Coping in the Middle Of a War Zone At Jefferson High

By Ellen Flax — March 25, 1992 10 min read

NEW YORK CITY--For a principal who lost five of her students to violent deaths in a single week last month, Carol A. Beck is a decided optimist.

Ms. Beck is the principal of Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, which became a national symbol of growing in-school violence when two students were fatally shot in its corridors last month. But instead of dwelling on the tragedy, Ms. Beck has begun to focus on her next project: creating a garden out of a garbage-strewn lot that adjoins the school.

The garden, which Ms. Beck plans to have dedicated this spring, will serve as a memorial to the more than 50 students from her school who have died at the wrong end of a gun since she became principal five years ago. She said that many of her students from Brooklyn’s East New York, where the wrong look or a simple insult can provoke gunfire, have become too numb to enjoy life and to appreciate the beauty around them.

“We want to make a statement in the neighborhood that we want to bring death into life,’' Ms. Beck said this month, “and change something from negative to positive.’'

"[The students] don’t know what is beautiful,’' she added. “Having the garden there will hopefully generate a sensitivity to something that is fragile.’'

Ms. Beck’s attention to her students’ noneducational needs had earlier driven her to create “grieving rooms’'--in-school spaces where students and staff members can attempt to cope with their violent and chaotic surroundings in one of this city’s toughest neighborhoods.

These rooms, which are unused classroom or counseling spaces, allow students and school workers to discuss the impact of death and other personal problems with the school’s mental-health professionals. In times of crisis, which seem to happen frequently at Jefferson High, several rooms are manned throughout the day, and students and staff members are encouraged to drop in for aid.

“We have a really unique task that others don’t have,’' said Verrod Matthew, a drug-abuse-prevention counselor who has counseled students in the grieving rooms. “The grieving is so constant. Before they can finish the grief cycle, another thing happens.’'

The grieving rooms, according to Ms. Beck, students, and faculty members at the school, have played an important role in helping the Jefferson High community regain some sense of normalcy following the fatal shootings of Tyrone Sinkler, 16, and Ian Moore, 17, on Wednesday morning, Feb. 26, on the school’s second floor. The same day, a classmate, Khalil Sumpter, 15, was arrested and charged with the killings.

Although the shootings made headlines around the country, few accounts noted that at the time of the tragedy, Jefferson students were already mourning two other classmates who had been killed by firearms in the neighborhood over the previous weekend. And within hours of the two in-school shootings, a fifth student, Marlon Smith, accidently shot and killed himself while talking on the telephone with a friend.

“We are in a war zone,’' said Ms. Beck, whose office has a book about war-torn Beirut prominently displayed. “We may not have bombs falling, but we have high-powered guns and rifles being used.’'

‘Becoming Zombies’

Ms. Beck acknowledged that violence is not unique to her school. In incidents at or near New York City’s public schools since the beginning of the school year, according to the United Federation of Teachers, the local union, there have been 16 students shot and 6 killed; 5 teachers shot and 1 killed; and 2 parents and 1 police officer shot.

Still, Ms. Beck said, from talking to other principals, no other high school in the city can say that it has lost as many students to violence as has Jefferson.

What is different about her school, Ms. Beck said, is that the vast majority of her 1,900 students--about 80 percent of whom are black and 20 percent of whom are Hispanic--live in the 40 housing projects in the immediate area, giving Jefferson High the largest concentration of publicly housed students in the city.

“We have dependent communities,’' she said, “and the children feel the impact of all these negative forces.’'

Concerned that the ongoing violence was taking too much of an emotional toll on her students, Ms. Beck established the first makeshift grieving room out of her conference room three years ago, after a popular student at the school was killed in his housing project.

Before she created the special room, Ms. Beck said, other students from that housing project were getting into fights at school and engaging in angry and often odd behaviors. One boy, she recalled, was taking several showers every night, “because that was the only place he could cry.’'

“The young people in this neighborhood were becoming immune to emotional responses to violent death,’' Ms. Beck explained. “They were becoming zombies with no emotion, or suppressed emotions.’'

“They don’t go to funerals,’' the principal noted. “There is no closure on the act.’'

Mental and Physical Health

In contrast, Ms. Beck said, the grieving rooms allows students “to bring the grief and the reality to the surface so they can begin to heal themselves.’'

“It’s not just a mental-health issue, but a physical health issue,’' she said.

Raymond C. Martinez, the assistant principal for pupil personnel services, said the grieving rooms allow students to vent their concerns and fears about death and family problems to mental-health workers.

Students who come to the grieving rooms are always greeted by a counselor, who has water and tissues on hand, Mr. Martinez said. Although students can choose to stay as long or as short as they want, the staff generally does not want them to leave the building until they appear emotionally stable.

“The students don’t necessarily need a response,’' Mr. Martinez said. “They just need someone to emote to.’'

‘I Could Be Shot’

And, over the past few months, the Jefferson High grieving rooms have seen a lot of service, Mr. Martinez said.

In November, a student entered the school with a gun, shot and killed a fellow student, and seriously injured a teacher. The wounded teacher is still out on disability leave, Mr. Martinez said. In January, three students were stabbed, although not fatally, outside the school.

