School Violence and the Adult-to-Student Ratio

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New York City's public schools are reflections of the neighborhoods in which they exist. Often school supervisors and administrators have to resort to "street savvy'' to keep their school buildings safe as more and more they come to resemble the mean streets that surround them ("'This Has To Stop': Coping in the Middle of a War Zone at Jefferson High,'' March 25, 1992).

In order for children to be able to learn, schools must be safe havens, but budget-slashing practices are turning them into battlegrounds. In their attempt at balancing the budget, both the city of New York and the board of education are resorting to reducing the number of adults in the school buildings. The motive may be to save money, but the result is a deteriorated school environment that in some areas translates into an unsafe school environment. Witness the recent tragic shooting in Brooklyn's Thomas Jefferson High School, where reduction in the adult population of the school has led students to feel ever freer to bring their guns and their grievances into the school building.

During the current school year, the New York City public-school population has increased by 25,000 students--mostly new immigrants who bring special problems with them--while the adult population has dropped. This not only translates into larger classes, it also translates into less supervision and thus greater potential for danger. The students aren't safe and the staff isn't safe.

The number of assaults against staff members over the four-month period ending last December surpassed the number reported for the entire 12-month period the previous year. In only eight school days in one recent month, there were at least four assaults against school supervisors who were engaged in doing their jobs. A junior-high-school principal in the Bronx suffered facial fractures when attacked by an irate parent. In Brooklyn, a junior-high-school principal was punched in the eye (possibly resulting in permanent damage); in Staten Island, a high-school assistant principal's nose was broken by an assailant with a baseball bat; an assistant principal in an evening adult-literacy program was robbed at gunpoint by an intruder who also robbed a school volunteer and a security guard, and the principal in that school now needs police protection because of threats against his life made by the gun-toting perpetrator.

It is obvious that restoration of adequate funding for the appropriate number of supervisors and administrators, teachers, guidance counselors, and other support services is essential if we are to keep our schools safe enough for children to be able to come to them without fear and to learn while in the safety of the school building.

And there are other steps that must be taken. With this in mind, the administrative group I head has formed a School/Community Safety and Security Committee in New York City whose primary responsibility is to develop recommendations for improving safety in our schools. We have been joined in this effort by other municipal unions servicing the board of education and have received the cooperation of members of the schools chancellor's staff. We will be asking the chancellor to more closely monitor the impact of budget cuts on the violence in the schools against students and staff, and we will develop other remedies for this serious situation.

The Council of Supervisors and Administrators has also drafted legislation (which it has submitted to the state legislature) making it a Class-D felony for a person to carry a dangerous instrument or deadly weapon inside any New York City public-school building or on school grounds. Persons holding permits to carry such weapons (with the exception of police officers) will not be exempt from the restrictions of this legislation.

While schools may continue to mirror the social problems of the communities in which they exist, we can prevent some of that frightening reflection from overpowering and defeating the purpose of the school--to provide the best education in the safest possible environment. To achieve this goal, the schools need the commitment of government, the private sector, parents, and society in general. Working together, we can have education out of harm's way.

Vol. 11, Issue 32, Page 29

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