can also contact the NYCLU's Johanna Miller at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Please continue to share your comments below.

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Five students and their parents sued the city this week, claiming that kids have been wrongly handcuffed, assaulted, and arrested by school safety officers employed by the New York City Police Department.

In addition to damages, the class action lawsuit asks the court to order that schools, rather than safety officers, deal with disciplinary issues, and calls for the city to set up a complaint process and impose new disciplinary measures for officers found guilty of misconduct.

Have you experienced incidents where you felt school safety agents acted inappropriately? Or do the officers at your school behave professionally, keeping kids safe? What kinds of disciplinary issues are cropping up in your school, and how are they handled? Are kids cuffed, "perp-walked," and packed off to the precinct, or are they simply sent to the principal's office?

Kids, parents, teachers, and administrators: how do you feel about your school's safety officers? Take our poll at left and share your experiences below.

(If you would like to communicate with a member of the NYCLU, ACLU and Dorsey Whitney legal team about this lawsuit, or share a story about policing in New York City public schools, please click here. You can also contact the NYCLU's Johanna Miller at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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Monday, 05 October 2009 07:48

Sad setback for Campus Magnet schools

Our hearts go out to the families and students affected by the violence that took the life of a 13-year-old  freshman at the Humanities and  the Arts High School in Cambria Heights. According to The New York Times, young Kevin Miller was on his way to a McDonald's restaurant after school on Friday when "shooting erupted during a fight between two students" from the nearby school. A 16-year-old has been arrested and charged with his murder.

Humanities and the Arts is one of four small schools in  a school building now known as Campus Magnet. It was founded after the large and troubled Andrew Jackson High School was closed in the mid-1990s due to a long history of poor performance and violence.  During the 2006-2007 school year, the entire campus was designated as an "impact" school, a city designation for a dangerous school that requires extra security guards; the building apparently came off the list a year later.

On Insideschools' most recent visit to Humanities and the Arts last November, we found that student achievement was up and the building had benefited from a reorganization, which gave each school its own area for classrooms and separate times for lunch and gym. This tragedy, although it took place off school grounds,  is a sad setback for the challenged building.

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Wednesday, 29 July 2009 11:57

New principal for PS 20

Word comes from Joyce Szuflita of  NYCSchoolHelp that an interim acting principal was named at PS 20 in Fort Greene. The new principal, Lena Barbera, comes from a popular Boerum Hill school, PS 261, where she has been on staff since 1996, most recently as assistant principal. Check out the PS 261 website for more information about her. According to PS 20 PTA President Ayanna Blaize, Barbera has already reached out to both the PTA and staff .

PS 20 was in the news last  spring when it was slated to become one of three new citywide Gifted and Talented programs to open in September. The program was nixed after too few families applied. In May,  Principal Sean Keaton was arrested for allegedly assaulting a teacher(The New York Times Local Fort Greene/Clinton Hill blog covered the story extensively this spring but there's been no word on the fate of the former principal. According to Blaize, school officials say they are "still investigating.")

UPDATE (7/31): According to The New York Post, Sean Keaton, the former principal, "has been assigned to the district office pending the outcome of his criminal case." The article quotes Keaton's lawyer saying he expects his client will be cleared and return to the school "in good standing."

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This morning at 11 am, a coalition of students, civic leaders and advocacy groups plan to release a 'white paper' and report card on the incidence of bullying and bias-based harassment in the city's schools. Student leaders from the Sikh Coalition and other organizations will speak, as will representatives of the New York Civil Liberties Union and the New York City Bar Association's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Committee, which collaborated on the project, and City Council members Robert Jackson and John Liu.

The report card asks whether the Department of Education has made sufficient progress implementing the anti-bullying Chancellor's Regulation (number A-832), announced by the Mayor and the Chancellor in September 2008. More than 1,100 students and teachers contributed to the report-card assessment. Notably, three of every four New York City middle- and high-school students report bullying in their schools.

This afternoon at 4:30, vocal opponents of mayoral control plan to celebrate its demise, also at Tweed. Event organizers say they'll serve eviction papers at midnight to oust Chancellor Klein and his staffers; DOE spokesman David Cantor denounced the proposed gathering as "tribal" in an email response. Of course, everything depends on whether Albany legislators actually manage to meet -- forced to do so by a judge's order -- and hinges on new Democratic leader John Sampson's desire to spend more time evaluating mayoral control.

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brooks_teacherWhen I heard the disturbing news yesterday that a teacher's aide at Brooks's school had been arrested for child molestation, my neurotic parental instincts kicked in: how did anyone ever talk me into letting my innocent son venture out into this dangerous world?

