Norman Thomas High School, a left-behind school, must be closed. Slated for closing among 19 schools by the Department of Education, Judge Joan B. Lobis of State Supreme Court in Manhattan has ruled that education officials engaged "in significant violations" of state education law and "failed to follow proper process in closing the schools". I now see why this school with little PTA activity and minimal parental engagement suddenly was able to produce street demonstrations agitating for its right to stay open -- it had a lot of help from socialist organizers -- outside agitators.
I wish the judge had been as attentive to all the violations of children's right to education and to the outrageous abuses by those in charge of this school as she was to notions of political correctness when she made this decision. I wish she had not been cowed by politicized groups agitating with their own agenda and bringing other agitators out of state to put pressure on authorities, waving the "racism" flag. I wish she had called up the District Attorney's office and seen all the orders of protection by Robert Morgenthau's office issued to my son after he was beaten black and blue by gang members in this school. I have friends who knew the real Norman Thomas, a socialist and pacifist who worked for a non-communist socialist movement in this country, who were inspired to years of justice work from his teachings. He would be turning in his grave if he saw the appalling injustices done in his name today. His name can always grace a new school, opened with less children, and less abusive conditions. The socialists rabidly clamouring to keep this school open and cynically playing the race card should stand down and let impartial authorities and the broader community see what is really going on here.
My son was "safety-transfered" to Norman Thomas -- brought from another violent " left-behind school" (as we parents have taken to calling them) in 2008. While I was aware that Norman Thomas had a bad reputation as itself a "left behind" school with frequent police calls, it was my understanding it was improving and reducing problems and had an X-ray machine set up at the door to screen for weapons. We didn't have a lot of choice in safety-transfers -- there are a limited number of schools and if you want one within some reasonable commute, your choices are extremely limited. We chose Norman Thomas because it was within walking distance from our home and because I thought that would help me keep an eye on my son better -- he had built up a record of truancy, constantly reluctant to go to school because of violence and the unwillingness of other children to learn and teachers to manage, setting himself up in a cycle of failure, too.
Norman Thomas is a big, tall black box, a large office tower looming on the horizon of midtown Manhattan. It is a multistory school placed inside a major office tower in the center of Manhattan, likely because it had the space to accommodate nearly 2,500 kids (!). This building *has no windows* on many of the floors. It has so many floors that it has *escalators* running between the floors -- the presence of so many stair wells is one of the reasons why kids have a place to hide, skipping class and smoking pot.
The escalator proved a fearful hazard for the vice principal in charge of security, a soft-spoken Haitian man -- he was pushed down the stairs several years ago by thugs in the school and his leg was broken. While this story was covered in the news at the time, it is little known, even to other school principals. This dedicated man returned to service, attempting with his quiet air of authority and experience to maintain law and order. But he has little help or sympathy.
Somewhere in the mix of this plan to put 2,500 mainly minority children in the center of Manhattan is some faded 1960s hope of 'integration". Perhaps by bussing black children for as long as an hour away from their homes in the Bronx and Queens into one of Manhattan's most affluent districts, some of the opportunity and wealth might "rub off".
It doesn't. No integration is actually taking place of course; when my son arrived to speak to the vice principal on his first day of school -- the man whose leg had been broken by thugs in the school -- he delicately told him he would be part of a "small white community" there. How small we had no idea -- in fact, most of the time, my son never saw even one other white or Asian child -- the school is overwhelming black and Hispanic, with only 34 white children and 103 Asian children listed. Even if these figures are incorrect, any cursory visit to the school tells the story: this is a school with near invisibility of whites -- whites who have fled to the suburbs, to private schools, and to the very few public high schools of excellence in this town.
That's the dirty little secret of our public schools -- they really are not integrated -- they are basically now overbalanced with only token white presence except for a handful of schools. A few top schools have something remotely like balance, with perhaps 40-50 percent white participation, but many schools are simply all-black. Black children with good grades have a hard time getting into those top schools -- by the way, as do white children coming from the Catholic school system as I've discovered -- there just aren't enough good schools to go around.
