Safety and discipline in public schools

My name is David Roemer and I have been a high school teacher for the past 11 years. I am currently teaching at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn and recently transferred from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn where I taught for almost five years. Erasmus Hall High School is a school with a poor safety record. The clearest way to express my point of view is to tell you first what my recommendations are and then to explain and justify my reasoning.

My first recommendation is to change New York State’s method for distributing education funds so that it is based on the number of students enrolled instead of the daily attendance of students. The current method encourages the New York City Board of Education to increase daily attendance at the expense of safety and discipline in the schools. The current formula can be criticized on other grounds as well. There is, for example, the inequity of New York City receiving only 34 percent of New York State’s funds, though it educates 37 percent of New York State’s children.

For the same reasons, we should end the Attendance Improvement and Dropout Prevention program which has the effect of encouraging and supporting the New York City Board of Education’s current drop-out prevention practices. The gist of my criticism of the AIDP program lies in the distinction between “enrollment” and “dropping out.” A student who is frequently truant, cuts classes, does not pay attention in class, does no homework, disrupts classes, and fails most of his or her classes has “dropped-out” although he or she is still “enrolled” in the school. The Board of Education is more concerned with increasing “enrollment” than with decreasing “dropping-out.”

Thirdly, metal detectors in public schools should be abolished. Metal detectors are used for security by airports and court houses because these facilities are open to the general public. The authorities have no control over individuals who choose to take an airplane trip or enter a court house. No self-respecting school principal would admit that his or her students are not under his or her control. Metal detectors are for principals who, reflecting Board of Education goals and values, are less interested in having a purposeful well-behaved student body than in having high attendance ratings.

I would like to begin with the observation that in New York City students are free to go to any high school which will accept them. High schools have different themes, special programs and admission requirements which are used to compete for the most promising students. While the central administration of the Board of Education places restrictions on the number of students each high school can freely select and the methods of selection that can be used, the result is at certain schools the student population is made up almost entirely of students with poor attendance records, low reading and mathematics scores, and low grades. One can call these lower-tier schools, because most of its students were rejected by high schools with more demanding admission standards or were transferred to their “zoned high school” after a year or half-year of failing classes and misbehaving at a better school.

At these lower-tier high schools student performance and achievement is not high. A student who passes all its courses is considered a good student. Most students in the ninth grade who go to this type of school fail at least two or more courses every term.

There is nothing in State Education Law, the Citywide Standards of Conduct and Uniform Disciplinary Measures of the New York City Board of Education (The Discipline Code), or the Chancellor’s regulations that prevents any school in New York City from being safe and orderly. The fault is not the socioeconomic and personal backgrounds of the students. The fault is with the individuals who administer unsafe and disorderly schools.

State Education Law requires school districts to maintain order in schools by suspending and expelling delinquent or misbehaving students. It is true that students are entitled to a fair hearing before being suspended from instruction, but the actual due process requirements are rudimentary. It is also true that alternative instruction must be provided to 16 year-olds or younger who are suspended, but five Borough Outreach Centers have been established and are currently performing this function.

The New York City Board of Education in its administration of these lower-tier schools does not enforce its discipline code as a matter of policy. This is not a practice the Board of Education will admit. At Erasmus Hall High School 80 percent of the faculty signed a letter to Chancellor Cortines which complained about the lax discipline practices at the school. The Chancellor responded though the Brooklyn Superintendent who said: “We are all committed to enforcing the discipline code so that our schools are conducive to learning.”

This is clearly not true. Item 3 of The Discipline Code forbids “cutting classes.” This is an excellent rule because high school subjects are generally taught as a series of topics or units. A unit may last for two or three weeks, and each day’s lesson builds upon the previous day”s lesson. This means if a student is absent for lesson #1 of the unit, it will be harder for that student to learn lesson #2. There is a strong correlation between failing a course and the number of days absent from class.

A computer printout of the names of students at Erasmus Hall High School who cut class in a two week period in May of 1994 shows that 1365 cut class at least 3 times. Since the average daily attendance is around 1500 this means that the overwhelming majority of students cut classes repeatedly, week after week. The actual breakdown is:

No. of Students No. of Classes Cut
678 3 to 9
449 10 to 19
175 20 to 29
42 30 to 39
18 40 to 64

The extent of the administration's response to cutting is to send a postcard to the child's home. This means the burden of disciplining students who cut classes falls entirely on the parents of the child. This state of affairs is not consistent with the Discipline Code which stipulates the following interventions for cutting and other types of insubordination:

•student/teacher conference

•reprimand by dean or teacher

•letter or telephone call to home

•parent conference

•guidance conference with student and parent

•in-school disciplinary action

•Principal’s suspension (5 days maximum)

•Superintendent’s suspension (30 days maximum)

•transfer to another school

This non-enforcement of the rules against cutting is also not consistent with the wishes and needs of the parents whose children attend Erasmus Hall High School and the needs of the students themselves. When a school and the parents act together it produces a collaboration which strengthens both parties in their efforts to guide and modify the behavior of children.