But since I also understand that locking him inside our two-bedroom apartment is not a feasible solution, I have been trying to settle my queasy stomach and find a middle ground. There is no escaping the harsh reality of this incident nor its complexities, especially in terms of how schools should behave in its wake. But this morning, when the principal, Dede Budd, invited parents to a meeting to hammer out these issues, I was comforted -- as much as any parent in these exceptional circumstances can be comforted, that is.

Ms. Budd began by presenting the facts and correcting misinformation. Mr. Benitez had been a paraprofessional at the school for eight years. On the day of the incident, the two teachers in his classroom were absent, so there were two subs. Those subs, who had worked at the school before, witnessed the "inappropriate touching" and immediately reported it. Mr. Benitez was quickly removed from the classroom, and the children's parents were called, as was the police. According to Dede, none of the children, including the ones directly involved, were traumatized or even aware of what had transpired. Mr. Benitez was never allowed back into the classroom after the incident. To Dede's dismay, she was not able to share any of this information with parents since it was initially classified as confidential. It is only now, after the arrest, that she is finally able to speak.

There was talk of providing resources to parents to help them talk to their kids without alarming them, which most parents found challenging. There was also talk of strategies within the classrooms regarding how to address Mr. Benitez's sudden departure and about more general "what's appropriate and what's not?" issues. Dede assured us the teachers have had long and substantive discussions about the best way to deal with the students' questions and concerns.

The meeting concluded with the parents' general agreement that the school administration behaved impeccably. They were as distressed by this incident as we were, and their priority is and always has been to create a safe environment for our children. Even the representative sent by the Department of Education expressed genuine concern: he listened closely to all of us, he acknowledged the fine balancing act of protecting children without trouncing on teachers' rights, and he provided answers that were thoughtful, smart and heartfelt.

Parents were clearly dismayed to hear of the arrest first from the media, rather than the school, and there was a discussion about how to better tackle that complex issue. There must be some way to prevent your first-grader from learning that his teacher was arrested from another child's chatter on the school bus.

Of course, I am still troubled, especially by an anonymous parent in a TV news report who insists that she knew this was coming because her daughter had complained about Mr. Benitez back in 2006. During the meeting, Dede clarified that accusations in prior years had been unfounded. But all agreed that "unfounded" means unproven -- not necessarily untrue. Given the current situation, it's certainly looking more and more like the "unfounded" charges were, in fact, true.

Thankfully, Brooks didn't know Mr. Benitez, so he is largely unaware of these unsettling events. Along with many of his peers, my son is celebrating the end of his school year and the start of summer vacation. But Mr. Benitez's former students don't have that luxury: a man they trusted has suddenly been arrested.

I wouldn't know how to begin to explain to a first grader what I'm having trouble grappling with myself as an adult, but I'm confident that the extraordinary staff at PS 178 will somehow figure it out.

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Thursday, 23 April 2009 03:30

Guidance counselors: solace or punishment?

Last week one of my teachers raised a topic that brought up some difficult questions: He reminded us that if he knew a student was cutting him or herself, he was legally required to report them to a higher authority. He expressed his own contradicting feelings on this issue, which prompted an extremely emotional class conversation. In general, my classmates understood the reasoning behind the rule; school authorities have a responsibility to keep young people safe. But teachers are not necessarily trained in dealing with serious issues, like cutting, that may be life-threatening to the student and surely signal deeper troubles. However, many students were extremely opposed to the idea of being sent by a teacher to the guidance counselor against their will. Though there are wonderful exceptions, I have heard from students in many different schools that going to "their" guidance counselor is something they generally seek to avoid.

I think one of the biggest problems is that guidance counselors in many schools do not know their students on a personal level. Big schools and low budgets make it hard to get enough personal attention to every student. I believe in the idea of a small-group advisory period each week, led by counselors, who would have the chance to get to know students and build relationships over time, before a crisis. Additionally, individual meetings should be arranged at some point so every student can meet their guidance counselor.

I know there are some really great guidance counselors out there, and I respect their efforts and their important role in students' lives. However, many schools need to find a way for counselors to become more involved with their students -- not on a disciplinary level, but on a personal one -- and really provide the 'safe space' students need.

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Our question about the Community Education Council vote drew an anemic response -- in itself, perhaps a reflection on the Department of Education's fledgling effort at online parent engagement. About half of the respondents said they planned to vote, but the next largest group said they flat-out wouldn't, because they didn't know enough about the CECs or about the process.

This week, we ask about an issue that affects every child in every school in the city: School safety officers, who are often the first faces students and parents see when they enter the school building. Uniformed safety officers are a fact of life in the city's schools. Many find their presence controversial (to put it politely) and advocacy groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union have proposed the Student Safety Act, which seems, for the moment, to be stalled in the City Council.

