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.”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.