The reality is that these all "minority" schools, often with black and Hispanic administration as well which was supposed to help root them in the community and make them work better, are failing. And the failing is not a problem of racism; it's a problem of class -- the persistence of an dysfunctional and entrenched underclass of blacks and Hispanics in our city, where one in five get food assistance, that "progressive" policies are not curing and haven't cured in the 25 years they've been experimenting on our children. It's time to stop. The black gang violence is the chief problem facing above all fellow African-American and Hispanics who want to learn -- they are the ones *first* targeted in these schools that no longer have white children in them and have only very small groups of Asians who refuse to mix with others. Until we can squarely look at this problem as a society, without fear or favour, we will continue doing a disservice first and foremost to the *black children* who bear the brunt of the violence daily.
Looking at the demonstrations and agitation around this issue of school closure, I see there are no shortage of local and international politicians and "community organizers" willing to play the race card and back the union and school leaders in covering up what's really happening in this school. I will demand scrutiny from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission; from congress people; from other community leaders who will be willing to put education and not identity politics first.
I will tell one story of what it has been like being one of the very few white liberal parents in these schools -- a liberal whose child has been literally mugged by this reality. I am naming the races of the people involved not as a "racist," but so that we can see that racialist analysis based on paradigms of the 1960s and 1970s is not getting at the reality of what is going on today, a reality more complicated than an Ivan Illich book or a marxism.com tract -- of the kind that my son was once surprised to receive as a handout in his history class, not because the teacher was teaching a variety of perspectives, but because she was teaching *one*.
In January 2009, my son was walking to school with another friend and arrived at E.33rd and Park Avenue near the school's entrance about 10 minutes before class. He spotted a black youth on the sidewalk who had forcibly taken his lunch money some weeks before that with a joking promise to give it back.
These two white boys made the mistake of confronting this 19-year-old multi-felon black youth gang member, still on the rolls in this failing school, asking for $20 back. Bad idea. This kid already evidently too old to be in school responded by punching my son, who tried to fight back. A few feet away were the usual 2-3 female black police officers -- the school safety officers -- who ran the X-ray machine, laughing and gossiping as they do every day at their monotonous task. No doubt they are mandated not to leave their posts -- if they saw this fight break out, they did nothing.
Inside the school, there even more cops who become involved searching for weapons and drugs in this school -- there are never a short of uniformed police in this school, and I witnessed both black and white cops roaming the schools and kidding around themselves and trying to deal with kids on a number of occasions. One of the strangest sights in this school is a big sign saying WE DO NOT USE THE 'N" WORD, although the black kids themselves, to be cool in the latest jargon, call each other "niggah," a term so ubiquitous, that my son's black friends call him "niggah" in every other sentence as they chat, and he calls them "niggah" as well without them taking offense. When he keeps speaking the argot of his inner city school to his mother and sister when he gets home, I tell him to stop. I don't care how cool the word is or whether blacks themselves use it: we will not be using the "N" word in my house.
The police inside also likely did not see this incident -- because they never attempt to patrol *the doors*. Everyone who walks to school at Norman Thomas knows the problem: you must first run a gauntlet of thuggish kids demonstratively smoking pot outside the doorway. The police and school authorities never, ever mess with this gaggle of kids several rows deep. They might mess with you -- but hopefully they won't if you hurry through the door.
With no one in authority in the school coming to his aid, my son was struggling to fight a kid older and bigger than him with his friend wondering what to do. Suddenly, by chance a petite Hispanic police officer came up to the fighting boys and told them to stop. They didn't heed her right away. She told them to go up against the wall and spread their hands, no doubt wishing to check for weapons or guns. Unable to control them any other way, she maced them. With tear gas in their eyes, they ran away down the block. She called for back-up and bigger, taller male policemen arrived in patrol cars and quickly apprehended the staggering boys a block away.
That was the second serious mistake they made that day, as "resisting an officer" is a serious crime -- a felony. Running away with mace in your eyes is "resisting". My son had begun as a victim of a crime, asking for money taken from him under coercion by a gang member, under the naive idea it might be returned; he was punched and became a victim of a crime again; but now, in the politically-correct atmosphere and environment of the New York City schools, where there is both too much police force and not enough, he was now charged with a crime himself. The original perpetrator escaped.