What do you think of the uniformed officers that guard our school doorways? Take the poll - and as ever, share your comments here.

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At a jam-packed and raucous meeting on Monday night, the Community Education Council of District 28 in central Queens passed a unanimous resolution recommending the immediate removal of Dr. John Murphy as principal of MS 8 in South Jamaica. CEC 28 meetingThe resolution came at the end of the monthly meeting, attended by upwards of 150 parents, teachers, and community members. They crowded into the makeshift basement auditorium of PS 182, which quickly became a standing-room-only venue. The CEC voted on the resolution minutes after Rev. Charles Norris read a litany of complaints against Murphy, ending each with a rousing declaration of  “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

Although a recent incident thrust MS 8 into the media spotlight, the press (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it." target="_blank">WCBS, Daily News, Queens Chronicle, and the New York Teacher) reports that there is a long history of abuse by Murphy at MS 8, as well as at other schools. CEC member Emily Ades spoke from the stage, saying she issued her own report in November 2008 after performing a walk-through of the middle school, which she likened to a detention center.

Ades, a former elementary school teacher in the district, said she received no response from the Department of Education about her report, which detailed a school where “there was no School Leadership Team, the principal made all decisions, there were numerous safety issues, and the children were on lockdown,” she said.

Martine Guerrier, Chief Family Engagement Officer from the DOE Office for Family Engagement and Advocacy (OFEA), came late to the meeting after notifying the CEC that she would not be attending, and sending two representatives in her stead. Her arrival was unexpected and was not met with a warm reception.

Both parents and CEC members said they had reached out to her office to no avail. Kenneth Williams, one of the CEC vice presidents, spoke of his dissatisfaction with OFEA after he sought their support following negative experiences with the principal of PS 30. “[The community has] been left out in the cold for two years. Not just MS 8. Not just PS 30. It’s the whole district,” he said.

Guerrier said, “A number of issues were raised to me today that have not been brought to me before.”

In a telephone conversation with Insideschools.org, Department of Education spokesperson Ann Forte said that there is an “ongoing investigation” of the principal.  “We don’t believe that his removal is warranted,” she said, noting that he “sent a letter home to parents a week ago trying to reach out and push to try to communicate better.” She said concerned parents should reach out to District 28 Superintendent Jeanette Reed. The superintendent’s office is ultimately responsible for the hiring of principals and for their dismissal.

Meanwhile, protestors gather each morning before MS 8 begins its school day. They hold signs and photos of Murphy and often cheer “get rid of the rat.” A rally will be held Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Jamaica branch of the NAACP.

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Insideschools has learned that a sixth-grade student was mugged yesterday afternoon at J.J. Bryne Park in Park Slope, the city park that essentially serves as MS 51's de facto schoolyard, lunchroom, social hub and outdoor gym. The boy, who was chatting with friends after school, was approached by a group of apparently older children at 3:20 pm. When a would-be mugger found only a stick of chewing gum in the boy's sweatshirt pocket, he took out his frustration by giving the younger boy a beating, leading to facial bruises, a black eye, three and a half hours in the Emergency Room (and a bruised young ego, too). The aggressors scattered after the attack and the younger students returned to MS 51, where parents were called and an ambulance summoned.

This morning, the boy's mother went to the school to speak with the principal -- and as she waited, another youngster came into the office to report an attempted assault on her way to school.

Sixth-graders at MS 51 and other schools citywide have new freedoms -- they may leave school for lunch, they may take public transportation, and they have time to socialize and visit with friends. But with freedom comes risk. "These kids are open targets, on their own for the first time, in the park," says parent Deborah Hodge, who says she was surprised to learn that her son's experience wasn't unique, and that other sixth graders had been victims of physical attacks near the school.

"All parents should know this," she said this afternoon, after talking with others whose kids have been roughed up. "If I had known what happened before, I might've acted differently." Ironically, Hodge says the physical freedom was one of the things that attracted her family to MS 51 -- but she rejects the notion that "you need to run from school to home," and feels her son, along with his schoolmates, should be safe and feel secure after school in the park. (NYPD officers are on hand intermittently, although they are not a daily presence.)

Hodge is interested in hearing from other MS 51 parents; she says she'd like to take something positive out of this scare and help make her son's school community stronger. Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or drop a note in our comments string.

Editor's Note: the Safe Haven program on the Upper West Side is one community's response to similar challenges.

For more on middle-schoolers' independence, read one boy's manifesto, his mother's response, and this conversation about one mother's controversial, kid-driven choice.

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