Walk it out

100,000 New York City students walked out of schools to protest gun violence

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Students from the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology and Stephen T. Mather Building Arts Craftsmanship High School walked out Wednesday in New York City.

Students across New York City walked out of their schools to protest gun violence, joining peers resound the country on the one-month anniversary of the deadly Parkland, Florida, school shooting.

From elementary school students in Brooklyn singing songs about social action to teenagers in the Bronx marching against metal detectors, students and teachers left their classrooms for the protest, slated to last 17 minutes to commemorate the Florida shooting’s 17 victims. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s spokesman said over 100,000 students participated.

Outside of an educational campus in Hell’s Kitchen, students waited behind a gate until precisely 10 a.m. then flooded 50th Street and 10th Avenue. They shouted “Tell me what does democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” and carried signs reading “how many more?” and “we are not safe” that they had stayed late to make the night before.

“The outcome was a lot bigger than what we expected – it was huge,” said Elizabett Baez, a senior at the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology and one of the protest’s organizers.

At the Grace Dodge campus in the Bronx, students were walking out and marching to nearby Department of Education offices to call for fewer metal detectors and more alternatives to traditional discipline. “We need more social workers and counselors in all schools!” students chanted.

Some protests were far quieter, such as the one held by elementary school students at Public School 40 in Manhattan. Parents signed their young children out of school for a moment of silence.

Carla O’Connor, who has two daughters in 5th grade at PS 40, said her family made signs together last night as they talked about the meaning behind the protest. Shielding young students from the truth, she said, only deprives them of the understanding that these are important issues.

“We talk about all the latest topics because they learn anyway,” said O’Connor said, whose daughters made signs saying “Control Gun Usage” and “Strict Gun Laws.” “They know what lockdown drills are for.”

Many of the walkouts appeared to have died down by mid-morning, perhaps since school officials said that students wouldn’t be punished aside from a notation in their attendance records if they returned to class afterwards.

Indeed, students at the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology and Stephen T. Mather Building Arts Craftsmanship High School in Hell’s Kitchen quickly returned to class. “It’s 10:18!” one of the student organizers shouted out.

Other protests and rallies were expected to be held throughout Wednesday afternoon. Students may attend events after the walkout with the permission of a parent or guardian. And the protests appeared to be largely peaceful.

Students’ reasons for taking to the streets are diverse, they told us. In a state that already has strict gun laws, some want to push for national change. Others say they’re frustrated with the solutions that adults have offered, such as arming teachers or relying more heavily on metal detectors.

What unites them, they told us, is a desire to honor the 14 teenagers and three teachers who were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School one month ago — and to influence the debate locally about how schools should respond to violence. Meet some of the students who are leading today’s protests.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Students at the Grace Dodge campus in the Bronx walked out Wednesday morning.

Quaseem Aziz, a senior at Stephen T. Mather Building Arts Craftsmanship High School, inside the Hell’s Kitchen campus, said the protest was important to him because “There’s been a lot of gun violence going on and nobody’s been really talking about it. It’s important that people know they’re not alone.”

Bryan Aju, a sophomore at High School for Energy and Technology who helped organize the walkout at the Grace Dodge campus, said protesters were hoping to “have our voices heard,” particularly the Department of Education.

“I feel like we go to a jail instead of a school,” he said. “And that’s why we did what we did today. Because we need that to stop… No more cops. No more SSAs. What we need are more counselors and social workers so that, whatever issues a student has, they can help.”

Aju and other students stopped a planned rally outside of a Department of Education building an hour early after seeing a heavy police presence.

Not all students walking out Wednesday were in agreement about how to address gun violence and safety in schools, of course. Houssainatou Diallo, a sophomore at Bronx Academy for Software Engineering, differed from some classmates by supporting metal detectors in schools. “I think they should keep it,” she said. “If we didn’t, people could walk in there with guns. Even students. Because there are students who are in gangs and carry those types of stuff or have access to those weapons and can go inside.”