After repeated reprimands and counseling, a school should summon the parents for a disciplinary counseling session. Such a demand for a conference creates a family crisis. There is the problem of taking time off work and getting someone to mind the other children. It provokes family discussions, and everyone involved becomes fully aware of the child’s misdemeanors in a way which is fully realizable and comprehended. A form letter alleging a vague and easily deniable transgression will not have as great an impact.

The family crisis a summons to school creates is one that enhances the parents’ standing with the child. The letter or summons means the child is in trouble with the school authorities. This places the child in the position of needing its parents to get him or her out of a predicament. If the parents refuse to go to school, they are giving the school its tacit approval to take what ever disciplinary action the school wants, for example, an out-of-school suspension.

The prospect and threat of suspension is a strong deterrent for cutting and will help children make the right decisions. Children want to be successful in school and know, or should know if they are being properly counseled, that cutting will diminish their chances for academic success. Students cut, nonetheless, because they are human beings and do not always follow their best inclinations and desires. Many are tempted to cut by the example and urgings of their peers.

Teachers and others frequently deride the deterrent benefit of suspensions by saying that the child is simply being given an unasked for vacation. This perception is based on the current disciplinary practices which reserves suspensions for offenses such as fighting, weapons possession, and harassing teachers. This failure of suspensions to reduce the level of violence does not prove, however, that a school should not suspend students for cutting and other types of non-violent rule breaking. On the contrary, it is a necessary component in a rational and effective discipline policy.

While disciplining a student for cutting all members of the staff must be able to say truthfully that: “cutting is against the rules.” This does not mean that cutting is not recommended, it means precisely that a student who doesn’t obey this rule cannot attend school. It may be possible for a father to say to his son, “if you do such and such another time I will beat you to within an inch of your life” and not mean it. For an organization, with many different individuals involved in disciplining and counseling a child, any dissimilation destroys the counseling process. When certain behaviors are not truly prohibited and subject to the sanction of a suspension there is a general break down of rule enforcement. Teachers do not bother to call parents or write referrals. Assistant principals do not help with recalcitrant cases. Deans go through the motions of counseling a student, but do not demand apologies or make sure a student grasps the seriousness of its misbehavior.

The Discipline Code, with its emphasis on counseling and parental involvement, is designed to insure the child understands that flagrant and repeated cutting will ultimately result in its removal from the school and its placement at an “alternative school” or the Borough Outreach Center. Faced with this choice the bulk of the students enrolled, even at lower-tier high schools, will desist from cutting. We can count on this because children, despite how uninterested they may seem to be in their studies, all want to be admired by their families, to marry, to find employment, and to become respectable members of society. They know perfectly well that the proper roll for a person of their age is to attend a normal high school, and they will do what is necessary to prevent being excluded from their neighborhood school or the school of their choice.

Since students at Erasmus take, on the average, 6 periods a day, the 1365 students who cut should have attended 81,900 classes in this two week period. A simple calculation shows the practice of attending school but not going to all classes reduces instruction time by over 20 percent.

Truancy is a special type of cutting where the student does not attend classes at all. It is not as easy to measure because the student may be legitimately ill or may be a victim of parental neglect. Assuming the truancy rate is 15 percent, the enforcement of the school rules against cutting and truancy has the potential of increasing instruction time by 35 percent at a typical lower-tier school.

There are at Erasmus Hall High School many students who are “at risk” of dropping out. Such students have poor attendance records, failing grades, and a troubled home life. A student who is truly “at risk” will not respond favorably to an attempt to strictly enforce the rules against cutting and truancy. Such a student will accept whatever disciplinary actions are taken rather than modify its behavior. If the behavior results in being suspended to the Borough Outreach Center for 30 days, this type of student will probably stay home for the 30 days. At New York City’s own drop-out prevention programs, which have much experience in helping students like this, ultimatums and threats are not the focus of their counseling sessions with students.

