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Re-thinking School Safety

by Pedro A. Noguera
New York, New York

Pedro Noguera.
Pedro Noguera. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.

(Recently), Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein proposed sending 150 police officers into 10 high schools and two middle schools with the largest number of violent incidents in the city. This followed another proposal to start several new schools for particularly violent or disruptive students. “If I have to put a police officer next to every kid, we will do it,” the mayor said at the press conference. “We are not going to tolerate disruptive behavior or criminal behavior, period.”

The Mayor’s resolve is commendable and none can argue with his intentions. There’s no question that every student -- and every teacher -- needs to feel safe in school, otherwise no learning can take place. If a student is worried that he or she will be threatened or preyed upon, how can he or she concentrate on what’s going on in class? When a student’s safety is in jeopardy the reasons for going to school become increasingly less compelling.

Yet, what seems to be lost in this initiative to take tough action is the basic fact that the Mayor’s proposal is unsustainable because it ignores the factors that create disruptive and violent behavior. Sending in security guards and police officers is at best a temporary measure, which may help in restoring a sense of order. But in the long term the plan is neither cost effective nor educationally sound. Put simply, safe schools cannot be achieved without an effort to restore a semblance of academic integrity to the schools experiencing the greatest difficulties.

Schooling is based upon an informal social contract between student and school: in exchange for an education students are expected to obey school rules. Not surprisingly, the students most likely to engage in violent or disruptive behavior are usually those for whom the contract is not working -- the ones most disconnected from learning. Unless efforts are taken to help students to see how their personal goals and aspirations can be fulfilled through education, and good behavior in school, the problem will not go away, even if the most disruptive students are removed.

In addition to students, efforts to promote safety must address the conditions in schools that contribute to violent behavior. The schools where violence is most common are generally the schools that are most chaotic and overcrowded. A look at the conditions in the schools that have been targeted for the new policy reveals that not only are they all overcrowded but they are also schools that are having difficulty meeting the educational needs of the students they serve. It is not surprising that violence and alienation are pervasive in the impersonal environments that characterize many of the City’s larger schools.

The federal government's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act has made the search for solutions even more difficult. NCLB allows parents of children in schools deemed “failing” or unsafe to enroll their children in other schools. According to the law the "better" and safer schools are not allowed to deny them access no matter how over capacity they may be. The new law combined with the DOE's (Department of Education) admirable attempt to cease the practice of pushing out students who are academically behind, has greatly contributed to the overcrowding.

Even before the latest crisis the Department of Education had been working to close down some of the more troubled schools to replace them with smaller schools. Such efforts are to be encouraged. Smaller schools are easier to manage and it is easier to create an environment conducive to better teaching and learning when it is possible for teachers to know the students they serve and understand their needs. Reducing the size is by no means a panacea, but it is a step in the right direction, one which may make it possible to re-connect a greater number of students to the purpose of school.

In the long run, this is the only solution that will lead to safer schools. New York City has large numbers of students with basic needs that are being ignored. At one middle school in Brooklyn, which hasn’t been targeted by the mayor and chancellor’s initiative, the administration has been unable to figure out what to do about groups of students roaming the halls, attacking other students and disrupting classrooms. Despite the chaos, one of the teachers managed to create a classroom that is regarded as an oasis of calm and inspired learning. Yet, though the marauding students could not stop her, the oasis she created came to an end when the principal instituted a “locked down” policy, forcing teachers to move from room to room, rather than students. Because of the new policy she has been exiled from her wonderful room filled with books and materials that she had thoughtfully put together that help make her a remarkable teacher.

It would be wise for Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein to learn from experiences such as these. Sometimes the cure may be as bad as the malady. Schools that rely on security guards and metal detectors to create safety may end up creating an environment that is so repressive that it is no longer conducive to learning. As we have learned from the successes of community policing, safety is ultimately a by-product of social relationships and from the willingness of the members of a community to look out for each other and hold one another accountable.

In the short term, more police and security may be the only way to restore safety and order in the City’s most troubled schools, but the City needs a policy that goes beyond short-term solutions. In the long term, we need a preventative approach to school safety, one that is rooted in an understanding of what it takes to create schools that can meet the needs of students.

The Mayor is to be applauded for taking the problem of school violence seriously. Now he must recognize that safety will only be attained by getting to the heart of the chronic academic problems that have plagued the city's schools, and by recognizing that schools cannot serve the needs of the most vulnerable students without substantially more help.

Pedro A. Noguera is a professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education.

Published in In Motion Magazine June 2, 2004.

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