City and state leaders were largely supportive of the students.The mayor joined students at Edward R. Murrow High School during the walkout Wednesday. “I have to help you understand one thing, in the decades and decades before this moment, we have never seen anything like what you are doing today,” he said. De Blasio, who stepped up random metal detector screenings as school following the Florida shooting, faced tough questions from students at a town hall meeting about school security last week.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten joined students at Leadership and Public Service High School in Manhattan. Video from the protest shows Cuomo and Weingarten participating in a “lie in,” lying on the ground and clapping as students chanted “Gun control now!”

Some students said they hoped this time would be different — that the outpouring after Parkland would finally lead to solutions to end school shootings. Leanne Robles, 16, a sophomore at Bronx Academy for Software Engineering, personally advocates for more school counselors to help troubled students before they turn violent.

“After how many school shootings and safety issues, there has been no change at all,” she said, “and something needs to change.”

survey says

More bullying reported at New York City schools, study shows

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

More New York City students say there is bullying in their schools, a report released Monday showed. The findings also revealed that many schools reporting the greatest number of violent incidents on campus have no social workers on staff.

The report was commissioned by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer also released an audit of how school safety matters are recorded, and concluded that the education department should provide more oversight and streamline incident reporting rules.

“The audit found clear breakdowns in communication in the reporting and tracking of incidents and actions taken,” according to a press release from Stringer’s office.

The education department disputed some of the comptroller’s findings, and in a written statement, spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote: “We have detailed protocols in place to ensure allegations of bullying are immediately reported, investigated and addressed, and are investing in both anti-bullying initiatives and mental health supports.”

But the pair of reports raises scrutiny of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school discipline reforms, which favor  “restorative” practices that emphasize mediation over punishment, and make it harder to suspend students.

Advocates of the de Blasio reforms say the shift is necessary because black and Hispanic students are more likely to be arrested or disciplined at school. Research has shown such disciplinary action can lead to higher dropout rates. Critics of the reforms, meanwhile, say the changes have created more chaotic schools.

The findings are also likely to add to a chorus of parents and elected officials who say more emotional supports are needed for the city’s most vulnerable students. Students who experience a mental health crisis during the school day may be handcuffed and shuttled to hospitals. The city’s latest budget, which was approved last week, includes an additional $2 million to hire social workers and guidance counselors in schools that currently don’t have any.

Here are some highlights from the reports.

More students report there is bullying in their schools — but the data comes with a catch.

Last year, the education department’s annual survey showed that 82 percent of students said their peers “harass, bully, or intimidate others in school.” That’s up year over year, and up significantly from 65 percent of students in 2012, which was the lowest rate recorded since at least 2010. (De Blasio’s discipline reforms started to take effect around 2015.)

A note about these numbers: Prior to 2017, the survey asked whether students harass, bully or intimidate other students none, some, most, or all of the time. The most recent survey responses were slightly different: none of the time, rarely, some of the time, or most of the time — a change that may have artificially inflated the bullying numbers.

That’s enough to render the survey data unreliable said Max Eden, a researcher who has studied school climate for the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute — a critic of the mayor’s discipline reforms. Still, taken with other findings, it’s reasonable to think that bullying is on the rise at city schools, he said.

Among the other evidence: A first-of-its-kind report, released this month under a new city law, that showed substantiated bullying incidents are on track to increase this year.

Schools that log the most violent incidents often lack mental health supports.

Guidance counselors and social workers are key when it comes to creating safe schools because they can help address the root cause of violent or troublesome behavior, advocates who want more mental health supports say.

But many of the city’s neediest schools go without that help.

Of the schools reporting the most violent incidents on campus, 36 percent lack a full-time social worker, the comptroller found. On campuses where there are social workers, caseloads are a staggering 700 to one. That far exceeds the recommended ratio from the National Association of Social Workers of 250 general education students per social worker — and it’s higher than the citywide average of 612 students per social worker, according to the comptroller.

