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

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

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.