The two boys were taken to the hospital due to the mace in their eyes, held for a time and treated, and then taken down to Family Court. For some reason, my son's friend was released. But my son, who had a record of truancy, was held. This is not a story that paints my son as some kind of angel, or portrays him as merely an innocent victim. What it *is* is a story of how schools are badly run; how they worsen the situation for troubled youth; and how the really abusive and violent ones must be closed, the populations reduced, and the most violent of the youths removed from the open education system and put in a more restricted setting so they stop harming others.
I received a call from the cop at the South Manhattan Precinct only at about 10:30 am, after my son had been arrested, taken to the hospital, and then taken to a lock-up downtown. I was told by the police officer that he had been found with drugs. I was surprised, as he had never been known to be involved with drugs up to that point. Shocked and alarmed, and thinking that a policewoman wouldn't be wrong at first, I said something like, "Wait, are you sure? My son"? and then hestitantl,y "Well, you'll have to keep him then." She then faltered for a moment and asked me to hold for a moment. I then heard her tell her fellow officers, "These parents always flip the script".
By that she meant that parents always insist on their children's innocence, and begin arguing with cops. Even though she had a law-abiding citizen who was inclined to view her version of the story as the facts, she clearly had dealt with many who tried to hustle her. When she returned to the phone, she seemed to drop the mention of drugs, but said he had resisted arrest and would be arraigned in Family Court only in the night session (thank God those have been instituted recently).
Calls to the school and to the precinct again turned up no more information. I got myself to night court, where I was informed by a Legal Aid Society lawyer that my son was charged not only with resisting arrest, but striking an officer -- a very serious charge indeed. I was trying to comprehend all this, but I had no way of finding out any more facts -- I was not allowed to see my son. The procedure for his charging was extremely brief and the cop who had arrested him was not present. Absolutely no mention of drugs was made, but a charge was leveled that my son had fled after an officer had told him to stop (which is considered "resisting arrest"). He was released pending a trial date and he told me the story -- later when I questioned his friend, the story appeared consistent. I had no other witnesses except the gang member who had beaten my son and possibly some other dope smokers outside the school door. Even so, I was confident that at the court hearing, the truth of the matter would come out, and surely it could not take a more serious turn.
The next day, my son went back to school. Within minutes of arrival inside the school, he was assaulted by a half dozen gang members led by the kid who had beaten him the day before. They savaged him, breaking a tooth and scratching his eye before finally a teacher spotted the melee and called security -- the cops who always seem so uselessly ubiquitous and unnecessarily intimidating most days were suddenly nowhere to be found. The original perpetrator, known to my son only by a nickname, had obviously feared that he would identity him to police.
Now, finally we had proper police attention. No more claims of "flipping the script"; no more claims of beating officers which had not occurred. Now, a senior white officer of the South Manhattan precinct arrived with a picture book of suspects asking my son to ID those who had assaulted him. Suddenly, we had an *instant* safety transfer with all the paperwork completely miraculously swiftly -- paperwork that had taken me more than a month to get out of his previous school and the district, which seemed to stall at every step. The police officer told me, curiously, that we should look for a school that had no X-ray machine. He said that if a school had no X-ray machine, conversely, that would mean it was safer, because it had less incidents and didn't warrant them. I saw little use in the X-ray machine myself, as I saw many a thug laughing and joking walking right through it. Once my son had a cell phone in his backpack because I had asked him to be sure to call me when he was done with school -- this had only led to a huge stand-off between him and school authorities who insisted on him turning over the phone. Other schools have a more lenient policy, allowing students to carry phones, but not use them during class time.
I was able to transfer my son to Chelsea High School. The first thing he commented to me when he got home was this, "Mom, this new school has windows. It's nice and bright there." The new school, itself another "left-behind" school, seemed like a dream by comparison with Norman Thomas. It had art works and essays on the walls to praise the children -- something I never saw at Norman Thomas.