The comptroller’ compares that to the ratio of New York Police Department school safety agents who are placed in schools: There is one safety agent per 228 students, according to the report.

“Our city is failing to meet the social and emotional needs of our students,” Councilman Mark Treyger, of Brooklyn, who has pushed the city to report more up-to-date bullying data and to hire more school counselors, said in an emailed statement.

Schools may be underreporting violent incidents, something the education department disputes.

In a separate audit, the comptroller compared logs kept by school safety agents to incident reports filed by school leaders. In 21 percent of cases, incidents that were noted by safety agents were not reflected in the school reports.

The school data, in turn, are used to report incidents to the state for its Violent and Disruptive Incident Report, or VADIR. The discrepancy could raise questions about the already-controversial reporting system. (VADIR has been criticized for classifying schoolyard incidents as serious offenses, and the state has tweaked its definitions in response to those kinds of concerns.)

This finding also comes with some caveats. The comptroller looked at only 10 schools — a tiny sample of the city’s portfolio of about 1,800. And the education department took issue with the methodology.

In its response to the audit, education department officials said that the police data doesn’t align with the state’s reporting categories, and that the information may not be comparable because of student privacy concerns and recordkeeping issues on campuses where multiple schools share a building.  

Student Voice

Boasting impressive resumes, five Newark students compete for a school board seat

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Top row: Amanda Amponsah, Nailah Cornish, Andre Ferreira. Bottom row: Shalom Jimoh, Emmanuel Ogbonnaya.

Earlier this year, Newark residents elected three new members to the city’s re-empowered school board. Now, public school students can choose one of their own to join the board, which in February became the district’s governing body for the first time in more than two decades.

Students have until midnight on Tuesday, June 5, to vote online for a rising 12th-grader to represent their interests on the school board. The winning student representative will provide the board with student perspectives on district policy, but will not be permitted to vote.

Eligible candidates are required to have a minimum 3.0 grade-point average, a satisfactory disciplinary record, and to submit peer and faculty recommendations. Last week, the five candidates participated in a debate, which can be heard here.

The candidates are:

  • Amanda Amponsah, of University High School, who is class president, captain of the softball team, a member of the marching band, and an aspiring pediatric oncologist.
  • Nailah Cornish, of Barringer Academy of Arts and Humanities, who plays basketball and volleyball, runs her own modeling program, and plans to study law and business in college.
  • Andre Ferreira, of Science Park High School, who is a soccer player, debater, and vice president of the student leadership organization. He plans to major in political science and aspires to work for the United Nations.
  • Shalom Jimoh, of Weequahic High School, who immigrated from Nigeria, and is now a member of the student government council, the National Honor Society, and the track and volleyball teams. She plans to study medicine and theater arts in college.
  • Emmanuel Ogbonnaya, of Weequahic High School, who serves as school photographer, soccer team captain, and is a member of the National Honor Society. Emmanuel wants to study engineering, and then start a company that combines photography, architecture, and engineering.

The winner will join the board at an historic moment. Control of the district reverted to the city in February, when state officials determined the district had met its requirements for home rule. The district had been run by the state for 22 years prior.

Last year, more than 1,200 students  — or about 13 percent of Newark public high school students — voted for a student representative to the school board, which then functioned in an advisory capacity only. This year, a Newark student group tried to ramp up turnout with text messages and a video posted on Facebook encouraging voting.

“The student representative will work closely with administrators and board members to make sure that all student voices are heard,” according to a video produced in advance of the vote by the Youth Media Symposium at the Abbott Leadership Institute, a Newark civic-engagement group. “Now that we have local control, this is more crucial than ever.”

As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, 1,381 votes had been cast. District officials said the winner will be announced Friday, and will be introduced publicly at the board’s June 12 meeting. The representative will then be required to attend at least four board meetings and various district events during the 2018–2019 academic year.