Safety Dance


In the 1950s, under the halo of A-bombs and the onset of the Cold War, a heightened sense of self-preservation gripped schools across the country. Drills in man-made as well as natural disaster preparedness were as common as rock’n’roll and soda fountains. In the 1990s, a new wave of hysteria and paranoia arrived and once again schools became ground zero for a nation in fear. A typical show-and-tell session could just as likely feature a favorite assault weapon as it could a pet turtle.

In the wake of several school yard shootings, education officials have mounted violence prevention efforts. Some extreme measures have been adopted in numerous American classrooms, leading many to criticize the punitive, zero-tolerance kind of crackdowns that effectively treat students as dormant criminals. National trends reflect disturbing developments in today’s schools.

When some Indianapolis elementary schoolers step off the yellow bus, they are detained by police officers with metal detectors who check to make sure they aren’t packing. In Louisville, approximately 200 miles from West Paducah, Kentucky, where 14-year-old freshman Michael Carneal showed up for an informal prayer meeting at his school and killed three young girls, pupils practice the art of “drop-and-hold”— drills designed to protect children from an outside spray of gunfire when they have nowhere to take cover. In Pittsburgh, even teachers are getting an education with training courses in hostage negotiations.

This proactive approach has also been adapted by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is adding a workshop on terrorism to its multihazards training course. FEMA teaches educators to include a gun-toting student to the list of events— such as earthquakes and hurricanes— which require them to evacuate and protect children.

The national mantra of preparedness echoes in the halls of New York City schools as well. Last year, a junior high teenager was suspended for drawing a cartoon showing a kid shooting a teacher. After school officials held an assembly to explain their new policy for dealing with threats of violence, a couple of students joked about going home and getting guns— they, too, were sent home. A seven-year-old boy was suspended for bringing his father’s set of keys— attached to a three-inch pocket knife— to class. In response to his parents’ pleas, the school reversed its decision, but a permanent mark may remain on the student’s record.

Within this climate of fear, events in motion in New York City take on a charged signficance. On September 16, the Board of Education voted unanimously (7-0) to transfer control of security in the city’s public schools to the police department from the Division of School Safety. The vote came after more than two dozen concerned parents, teachers, and community leaders implored board members not to turn schools into armed camps.

Before casting his vote to approve the plan, Irving Hamer, a member of the school board disclosed, “I am deeply, deeply troubled that our city, and by extension, our schools are not safe havens, such that we must devote our collective wisdom to creating artificial structures of safety for the well-being of children. Neither security officers or police officers ensure safety. Caring adults in schools and community are the cornerstone of safety for children. The conditions that have stimulated the requirement for security officers in schools make me want to weep.”

Those opposing the plan share Hamer’s agony. “We have children that are not being educated, but yet we’re preparing them for a cell,” stated one Brooklyn parent. “We’re not building schools, we’re building prisons.”

Police as an everyday presence in schools has been a contentious issue in New York for years, and a key factor behind the hasty resignation of previous schools chancellor Ramon Cortines in 1995. Criticized for ineffectiveness and corruption, the board’s Division of School Safety has been a long-standing target for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. After much debate, the current chancellor, Rudy Crew— who was opposed to turning over school security to the police— and the mayor worked out a compromise.

Under the new plan, which took effect on December 20, the NYPD handles the recruiting, training, and managing of the Division of School Safety’s 3,200 officers throughout 128 schools. The number of officers will not increase, but the Board of Ed says its goal is to professionalize the security force and attract better-qualified applicants. Already employees of the police department, there’s a possibility they may be put on a promotional path to becoming city cops. And Police Commissioner Howard Safir assures that the NYPD will standardize the way background checks are done on officers and ban the hiring of anyone with a felony record.

“I am confident that we have struck a compromise that will ensure the maintenance of order and security in and around the schools,” says Board of Education President William C. Thompson Jr. “This climate is critical to creating learning environments in which students can meet high academic standards, educators can teach, and parents can feel assured that their children have a safe place to learn and grow.”

Still there are many in the minority community who are deeply distrustful of the NYPD. “They think they’re making it safer, but they’re not,” says Renee Vega, a mother of three children in Manhattan public schools.

Laura Ryan, a teacher at Seward Park High School in the Lower East Side, shares the same concerns. “Police are seen as enforcers and it’s a dangerous precedent to treat the kids as potential criminals,” says Ryan. “Besides, school should help to socialize students and prepare them for the world.”

Ryan, an English teacher at the six-story fortress at the corner of Grand and Ludlow streets for the past 13 years adds, “I find it completely demoralizing to have police officers walking around in the halls. That’s not the right environment for learning.”

Furthermore, many principals in New York have imposed a “captive lunch” policy— students are barred from leaving the building at mealtime. No longer will students be able to run to the corner deli during free periods. “There was a time when the door monitors would yell, ‘Lock down!’ after the first bell,” says Ryan. “The language used is frightening.”

“It’s like going to a prison every day,” says Ali Moulhem, a senior at Seward Park. “I live alone and take care of myself. I don’t need someone telling me that I can’t step outside during lunch to have a cigarette.”

Another senior at the school, Jennifer Garcia, says, “It won’t make a difference one way or another. They’re putting in cops to put more pressure on those who make trouble, but they’ll keep doing what they want.”

Ironically, the day after the vote, the Board of Ed released figures that reported serious crime and safety incidents dropped in city schools last year. Though the total number of incidents in the 1,100 schools climbed 30 percent to 28,534 in the 1997-98 school year, from 21,993 the previous year; assaults, robberies, and other serious offenses declined. According to school officials, the sharp increase is the result of better reporting. The majority of incidents (61 percent) were classified as minor misconduct— trespassing, loitering, and student fights.

Moreover, researchers claim that the number of students injured by weapons in school has gone down over the past decade. According to a report released by the Justice Policy Institute, there were 42 school-related violent deaths annually from 1992 through 1995 and 33 per year from 1995 through 1998.

More startling is the number of children killed by gunfire every year: 3024. And the peak hours for those shootings are not between homeroom and eighth period, but during late afternoons, weekends, summer months, and over the winter holiday season. The institute’s report says that policymakers in Washington and in state legislatures have overreacted to a crisis that does not exist and are engaged in a “tragic misdirection of attention and resources.”

One of six articles in our Education Supplement.