I came to Norman Thomas numerous times in an effort to help my son get an education. My son was on an Individual Education Plan in his previous school, but within a monthy of arrival at Norman Thomas, a Hispanic administrator told me that my son was "lazy" and they were removing it. Shocked at the sort of racist comment I thought only came from whites about non-whites, I consented -- mainly because I felt the glorified homework help of this program that only stigmatized kids wasn't doing my son any good. His main problem is that he did not want to go to school. And who could blame him, when school is a black box with no light, and hundreds of kids who do not want to learn.
The atmosphere of the school is one of incompetence and neglect. Once, while I sat in the nurse's office looking at a huge bin of condoms that were being casually scooped up by passing boys and a visibly pregnant girl who had obviously not benefited from the bin, I heard one administrator tell another to punch the time clock for a school nurse who did not show up for work -- obviously a serious offense. I was handed a form to fill out for my son's immunizations -- I had constantly had trouble getting the previous school where the records had been kept to fax them and yet another doctor's change under my managed state care meant I was once again struggling to get records of shots. They gave me a form in Spanish, and told me they couldn't find the English-language forms. I took it home, and my children, who take Spanish in their schools, helped me to fill it out; I'm good with languages but I don't know the word for "chicken pox" in Spanish, and neither did they -- we looked it up on Google.
Calling the school was a pointless exercise -- it never went anywhere but into a voice mail box that never got answered. I went in person repeatedly to deal with the attendance office -- once, to my great chagrin, I discovered that my son had been disenrolled due to absences, and never put back in the system, although he was now faithfully attending and had individual teacher validation and homework papers to prove it. I struggled on several occasions trying to get lackadaisacal administrators to focus, spell his name correctly and give me information -- incompetence and digitalization of everything have actually made record keeping worse than it used to be when they had paper files.
One time when I came to the school, a teacher grabbed on to me literally with an expression of relief -- she thought I was a teacher's helper sent to assist her. I told her I was only a parent -- but that in fact I would be happy to actually attend some of my son's classes to help him stay in school and help other kids with reading or writing. It turned out that this was not allowed -- I discovered that unless my son was declared profoundly disabled and requiring a constant adult attendant, I'd have difficulty justifying my presence. Another time I sent the vice principal some forms to get my son an evaluation to qualify for social work. She simply never signed the forms, despite repeated calls and mailings to her office.
One day when I visited -- I always seemed to be the only parent who ever made an appearance, and certainly the only white person -- I observed the melee in the cafeteria and then tried to strike up a conversation with a teacher standing near the elevator. "How can kids succeed in this school?" I said, waving to the mess. "It has a terrible failure rate. How can you make sure your child isn't in the wrong half of the 50 percent?" He shrugged and told me to buy test work booklets and get my son to cram with them.
The incompetence in this school is palpable. Now that my son and daughter have been through so many public schools in this city, I surely know the difference. In a good school, teachers take it upon themselves to call you if your child is absent or failing. They see it as part of their duty. With email, and also an online system showing test scores and progress, they now have the ability to make this chore very streamlined. In a good school, the principal himself becomes involved in problem cases and is also simply physically visible walking the halls. Among the best schools of Manhattan, which included the Catholic Epiphany School and the Clinton Public School for Writers and Artists, the principal stands outside the door every morning, greeting kids personally and telling people to ditch the earphones, put away the caps and dew rags which are not allowed, and to pull up their socks and learn. Most schools have no figure like that, sadly.
There was another thing I noticed about Chelsea that worked very differently than Norman Thomas. The cops were present in Chelsea, sitting at desks and taking visitors' ID and keeping an eye on the hallways. There was no X-ray machine. But more importantly, they were deployed *around* the school area, at a big park nearby, and the streets in front and back, to break up knots of dope smokers and head off trouble. The times I visited the area before school or at lunch or after school, I saw these cops doing their job -- breaking up potential problems skilfully, instead of using mace because they felt overpowered, and in fact exacerbating them.
When it came time for my son's trial, the Legal Aid Society lawyer, a young black woman, told us that the prosecutor's offer was to drop the charge of striking an officer -- one that I had never heard anything but the most sketchiest of evidence for -- but that my son would have to plead guilty to resisting arrest by running away. My son maintained that he had not hit any officer but had only run away instinctively, feeling the situation was an unfair one.This was not an adversarial process; it's Family Court.
