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Police Harassment and the Dean's Office

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Whenever I see neighborhood locals from here or there pressing forward to a 6 o'clock news camera to complain about police "harassment,'' I think of a teenage boy kissing his girl friend.

More than a dozen years ago, when I was dean of boys at Bayside High School in New York, we received an unwelcome gift of a parochial-school pushout. One of his many quirks--which precipitated his departure from Holy Cross--was his absolute refusal to go to class on time. The late bell was simply a signal for him and his girlfriend to intensify their already heavy smooching. Finally, the boy threatened to "punch out'' a teacher who was unromantic enough to suggest that the libidinous students belonged in class.

After he was suspended and sat across from me at my desk for by then the umpteenth time, the boy could only self-righteously complain that he was always being "bothered,'' just like in his rotten old school. The word "harassed'' wasn't part of his vocabulary, but that's what he meant.

The point worth making is that his response was typical. The common denominator among almost all the troubled boys who ended up in my office was that the normal, reasonable rules of any school were to them a gross imposition. That, of course, was the most obvious manifestation of their deeper problems. Being on time, carrying a program card, bringing texts or notebooks, staying in a class for a full period all represented an intolerable burden, and anyone who tried to enforce such behavior was a "bother,'' met with varying degrees of hostility. They were never wrong. It was always the teacher or the security guard who was being unreasonable.

In 1989, when I returned to Bayside shortly before my retirement after a four-year leave of absence, I was naturally asked by many colleagues whether I noticed any changes in the school. On one occasion, I observed that I thought that student behavior had deteriorated since I was last there. My colleague disagreed and said that the contrary was the case. The kids had gotten better.

Naturally, I was puzzled by this disagreement. How could two experienced teachers have such widely differing views of the same school? However, one day something happened which explained it all.

I was standing at the door of my classroom at the end of my free period waiting for my next class to begin in about 10 minutes. Down the hall to my right, an old friend, the dean of security on patrol, approached me. Suddenly, a boy emerged from the stairwell immediately to my left. He stopped and smiled at the dean who smiled back and said with mock exasperation, "You back out again? Why the hell can't you stay in class?''

I immediately saw what had happened. The dean found the boy wandering the halls and escorted him to class. After a minute or two the boy slipped out into the hall again. It was all a good-natured game with both sides playing well-rehearsed parts.

Then I made a mistake because my mind was still back in the school as it was four years before. "You know what you should do?'' I said to the dean. "Take this kid down to the office and call his parents.''

The jovial mood instantly disappeared. The boy pushed toward me and had to be restrained. "What are you harassing me for? What's it to you?''

Then I saw why the kids were supposedly now better behaved. What had happened was that teachers and security guards were no longer "harassing'' the students. It simply wasn't worth the sort of grief that I was now getting. Now when the late bell rang, the halls were thronged with students who only then began to move--slowly--to their classes. The kids had won the right to be late without penalty and to wander the halls without undue consequences--and without being harassed.

It's hardly an original thought, but in many ways schools are miniatures of the larger society. It may not be politically correct to say it, but the truth is that there are more and more people who simply don't want to follow the rules that hold our community together, who feel harassed when anyone, especially the police, tries to enforce civil behavior. And ultimately we're all losers, as we were in my school, when we stop "bothering'' those who ceaselessly fray the fabric of society.

Not long ago a television reporter interviewed a sleepless resident of a large city housing project who complained of the hopelessness of trying to end the raucous late-hour street partying, the shouting, the obscene language, the blaring boom boxes. You can bet that anyone who intervened would be in for a nasty confrontation and charges of harassment. After all, by their lights, no one in the party crowd was doing anything wrong. It's the people trying to sleep at three in the morning who were obviously the unreasonable ones. It's the same logic that I saw in the deans' office.

All this, of course, is not meant as a blanket endorsement of everything that police or even school authorities do. When allegations of improper actions are made they have to be investigated. But my memories of the dean's office are a constant reminder that not all of us share the same definition of "harassment.'' The troubled boys sitting across my desk were in a perpetual war with civilization. To them it was all a terrible hassle--in school as well as in the street.

Edmund Janko, a retired English teacher, writes frequently on educational issues.

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