Before you judge, imagine being a parent at a violence-laden school

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I write from a place of privilege today. I have never once worried about the safety of my three children at school. The victim of a fatal school stabbing in September at a New York City high school was named Matthew. I have a Matthew too. And I owe it to every parent who does worry to try to put myself in their shoes and then raise my voice on their behalf. I wish I had done so sooner.

Robert Pondiscio and Max Eden have penned a piece about the New York incident at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx for the Daily News that will likely rankle many folks who call themselves education reformers. But no matter how much certain parts of the piece may get under the collective skin of the reform community, I sincerely hope we find it in ourselves to slow down and ask ourselves: What if my child attended the school where this happened? What if that had been my student?

I have spent the morning doing just that.

From the piece:

Abel Cedeno, a bisexual 18-year-old high school student, sits at Rikers Island charged with manslaughter. Cedeno claims he killed another student in self-defense, and Wednesday appeared in court to plead not guilty. He insists his school did nothing to address years of homophobic bullying. And that on Sept. 27, two teachers in his history class did nothing as classmate Matthew McCree confronted Cedeno—who, claiming to fear that Matthew was armed, snapped and stabbed him with a serrated knife.

While the families of the perpetrator and victim dispute some details, they agree that, in the words of Matthew’s brother, “Nobody had the kids under control” at Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx.

Five years ago, a nightmare like this would’ve caused a call to action from education reformers for higher disciplinary standards and perhaps more charter schools. Today, the outcry has been conspicuous by its absence.

I am a supporter of restorative justice. But, as with any practice whose goal is to change behavior, it only works when done well. It takes a highly skilled team and an all-in approach.

Far too often, restorative justice is an edict from the top, and those being tasked with implementation haven’t even bought in yet, let alone received comprehensive training. On the contrary, they are skeptical and share that with colleagues and even students. How do I know? I’ve seen the lack of buy-in firsthand in buildings where I’ve worked, as well as on the social media feeds of countless educators. Talk about a recipe for disaster and, yes, danger.

I’ve also, however, seen restorative justice succeed, build trust, and provide students with exactly what they need to get back on track. But it is very hard work—it takes time, money, and patience. If school staff isn’t all rowing in the same direction, it can’t work.

I don’t think anyone can or would make the claim that Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx was doing restorative justice well. And that matters. A quick look at survey data of parents and students is evidence that they had seen and felt a seismic shift in the safety of the building since New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s push to reduce suspensions.

More from the piece by Eden and Pondiscio:

Before Mayor de Blasio’s citywide push to reduce suspensions began in 2015, it was a safe school. In 2013–14, according to the city’s official school survey, 86% of teachers said order was maintained, and 80% of students felt safe in the hallways.

Last year, a mere 19% of teachers thought the school was in order, and only 55% of kids felt safe. How did that happen—and so suddenly? There may have been multiple causes, but one factor seems clear.

Under policy orders to limit disciplinary interventions and implement a “restorative” approach, the school got so bad that some parents reportedly began patrolling the hallways themselves.

I certainly support and applaud reductions in suspensions. I live near the Pawtucket, Rhose Island, school district, and its superintendent, Patti DiCenso, admitted in 2016 that they had been wrongly using suspensions as a tool at the elementary level. After making a commitment to changing their practice, they reduced elementary suspensions by 97 percent. That’s a good thing.

Superintendent DiCenso readily acknowledged that keeping more students in the building put a strain on the system if buildings weren’t adequately staffed to manage the defiance and unruly behavior that was previously being sent out of the building in the way of suspension. And adequate isn’t just about numbers of adults; my own experience confirms the need to ensure the right adults are in place, those who are skilled and/or have been trained to defuse and deescalate kids when they need it. They are also people who cultivate relationships with students that are based on mutual trust and respect.

But in the case of DeBlasio’s New York City initiative and the subsequent fatal stabbing of a young man during history class, there can be no applauding of suspension data. And there certainly shouldn’t be silence. The parents of the students in that building—especially the one who lost his life and the one who now sits in jail—deserve our voice and our collective willingness to acknowledge and be honest about what went wrong and what it will take to fix it.

Eden and Pondiscio’s Daily News piece discusses difficult subjects. Sometimes that leads people to blame the messenger instead of considering the message. I hope that doesn’t happen here. I know that I’m grateful to have read it.

Editor’s note: This article was original published on the author’s blog, Good School Hunting.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute