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Bloomberg's Schools: Is This America?

For the future of this and any city—and its children—reporting inside the schools can be journalism’s most important beat. Among New York’s daily newspapers, Meredith Kolodner of the Daily News keeps setting the standard for digging deep into the dark side of the Bloomberg-Klein-Walcott school system.

From her “Sacrificed for Charters” (March 31, 2010), did you know: “Special Education students are falling victim to the fierce battle to find space for charter schools inside city school buildings. . . . At eight of the 15 buildings making room next year (2011), at least a quarter of the students are special education or seriously disabled. . . . For these vulnerable kids, the space crunch may mean less one-on-one instruction, therapy sessions in the back of the classroom, and cramped conditions for wheelchair-bound students, nearly two dozen parents said in interviews.”

What say you, Chancellor Walcott?

This past March 30, Kolodner reported in “More Homeless Kids Put Schools to Test”: “At Middle School 349 (Washington Heights), where more than a third of the students are homeless, budget cuts have trimmed after-school programs to a couple of days a week. . . . Homeless kids have to go to the local library and wait for one of six computers to open up so they can do homework.”

And, at P.S.128 up the road: “ ‘Their homework is lacking because they have no space and no quiet time outside of school,’ said Marie Andino, a math coach. ‘We see it in the classroom when they’re falling asleep.’ ”

If our Education Mayor came by, at least they’d be awakened for a photo op.

Around the country, as I’m continually discovering, more teachers and even some school systems know damn well that collective standardized tests (and the constant testing for them) tell you nothing about what individual kids are actually learning.

But in our decaying New York school system, Kolodner reported on May 3: “Children in third grade through eighth grade have been practicing for weeks—sometimes months—for the state reading and math exams in a bid to boost scores that plunged last year”—after it was shockingly revealed how phony the previous official test scores were.

Kolodner quoted parent activist, Eric Perez: “They’re pushing the children, but not in the way that’s conducive for their learning.”

Chancellor Walcott, with all the steep budget cuts in schools here and around the country, educate yourself by reading Marion Brady’s “A Not-So-Modest Proposal” (Washington Post, April 24): “There’s one multi-billion dollar cost of educating that’s not scheduled to be cut—high-stakes, standardized testing. In fact, Arne Duncan, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, says that the number of such tests is going to significantly increase” (emphasis added).

Put yourself in the history books, Chancellor Walcott, and cut way down on standardized tests in this city—no matter what the Education Mayor says—and start insisting that the focus of each teacher and principal be on each individual child.

And pay attention to this, Chancellor: Credit the Daily News for this headline on April 21 on Kolodner’s report: “They gotta be kidding! Crying Qns. 7-yr-old cuffed by cops at school.”

Special-ed first-grader Joseph Anderson—who has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder—was getting very emotionally upset as he had trouble decorating an Easter egg. The school called his mother, who said she’d be right over, but then called the cops, who beat her to it. They put the seven-year-old in metal cuffs.

Ever since Joseph became educated about this city’s cops, his mother reports, he has been throwing up and, she says, “If he hears an ambulance, he runs under the bed and screams, ‘They’re going to get me!’ ”

His mother does not let him watch the news anymore “because if he sees cops, he cries.”

What say you, Commissioner Ray Kelly? Does this dangerous kid belong to the New York Civil Liberties Union?

Now, the indignant seven-year-old says: “I want those cops to say sorry to me and the principal for calling the ambulance and handcuffing me” (Kolodner’s “Once in a While We Do Cuff the Kids,” Daily News, April 22).

In that story, Chancellor Walcott says he will look into the incident. (I guess he doesn’t read the tabloids which, far more than the New York Times, tells us about school invasions by Ray Kelly’s cops.)

Walcott also says, referring to what happened to this seven-year-old: “There are occasions when [cuffing] needs to be done, and I think it’s the responsibility of the principal and school safety to work together to make that determination.”

After all these years as Bloomberg’s Deputy Mayor for Education, doesn’t he know that the School Safety Agents (trained by the NYPD and with the power to arrest) do most of the cuffing of school kids—disproportionately black and Latino ones? These enforcers are not responsible to principals or the Department of Education.

When a parent rushes to find a youngster being cuffed and held at a precinct, he or she doesn’t stop first at the principal’s office—or the chancellor’s. Has Walcott ever objected to this? I haven’t any evidence that shows that he doesn’t approve of our Education Police Commissioner suspending kids and their due process rights. There’s not a peep out of Bloomberg.

This chancellor, supposedly infinitely more qualified for this job than the hapless Cathie Black, got a response he deserves from this terrified seven-year-old’s mother. Said Jessica Anderson: “He was crying and saying, ‘I want Mommy.’ Why handcuff him? Why get the cops involved? He’s only seven. . . .”

When she finally got to see her son and found he was in handcuffs, “I was crying,” she said. “I broke down. They know that my son is special ed. It’s like trying to get rid of him, and it worked because I’m not sending him back there.”

What did the NYPD have to say? “He was acting in a threatening manner. He was a danger to himself and others in the classroom. He started spitting and cursing at the officers. The handcuffs were used to restrain the child because of his behavior. He was a danger to himself.”

Having reported often in the Voice on a considerable number of cases in which the School Safety Agents not only cuffed but beat young kids—though witnesses said they weren’t threatening anybody—I am, to say the least, skeptical of this police defense of their putting these kids in a perp walk through the school.

Joseph’s mother was later told by a spokesperson for the school that her son, scared, did jump up on a table, shouting, “I just want my mommy!”

In this report, Kolodner quoted Kim Sweet of this city’s Advocates for Children: “I’ve seen far too many cases of kids this young handcuffed and thrown into ambulances for behavior at school. Just imagine being a little kid and having people come, clamp your hands behind your back, and throw you in an ambulance.”

Hey, Mayor Mike, can you imagine this? Give it a try. Let us know how it felt, even in imagination. And I would be grateful for any detailed, documented accounts of other school kids being handcuffed. Parents and appalled teachers (there are a good many) can write to me at the Voice.

I got to know well a Supreme Court Justice, William Brennan, who was attentive to official abuse of students in our schools. In Doe v. Renfrow (1981), 13-year-old Diane Doe (not her real last name because she was a minor) had been strip-searched during a dragnet police search for drugs in her school. No student was under particular suspicion. This was a general warrantless search, like British officers so often did when we were colonists.

Before she was strip-searched, police-trained German shepherds had pushed their noses and muzzles into Diane’s legs. No drugs were found on her by them or when she was strip-searched. This is still going on at some schools in this alleged constitutional republic.

Diane’s case was thrown out by a district judge and then dismissed by the Supreme Court. Brennan dissented, telling me, “I was really mad.”

He called what happened to Diane “a violation of human decency.” Thinking of what seven-year-old Joe Mitchell learned about human decency in New York City’s public schools, I remembered what Justice Brennan warned after Diane’s experience: “Schools cannot expect students to learn the lessons of good citizenship when the school authorities themselves disregard the fundamental principles underpinning our constitutional freedoms.”

If we ever have real-life classes in civics in this city’s schools, Chancellor Walcott should come in and show the students the basis for how handcuffing seven-year-olds (a five-year-old has also been handcuffed) can be found in our Constitution. My next monthly column: The Brennan Center for Justice’s report card on New York’s civic literacy. It’s not only about Ray Kelly’s educators in our schools, and some of you adults may be embarrassed.


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