The subsequent incident where my son was brutalized by the gang member who had gotten into a fight with him over the lunch money could not be raised at all as any kind of mitigating factor because it was irrelevant in trial terms. Neither my son nor I could testify during this session, in which the prosecutor reads various reports about my son's truancy and poor grades.
We had asked his friend in volved in the incident to come and testify, but his parents, Russian immigrants with strong memories of the Soviet system who did not speak English, were terrified of what might happen to them if they became involved in a court system in this country, and kept their son away.
So, at this very cursory trial where we still did not see the original cop who made the claims against him (what happened to the right to face one's accuser?), my son was sentenced to a year in parole by a white judge, and also assigned to an after-school program even farther from his home for 3 hours a day. He refused to go to the program, which offered nothing except Internet surfing and hanging out. Soon, the program director was calling in a bench warrant. My son was now further compounding his situation and ended up jailed in Spofford for violating parole.
He had begun merely trying to get lunch money back from a thug who should not have ever been in the school yard in the first place, with a past record of violence; he was ending up now being exposed to children who had brutally assaulted others or had firearms, and even exposed to active tuberculosis.
More than once during the proceedings at Family Court, it occurred to me that my son's case was needed to "balance the saddlebags" -- the entire criminal justice system is under pressure for producing too many black arrests and convictions and there is a great pressure to even the score. I have been to this court a number of times and have seen nothing but a sea of black faces, occasionally broken up by a very rare Russian or an affluent white couple seeking adoption papers. The overwhelming majority of cases involve young black males with single mothers, often with multiple young children in tow. Indeed, because the court provides babysitting, it can be a curious kind of respite for these overwhelmed welfare moms who can drop off the unmanageable son in jail, leave the younger kids in day care, and go out for lunch.
After a week, my son was put back into school and the program again -- which proved to be utterly a joke.On the first day my son appeared, another kid in the program stole the administrator's cell phone. All the kids were put on the Internet and instructed how they could fill out surveys to make cash -- cash they never collected, although our homes were inundated with junk mail and nuisance sales calls. To my son's amazement, the class was even taken to receive instructions on how to make graffiti -- so much have city administrators of these programs capitulated to the violent thuggish youths they are dealing with, that they try to find "art programs" that might sustain an interest. My son was taught in a tax-payer supported program how to empty a deodorant bottle and fill it with ink and a rag to make a huge magic marker to draw his "tag" with. I kid you not.
I'm a human rights activist. And I know how this problem of violence and thuggishness and poor management in the schools has a solution. The solution is first civic action, then impartial investigations and finally application of the rule of law. Those responsible for this deplorable state of affairs need to be fired and/or disciplined; competent authorities must be put in place.
This school -- and many others like it in New York City -- need to be investigated for malfeasance by a credible, impartial body -- that would not be the NYC Department of Education and the teachers' unions. It must be a combined local and federal special commission that has ample interaction with parents and other stakeholders.
Norman Thomas supposedly has a program whereby students can intern in nearby businesses -- my son never saw it in action, although it may indeed be in place. Yet businesses would have to wonder about the quality control they would be getting, surely. In another program now, my son was unsettled to find that the kids who openly admitted to smoking dope every day were given internships taking care of younger children in nearby schools. This isn't working, people. This is not the way it's s'pozed to be.
I don't know whether teachers and administrators look the other way with so much dope smoking because they figure it's better than alcohol or harder drugs in terms of managing populations. Not only can you always find kids smoking weed near all the high schools, you find them in parks nearby and even on the roofs of the school. There has to be a response; this is getting ridiculously out of control.
I would also like to see some of this lovely Gov 2.0 social media invasion of government, which so far has proved to do little other than benefit big IT in Silicon Valley and opensource software consultants that collect huge fees to actually be put to work to track violence in the schools.
Ideally, the Department of Education would do this by putting up daily reports on violent incidents with an interactive map so that the residents of New York City could see the red hot spots of police having to intervene where their children are being sent to be educated. It will not be until the school bureaucracy in this school has their performance tied to the city's economic performance, when businesses do not locate near these violent schools and the real estate cost drops when they fail and collect police blotter incidents, that maybe the leadership will change.
