First Person

First Person: A cough-syrup overdose isn’t a crime — except when schools rely on police in the wrong ways

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Joe Loong

I once watched a school react to an incident where a student had overdosed on multiple bottles of cough syrup.

After dealing with the initial emergency and ensuring the child went to the hospital, the school didn’t treat the incident as a mental health issue or suicide attempt. Instead, officials turned to their “go to” person for handling difficult student issues: the school’s police officer.

The officer’s, and thus the school’s, only response was to investigate what crime the child could be charged with, not what help he needed.

For the past decade, I have been studying how we police schools and punish students. I have found in my research that the presence of officers can change the school environment in subtle ways – from one that focuses on children’s social, emotional, and academic needs to one focusing on policing potential criminals.

In many of these schools, police officers are being asked to deal with a range of issues that are very different from traditional policing duties, such as being a mental health counselor for a traumatized child. My recent book, “The Real School Safety Problem,” and a growing body of other studies point to the fact that, indeed, schools ask police to do too much.

How did we get here?

Estimates suggest that the practice of placing police officers in schools became popular in the early 1990s, as society began to rethink policing and punishment. That resulted in more rigorous policing practices and an expansion of our prison system.

In 1999, following the Columbine school shooting, when two teens went on a shooting spree, policing grew further as federal funding increased for police officers in schools.

However, for over 20 years, school crime has been plummeting. Between 1993 and 2010, the number of students who reportedly became victims of a violent crime at school decreased by 82 percent. Importantly, research on causes of this decrease (which mirrors declines in juvenile crime outside of schools) has not reliably found any link between increased policing and decreased crime. Since most schools are now safe places, officers in them aren’t needed to respond to many crimes.

So they are being asked to do many other tasks.

There are no national data on what officers do while at schools. But studies in specific schools find that officers are being asked to deal with mental health problems, family crises, self-injurious behavior and manifestations of childhood trauma. They also mentor students and teach law-related courses.

That’s a lot. But in many cases, their training isn’t as comprehensive.

Every jurisdiction makes its own decision about what officers should do in schools, and the training that they should receive to work in schools. The National Association of School Resource Officers does offer a week-long basic training course. But students’ mental health and other problems are, not surprisingly, often beyond the skills gained from a week-long course.

Even if they are trained, police officers are not mental-health professionals — whose years of training and practice teach them how to calm youth down, assess mental health needs, and address the underlying causes of student misbehavior.

Police officers in schools do often serve as mentors and role models. For example, the officer I described above – who looked to charge a potentially suicidal student with a crime – had volunteered to work in a school because of his desire to help kids.

He took time to advise youth and was a positive influence in the lives of many. Often students would come to his office to ask for advice, and just “check in.” He would respond with care and compassion.

The cost of the daily presence of police, though, outweighs the benefit in the majority of schools. For example, the officer I describe above switched roles dramatically when he thought a crime might have been committed. Then he would act like any traditional officer focused only on law and order.

In those moments, he failed to address the underlying cause of the problem. By relying on him as the primary responder to student problems, the school replaced a focus on social issues and mental health with a focus on law enforcement.

The result is that children often do not receive the help they need, and officers are placed in a no-win position by being asked to respond to students’ needs as if they had the same training as a mental health professional.

The fact is, they do not — and we should be careful to remember that.

A version of this piece first appeared on The Conversation.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.