HOST INTRO: Student safety is measured in numbers of violent incidents. But the problem is what numbers do you use? An advocacy group is taking the Department of Education to court. It says because it claims the city is not doing enough to keep students safe. They city says schools are safer. On some level, the disagreement comes down to which sets of numbers you’re looking at. Gilda Di Carli reports. [0:20]
FADE UP BUS SOUND
Bronx high school students, Victoria Richardson and Bintou Camara are waiting for the bus. It’s raining and they stand side by side under their umbrellas.
RICHARDSON: We met in high school. Through our school step team, we met at auditions. I actually didn’t like her at first.
CAMARA: [Laughs] I didn’t like her either.
They went to different middle schools where they saw violence firsthand: fights, threats and weapons. They talk seriously about school violence. It matters, especially with their high school’s history.
Adlai Stevenson High School used to be one school with 3,000 students — and was regularly one of the most violent in New York.
RICHARDSON: That’s the reason why they put metal detectors in our school because it was so crazy back then.
Then, under former mayor Bloomberg, the Department of Education broke it up into nine smaller schools all housed in the same building. They attend one of them, Bronx Compass. All of the students in the morning go through metal detectors at the main entrance. They haven’t seen many weapons get confiscated.
RICHARDSON: Flat irons, perfumes… I think the most annoying thing is the open water bottle thing. That’s the most annoying thing.
Like at the airport, even open water bottles are not allowed. Camara and Richardson say their school seems safe to them. But that’s not what the advocacy group suing the Department of Education says. Families for Excellent Schools says the Stevenson campus is actually one of the worst in the city. And in general, too many kids are being exposed to violence at schools.
Will Herberich is one of the advocates behind the lawsuit. He says a goal is simply to get the DOE to say there’s a problem.
HERBERICH: So far the city seems content to just issue political statements that don’t really acknowledge that we have a crisis on our hands.
The scope of the crisis comes down in some ways to which numbers you’re looking at. Families for Excellent Schools uses data that comes directly from the schools. It shows violence is on the rise at Stevenson High.
But for The DOE, Stevenson has had a decrease in violence. Its data is from the NYPD, which runs the school security programs.
FERGUS: So everybody’s correct in terms of their vantage point however we’re all wrong in terms of not paying attention to the core issue.
That’s Eddie Fergus. He was co-chair of the data team that advised the mayor on this topic last year. The core issue, he says, is understanding the culture at New York public schools. And he says that missing context explains why, Camara and Richardson, the teenagers from the Bronx, who go to a small school clustered with other schools in the same building, can think it’s safe.
FERGUS: You can have a school that’s much more college preparatory in a same school with a transfer school. So how they are experiencing school is very different even though they are located in the same building.
Kesi Foster works with the Urban Youth Collaborative – which works with minority school communities. He says the data that schools self report, which Families for Excellent Schools uses, captures incidents of misconduct too broadly.
FOSTER: If one six-year-old hurls another crayon across the classroom and that crayon happens to hit a student and that teacher gives that student a detention. The crayon is categorized as a weapon.
And he says too broad a definition runs the risk of perpetuating the idea of black and latino teenagers as Super Predators.
FOSTER: Now we’re seeing The New York Post call students perps, we’re seeing the New York Post call students thugs, we’re seeing Bill O’Reilly saying white flight is caused by chaotic and dangerous schools.
Chaos and dangerous aren’t what’s on Camara and Richardson’s minds. Last week, in a talent show filled with poetry, singing and hip hop, the entire school community – parents, teachers, even security staff – expressed excitement about their Bronx high schools.
This kind of talent show is a celebration of their school. In the meantime, the city and advocates are hashing out the numbers. The lawsuit will likely create a push to get the most realistic picture of what’s happening at New York City schools.
Gilda Di Carli, Columbia Radio News.