The two fatal in-school shootings last month, Mr. Martinez said, were especially traumatic for students and school workers. Many students were in the hall when the shootings occurred, and actually witnessed the violence and its aftermath, he said. Further, the shootings happened despite the presence of additional security personnel, who were patrolling the halls to ensure that a previously scheduled visit by Mayor David N. Dinkins of New York would go smoothly that morning.

“There are certain places that we identify emotionally as being sanctuaries,’' Mr. Martinez said. “On the top of my list would be a church and a school.’'

“All of a sudden, that sanctuary was shattered for people,’' he said.

“What we found this time around, in my opinion, was that the reaction was much more personalized,’' he added. “For the first time, people said, ‘I could be at risk. I could be shot.’ ''

Mr. Martinez said that after the shootings occurred, the assembly with the Mayor went on as planned. Mr. Dinkins spoke with the shocked students about the need for nonviolent solutions to problems; Ms. Beck told students and staff members about the locations of the grieving rooms and what additional services would be available. The students were then dismissed for the day.

‘Emotional Roller Coaster’

During the following days, Mr. Martinez said, the school’s psychologist, two social workers, seven guidance counselors, and Mr. Matthew, the drug counselor, were kept busy. A Brooklyn Borough crisis-management team that had additional mental-health workers also came to the school to work with students and staff members and stayed on the campus for two weeks after the incident.

Three grieving rooms were set up for students, and three were set up for staff members, Mr. Martinez said. Both students and school workers could take part in either individual or group-counseling sessions.

About 25 to 30 students have received special attention because they were either close friends of the victims or actually witnessed the shootings, Mr. Martinez said. Some of these students have subsequently transferred, he said.

The school’s teachers and other workers have been just as affected by the violence as have the students, Mr. Martinez said. In response, the school day ended a period early for more than two weeks, to allow teachers to gather themselves together and plan alternative activities.

Given the frequency with which death and tragedy affect the school community, Jefferson High teachers have become very aware when a student appears to have a problem, Mr. Martinez said, and are willing to use the intercoms that are in every classroom to call for aid when a student exhibits grieving behavior.

“Because the staff has gone through the same emotional roller coaster when these events have occurred, the staff has become sensitized to the fact that this could affect a teenager, too,’' he said.

‘Yes, I am Scared’

In one of the school’s designated grieving rooms, students invited to meet with a reporter on a recent Friday afternoon agreed that, despite the mental-health services at the school, it is impossible to ignore the violence that surrounds them.

Muller Cherubim, a senior, said the support he receives at school “is very helpful.’'

Yet, he observed, “things happened so quickly. You don’t really have a chance to recuperate.’'

Muller’s friend, Eric Alexander, said that he, too, appreciates the chance to talk things out. “It makes you feel better,’' the senior said.

When students are shot, the tragedy goes far beyond an immediate circle of friends, Eric pointed out.

“You don’t have to know them. It happened in the school,’' he said.

Shakima Day, a senior, said that, despite the presence of security guards and hand-held metal-detectors at the door to Jefferson High, she is still concerned about weapons in the school. Some students, she said, smuggle weapons in, sometimes hiding them in their mouths or temporarily disassembling them and parceling out the parts to other students.

“One day you see someone you know,’' Shakima said. “The next day, you don’t know if you will.’'

“If they don’t take it out with the fists, they take it out with a weapon,’' she said. “If you don’t have a weapon, you’re not ‘chill.’ ''

Aaronda Kilgore, a junior, said she shared homeroom class with Marlon Smith, the boy who accidently shot himself last month. She said she found out about his death that evening on the news, after walking home from school with him.

“It was like, my God, that’s my friend,’' she said. “I was crying that night.’'

“School’s supposed to be a safe place,’' she said. “What’s going on?’'

“I didn’t feel like talking about it,’' Aaronda continued. But she added that she eventually came to the grieving room--normally the home of SPARK, the school’s drug-abuse-prevention program--to share her feelings.

Vaseah Dupree, a sophomore, said she is sometimes called a “sucker’’ because she no longer responds to taunts. Students who argue back can be seriously injured or killed, she pointed out. “If someone says something to me, I say, ‘I can’t stop people from saying things,’ '' she said. “Yes, I am scared.’'

‘This Has To Stop’

Back in her office, Ms. Beck was filled with enthusiasm as she described a voter-registration drive she wants to conduct at Jefferson, as well as her plans to build a dormitory near the school before she retires next year.

She acknowledged, however, that when she began her career as an educator, she never thought she would be devoting as much time as she does to arranging and attending her students’ funerals.

“I’ve been to funerals where I was the only person there besides the organist,’' the principal said. One time, she recalled, a victim’s mother said “she was too busy doing her laundry to attend.’'

“That was one time when I seriously considered committing a violent act of my own, but I decided against it,’' Ms. Beck said with small, sad laugh.

“I deal with death on a daily basis,’' she said. “My husband is concerned that I don’t have a grieving room.’'

“This has to stop.’'

A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 1992 edition of Education Week as Coping in the Middle Of a War Zone At Jefferson High