One day I was summoned to Bayard Rustin school because my son was struck by a girl who was a gang member just returning from a supervisor's suspension. He had difficulty breathing, and an ambulance was summoned -- and so was I. When I got to the school there were *two* ambulances waiting; I actually had to ask which one was for my son. Inside, I discovered curiously that the nurse was waiting for me to sign my son out (!) before letting an ambulance taking him -- which only added to my health care bill needlessly, as it was not warranted -- and if it was, he should have been immediately sent to the hospital.
Regrettably, there is a meme afoot now in the liberal press claiming that white-on-black racism is the reason for this deplorable state of affairs in the schools, and responsible for black children not finding their way into the very best of the schools. The reality is white children with good grades don't get in those top exam schools either -- there aren't enough spaces. What's really the problem is a combination of lack of oversight, good intentions that are too idealistic to look at facts, years of incompetence and experimental social theories and an unwillingness to throw out the bad ideas of indulgence and "child-centric" and "constructivist" education. The race card is being played everywhere to shield incompetence. The reality is that *poor black and white management both* of schools is responsible and that has to be confronted, outside the magnetic field of racial relations.
We need transparency that will then yield some proper responses and actions. No school this large, with this much violence, where the vice principal himself has been pushed down the stairs should be in operation. Children should not be bused to "integrate" a school that in fact is largely Hispanic and black -- unless the goal of integration was to integrate blacks with Hispanics, many of whom are new immigrants and need help learning English. Long commutes don't serve children, create expense, and induce truancy. Closer to their homes, parents might find it easier to become involved, especially if they have long work days and commutes themselves.
The single greatest factor that would improve the schools is if the parents could come along to school with their children. This incredibly simple, cost-free step would have a dramatic effect. Not only would kids find it harder to become truant or act up, teachers would have some incentive to do something besides distribute word-search puzzles and be absent often themselves (many times I would find kids skipping school automatically because they had a substitute, who they knew would just let them goof off while they read a book.) Of course the union will not like having the eyes and ears of the community on their performance. But it's long overdue, and should take exactly this form.
As it happens, I'm the daughter of a school teacher who taught for 25 years in a city school district. She began in the era of busing and integration and seeing a "balanced" school with both white and black children and teachers; she had the awful experience of being mugged and injured by a black thug; she had the sad experience of teaching within that span of time not one generation, but a second, as some black unwed teen mothers she began with had babies, and she taught their children 15 years later. She was a devoted and dedicated liberal, calling herself "the white dinosaur," as bit by bit, all her white colleagues fled, and the rest of the teachers -- and now all of the students -- were black. She was a union member, and did as the union asked, going on strike when she felt it was pointless and disruptive. We were always instructed in our family to respect unions and the union label and the union printer's bug and only buy union. Today, despite those decades of training, I question the "union label" when it comes to the grave dissservice done to the Norman Thomas High School.
I really feel it's time to have schools run not only by city administrators and unions and politicized PTAs or community boards. There has to be a different structures, somehow. That change has to come with simple *presence* which can have an alchemic effect on bad situations like this. There are many community benefits that could be yielded from such a simple idea of simply allowing parents to attend school at times with their parents, as a planned activity. Some parents who have not gotten a high school education would themselves be able to learn together with their children. If it got going well, other things could be done like bringing in grandparents, some of whom don't have adequate meals and companionship and could be eating the school lunches along with the kids. If these buildings we heat up every day only to close down at 3 pm were kept open longer, we might find more communal value with them providing all kinds of volunteer and city services from homework help to social work. If the schools go to the expense of paying for a room full of computers, why should the children be waiting in line after school in the overcrowded and overwhelmed public libraries to get on computers, when their school computers are sitting in the dark?
Once you break the self-serving lock of unions as well as politically-correct entrenched incompetent administrators, and enable parents and community groups to come into the schools from a variety of perspectives to demand our children be educated, we might get somewhere. The current situation is an appalling incubator of crime and an outrageous waste of the taxpayers' dollar.