First Person

First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school

PHOTO: Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio with school safety agents earlier this year.

I am a high school social studies teacher, and for two weeks every year, I report to a school with scanners to score Regents exams. I wait in line with students and follow their routine. I empty my pockets into a plastic tray and putting my bag on the conveyor belt. I am watched as I gather my things once they’ve passed inspection.

I know the supposed purpose of this process is school safety, but every time I walk into this building, it’s unsettling. It’s hard for me to imagine working here — and I certainly cannot picture learning here.

This month, more than 100,000 New York City students started their school year by walking through a scanner. Since scanners were first introduced in 1992, they have only been removed from two schools, primarily because there is no process to reevaluate their necessity.

That appears to be about to change. Prior to the start of this school year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would clarify the process for considering if and where scanners are truly needed. And the release of new data just last week by the New York Police Department and New York City Department of Education, showing that our schools are the safest that they have ever been, feels like an important opportunity to follow through on that promise.

But others, including the union representing school safety agents, aren’t convinced. And through all of the back and forth, key voices have been absent from these pivotal conversations: those of students and teachers, even though we will be directly affected by the outcomes.

So I asked my students what they thought. One of my students, Justin, summed it up: “At first, scanners definitely make people feel safe and make kids think twice about doing something wrong. But after a while, most people have that mentality that [school] isn’t the place for weapons, and then [scanners] are not necessary anymore, because the school’s culture isn’t violent.”

To Justin, school climate and discipline are inextricably linked. “Metal detectors give off that vibe that the school is saying ‘We can’t trust you,” he explained. That “vibe” is unfortunately all too familiar to Justin, who attended a middle school with scanners and has friends who have continued on to high schools with metal detectors installed.

To be clear, there are legitimate arguments to keep scanners in some schools. All students should feel safe at school, and we shouldn’t remove scanners from buildings where the school and surrounding community has done a recent evaluation and found scanners to be effective.

But it’s clear that many scanners are a part of daily life for plenty of students and teachers who see them as unnecessary and discriminatory.

Black and Latino students comprise over 85 percent of all students who walk through school scanners daily, while their white and Asian counterparts account for a combined 12 percent. Sixty-two percent of Bronx schools have scanners, while not one school in Staten Island does. And students notice.

“It seems like there’s no escaping the idea that kids who grow up in neighborhoods like this are dangerous or something,” another one of my students said. “School is supposed to help with that, but the way it happens, that isn’t always the case.”

Schools and communities often become overwhelmed when thinking about how to address systemic injustices — and that is certainly a part of what has prevented reforms to metal detector policies for two-and-a-half decades. But today we have a clear opportunity to address one, and we cannot afford to put it off any longer.

After all, school safety is about so much more than scanners. Some schools are already taking steps in the right direction, such as providing wraparound services to address underlying causes of violence in schools. Others are participating in a pilot program to train teachers in restorative justice approaches and reduce suspensions.

We need to expand these kinds of innovative approaches. We also need to create a process to remove scanners from schools where they are doing more harm than good. And let’s not forget to involve teachers and students in that process, too.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.

guest perspective

I’m an education reformer, and Betsy DeVos is going to kill our coalition. Here’s a game plan.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / jeweledlion

At her Senate confirmation hearing this week, Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. education secretary Betsy DeVos failed to answer basic questions about civil rights, measuring student growth, and children with disabilities.

Her answers also validated what left-leaning education reformers have suspected for months: DeVos embraces school choice as an education panacea, while grasping little else about federal education policy. That philosophy will likely lead her to prioritize some of the least promising, and most divisive, components of the education reform agenda.

When that happens, she and Donald Trump will kill the bipartisan education reform coalition.

Having participated in that coalition for 15 years, as a nonprofit president and member of President Obama’s 2008 education policy committee, I will be disappointed, though not surprised, to see it dissolve.

The coalition was surprisingly durable. By the early 1990s it was attracting centrists frustrated with their political parties and enthusiastic about results. At the time, the right blamed weak school performance on things like “family values” and resisted sweeping changes on the basis of respecting local control. The left blamed poverty and was similarly resistant to change, based on an allergy to holding schools accountable for their results. For most of the years since I entered the workforce, the reform coalition was an ideal home for a technocratic public school graduate who realized that the system had worked for him, but not for kids with less privilege.

DeVos, however, is no technocrat. The glue of the reform coalition has been an orientation toward results and accountability. DeVos has shown that her real commitment is to an ideological position, dominated by a faith in markets and the economic theories of conservative economists like Milton Friedman.

The nomination of DeVos signals that our country’s Republican leadership will abandon the technocratic agenda in favor of an ideological one. DeVos’s own history indicates that her department of education will prioritize federal funding for private religious schools, a laissez-faire approach to school accountability, and a hands-off approach to the enforcement of federal civil rights laws. Those priorities would shrink the federal government’s role in safeguarding equity and increase the flow of federal dollars to unaccountable private entities. I don’t think low-income families should take that deal, and frankly, neither should tax-averse conservatives.

In the meantime, DeVos’s nomination should be a wake-up call to the left-leaners of the reform coalition. We’re about to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis, where pushing away from DeVos’s education policy agenda could mean getting subsumed by the traditionalist agenda of our own party. That agenda still hews to the positions of management interests and labor leaders, and not closely enough to the needs of vulnerable families.

To avoid that trap, left-leaning reformers like me need to build a legitimate reform agenda of our own — one that can both improve students’ lives and garner motivated, popular support in the coming years. I think that agenda must consider four things:

First, we must put the perspectives of the families and children of our most vulnerable communities at the center of our work. If we can’t explain to a mother why a policy will make her child’s life better, it’s not a good enough policy. To the extent that families view other issues as critical – like healthcare, poverty, civil rights, and jobs – we should be allies in those fights.

Second, we need to hold the line on accountability, academic standards, and making teaching one of the most valued professions in the country. Year after year, research finds that these three factors are the foundational elements of successful education systems. While standards and accountability have been central to reform since the 1990s, both are now under assault. The third leg of this stool also is a political nightmare, since reformers and traditionalists disagree about how to elevate teaching. That doesn’t mean we can give up.

All of that means that the third thing progressives need to do is spend more time talking to teachers. Teachers, and their unions, have been some of the most outspoken critics of reform. Some of that pushback has been political. Much of it, though, is a genuine response to feeling like the teaching profession has become unmoored from joy and creativity. Great teaching cannot flourish while our country’s teachers are miserable. That’s bad for children, and we need to help fix it.

Finally, reformers on the left must continue to support ideas that get results, even when other progressives push back. For example, huge segments of the left despise charter schools, but there are amazing charter schools that get stunning results under adverse circumstances. Those results are worth defending.

Whatever happens to the reform coalition, the Trump-DeVos regime will cause a significant realignment in education politics. If the coalition does survive, it’s likely to limp along in a diminished form.

The realignment will offer challenges and opportunities to everyone with a stake in improving public schools for all children. If reformers on the left want to be key voices in these debates, we’ll have to focus less on accommodating DeVos’s views and more on building power for our own coalition. Students will need it.

Justin C. Cohen is a writer who focuses on the intersection of education and social justice. Before that, he was president of Mass Insight Education and a senior adviser to the chancellor of the DC Public Schools.