How Much We Tolerate

Marc Epstein teaches history at Jamaica High School in Queens, N.Y. He wrote the summer 2003 issue of Education Next’s feature story, titled “Security Detail.” If an American, who passed away as late as 1960, were somehow resurrected, he’d probably think Epstein fabricated the story. Unfortunately, the story is true for too many of America’s schools.

Jamaica High School, with a student body of 2,500, has eight deans, Epstein being one of them. Student discipline occupies much of their time. The school has an assistant principal for security, and two secretaries and a school aide assigned to the dean’s office. There are 10 school security agents assigned by the New York Police Department to patrol Jamaica High School’s halls; there’re more when there’s random scanning of students for weapons. At least $1 million is budgeted for school safety, and that excludes the cost of the 10 security agents paid by the police department.

Epstein’s story samples a number of school incidents. A teacher saw a student take a gun from his locker to show other students. The security agent was informed and did nothing. Epstein searched for the student, but he had fled the building. When the student returned, he denied possession of the gun. He was searched by the police, who found nothing. After an investigation, which consumed a couple thousand dollars worth of personnel hours, a hearing officer transferred the student to another school.

A learning-disabled student, denied a hall pass, called his teacher a crippled bitch and threw an object at her. A security agent who witnessed the incident removed the student. At the student’s hearing, a man appearing on behalf of the student’s mother asked the teacher, “Do you consider yourself crippled, because if you do, then you are in fact a crippled bitch and the charges ought to be dropped.” Because of the protections of federal special education law, the student was permitted to return to the school immediately.

Epstein says court decisions and school regulations have made schools a safe haven for dangerous criminals. Schools must admit young people convicted of serious felonies, such as armed robbery.

The teacher’s union is part of the problem, as well. During the 1990s, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) deemed that forcing teachers to supervise home rooms was unprofessional. Through contract negotiations, this method of student control was abolished. UFT also argued that it was unprofessional for teachers to have cafeteria supervisory duties; they were replaced by school aides. The cafeteria quickly became student gang turf, where fights and other disorderly behavior became routine. School aides are easily intimidated by students, and for fear of retaliation, they rarely confront gang-affiliated students.

According to an August 2002 Department of Education report, “School Crime Patterns,” “High schools with the highest levels of violence tended to be located in urban areas and have a high percentage of minority students (black and Hispanic), compared to high schools that reported no crime to the police.” The report also said that 60 percent of violent school crimes occur in 4 percent of the nation’s high schools.

Is there a sane reason for today’s adults tolerating student behavior unimaginable 50 years ago? Don’t try the poverty excuse. I attended Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin High School from 1950 to 1954, along with students who, myself included, were among the poorest of the city’s poor. Yes, there was the occasional after-school fight, with fists, but I can’t recall a single incident of a student cursing or assaulting a teacher.

What to do? It’s a no-brainer. Students who are alien and hostile to the education process ought to be removed.

You say, “What will we do with them?” I say that’s a secondary issue. The first priority is to stop thugs from making education impossible for everyone else.