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Eye on the News

Marc Epstein
Swimming with Barracudas
Violent students need to be expelled.
27 April 2007

After the horrific Virginia Tech massacre, Americans are once again focusing on the distressing topic of school violence, which is most prevalent not on college campuses but in the nation’s high schools. In New York, critics disagree about whether school crime is going up or down. Mayor Bloomberg announced in February that crime had fallen significantly at certain schools as a result of his “school safety initiative”; the very next day, however, the New York Times countered with an article claiming that major crime in New York City schools had risen 21 percent in the first third of the fiscal year.

But few dispute the existence of a violent subculture among some students. A rash of gang-related stabbings has shaken New York City schools. Following a fight at Franklin K. Lane High School, assailants plunged a knife into a student’s chest on the subway. At a “second opportunity school” for students with prior violent offenses, one student used scissors to stab another student on school grounds; the perpetrator had been scheduled to return to a mainstream setting the following month. Equally troubling is a new Clockwork Orange–style game called “Knockout,” which has become all the rage in some New York high schools. To win, kids must select an unsuspecting student and knock him unconscious with one sucker punch.

Nor is the problem confined to the five boroughs. Buffalo schools superintendent James A. Williams prompted a media outcry in February by allowing a group of students who had assaulted another student and a teacher to return to school. It wasn’t long before three of the students were overheard plotting a follow-up attack.

The violence has prompted some predictable responses from legislators and school administrators. New York State Assembly members Jose Peralta and Peter Rivera have called for the passing of stalled antigang legislation, which would mete out stiff penalties for gangbangers caught recruiting new members on school grounds. In Buffalo, Williams has proposed a range of solutions: expansion of after-school activities, including athletics; a code of discipline modeled on the Catholic schools’; and undoing job cuts that have left students with no music, art, and athletics teachers, and with a shortage of guidance counselors and social workers. Getting at the “root causes” of student violence could take years, Williams suggested. Similarly, other school administrators have proposed more guidance intervention, peer mediation, and counseling; “student contracts” that carry no provisions for enforcement; and mandatory school uniforms, which would prevent kids from wearing gang colors. And as a last resort, there are always metal detectors, closed-circuit cameras, and an increased police presence.

What’s missing from all of these measures is an old-fashioned idea: the expulsion of incorrigible students who interfere with learning and present a threat to the safety of others. For all practical purposes, expulsion no longer exists in New York City schools, which have expelled fewer than ten students over the past five years. Worse still, school advocates—who often seem to advocate only for hoodlums—want incarcerated students to finish their sentences and return to mainstream classrooms as quickly as possible. Their efforts have established a revolving door between prison and New York high schools.

Those who attended New York public schools at a time when kids actually respected school authority can remember the dread of winding up in a notorious “600 School” for troubled children. The dramatic expansion of students’ rights and due process, which began with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Tinker v. Des Moines and Goss v. Lopez, has been furthered by consent decrees and changes in state education law that make expelling a student younger than 21 all but impossible. Today, the hoodlum class that menaces our schools fears nothing. The only civics lesson these so-called students have learned is how to manipulate the convoluted due-process system that provides them with endless opportunities for deviant behavior.

Placing these students among kids who just want to get an education safely is a disastrous idea. Metal detectors, cameras, guidance intervention, student contracts, and the like may lead to marginal improvements, but if the schools want to get serious about safety, they need to start removing the barracudas from the goldfish tank.

Marc Epstein served as Dean of Students at Jamaica High School for the past six years. He has written extensively on school violence.

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