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

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

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.