There is another type of student whose attendance at lower-tier high schools has a large negative effect on discipline and safety at these schools. This type of student is seldom found at better high schools. To describe such students as being “at risk” is absurd because there is little chance the student will graduate within the next few years. An example is a student who is 17 years old and has attended high school for three years but has passed few courses. Such a student attends school for a variety of reasons: to get bus passes, socialize, and have adventures. It is just a matter of time before the disutilities of sporadic and desultory attendance outweighs the benefits, and the student stops coming to school altogether. Enforcing the rule against cutting will cause such students to stop coming to school altogether.

There is another type of student who can be described as potentially “at risk” but is not “at risk” yet. This is the type of student who will benefit the most from a strict enforcement of the rules against cutting and truancy. This student’s likelihood of graduating will depend on his or her developing good work habits and having positive and successful experiences in school. Cutting is not a positive experience. Cutters return to class not knowing what happened in their absence. Cutting will cause students to fail the course or get a low grade. By precluding this option, schools and parents will be supporting children in their true desires and goals.

I would like to conclude by quoting from legislation introduced in the New York State Assembly named The School Safety and Educational Enhancement Act of 1994: “The disruptive and/or violent behavior of a small percentage of students limits the ability of the majority of students to learn in a safe and positive atmosphere.”

This correctly describes the situation at Erasmus Hall High School and many other lower-tier high schools in New York City. It also described the conditions for learning at Boys and Girls High School, which draws its students from one of the poorest areas of Brooklyn, before Frank Mickens became Principal. Mr. Mickens requires his students to behave themselves while they are in school and as a consequence there is no “disruptive and violent behavior” at Boys and Girls High School. The fault, as I have been saying, isn’t the “behavior of a small percentage of students” but the policy and practices of the Board of Education’s superintendents and principals.

The point I am making is based on the distinction between two types of offenses: violent and non-violent. Non-violent offenses include cutting class, walking the halls, failing to follow a teacher’s instructions in the classroom, speaking disrespectfully to a teacher, and coming to class late. Violent offenses include fighting, bringing weapons to school, and harassing a teacher.

A school is disorderly because the administration is unwilling to prohibit non-violent misbehavior. Enforcing the rules of civility and decorum will immediately cause students who come to school only to fool around to stop coming to school. This type of student is one of the main sources of disorder and violence in lower-tier schools. This point has been made by Thomas Sowell in his book Inside Education and Jackson Toby in an article entitled “Everyday School Violence: How Disorder Fuels It” which was published in the American Educator.

At Erasmus Hall High School approximately 10 percent of the enrollment could be described as having no real desire to obtain an education and is not willing to go to class on a regular basis and follow the instructions of teachers. Another 10 percent could be described as being “at risk.” These are students who have difficulty following the regimen of a typical high school day. Making high behavioral demands on such students may be unfair given their personal backgrounds and prior educational experience. However, such students should not be regarded as hopeless and may succeed in an alternative school setting. This type of student is also a major source of disorder at lower-tier schools.

I hope it is now clear what my primary thesis is. The administrators of Erasmus Hall High School are unwilling to enforce the school rules against various types of non-violent behavior because it would mean reducing attendance rates by approximately 20 percent. Improving attendance is one of the major goals of the administration of many schools. The high school division generates lists measuring attendance rates, and small differentials can place a school at the bottom of the list.

My secondary thesis is that violence can be eliminated in schools by enforcing the various rules that require students to behave in a civil and mature manner. Uncivil behavior like the use of bad language, play fighting, horsing around, and so on frequently leads to disagreements and fights. Insubordination and other forms of showing disrespect to teachers and other adults fosters a lack of respect for authority and creates a disorderly environment.

Erasmus Hall High School will never suspend a student for talking in class or engaging in other acts of insubordination. The severest sanction against this type of non-violent rule breaking is to transfer the student to another class. This has a deleterious effect on the entire tone and atmosphere in the school, and the willingness and ability of the staff to enforce the Discipline Code.

Students who go to all of their classes and behave themselves are in school for the purpose of getting an education. Such students are under the control of the school's faculty and staff. They behave in a respectful and mature manner throughout the day. Students who are engaged in getting an education will not jeopardize their achievements by fighting and taking weapons to school.

If a well-behaved student is caught with a weapon, he or she will cooperate with whatever in-school disciplinary measures are administered and be grateful that the consequences were not worse. There is no need for metal detectors in a school filled with children under the control of the administration. This is why there are no metal detectors at Boys and Girls High School and many other schools in New York City. The dean of Midwood High School, many of whose students come from the same neighborhood as Erasmus Hall High School, once said to me: “There is no student here that we can’t control.”

Erasmus Hall High School screens its students with metal detectors because the administration has no desire to limit its enrollment to students it can control. The administration wants to increase daily attendance and has a diminished and adulterated commitment to the character development and education of its students.

Thank you for your attention.