A close-up look at NYC education policy, politics,and the people who have been, are now, or will be affected by acts of corruption and fraud. ATR CONNECT assists individuals who suddenly find themselves in the ATR ("Absent Teacher Reserve") pool and are the "new" rubber roomers, and re-assigned. The terms "rubber room" and "ATR" mean that you or any person has been targeted for removal from your job. A "Rubber Room" is not a place, but a process.
It did not take long for school safety agents in New York to
find their first gun of the new school year. Day 1 had barely begun at a
Brooklyn high school last month when the officersstopped a 15-year-old studentwho had stowed a loaded .22-caliber
pistol in his backpack and thought he could pass it through a metal scanner.
In short order, the boy was
led away by the police. Also in short order, the city’s Department of Education
issued a statement invoking a two-word phrase that has virtually been holy writ
in classrooms around the country for the past quarter of a century: “There is
zero tolerance for weapons of any kind in schools.”
It is hard to imagine many
law-abiding citizens disagreeing that the acceptance level for students
carrying guns, knives, drugs or other harmful items should be nonexistent. But
the concept of zero tolerance has come to encompass such a broad range of
disruptive actions that roughly three million schoolchildren are suspended each
year, and several hundred thousand are arrested or given criminal citations.
Many students are hauled off to police station houses for antisocial behavior
that, a generation or two ago, would have sent them no farther than the
Have get-tough policies
gone too far? Predictably, opinions are divided. Nonetheless, as the
accompanying video shows, the pendulum in some jurisdictions is swinging away
from hard-nosed book-’em certitudes toward softer let’s-try-to-reason-with-’em
It is a shift that was
encouraged byEric H. Holder Jr.toward the end of his tenure as
attorney general. He figures prominently in a new offering fromRetro
Report, a series of video documentaries examining major news stories
of the past and their lasting consequences. This report was prepared in
collaboration with theCenter for Public Integrity, an investigative
news organization based in Washington that has written a series of articles on
harsh school discipline.
central figure in the video isJoe Clark, who built a national reputation in
the 1980s as the no-nonsense principal of violence-plagued Eastside High School
in Paterson, N.J. (Some people may know him better for having been played by
Morgan Freeman in the 1989 film “Lean on Me.”) Patrolling the hallways with
bullhorn and baseball bat in hand, Mr. Clark cast himself as the scourge of
troublemakers, a Rambo making classrooms safe for pursuits like the works of
In 1982, his first year, he
expelled a reported 300 failing students, some of them well beyond normal
school age, and went on to ban dozens more whom he described as “leeches,
miscreants and hoodlums.”
On his watch, test scores
did improve. The gains were hardly breathtaking, though. Mr. Clark also ran
afoul of the school board, which accused him of usurping its authority over
expulsions. But many defended Mr. Clark for getting rid of disruptive students,
among them a veteran teacher at Eastside who says in the video that “you can’t
educate unless you have order in your school.”
As the 1980s yielded to
the high-crime early ’90s, “zero tolerance” became a mantra in school districts
across the United States. “There was a real concern,” Mr. Holder acknowledged
to Retro Report, “that we were just losing control as a society.”
It was an era of
near-panic over violence by young people. Fears gave rise to the notion of a
generation of “superpredators,” a word that has resurfaced in
the current political season, including last week’s presidential debate. It was invoked in the
’90s by, among others, Hillary Clinton, who now renounces its use.
And so, back then,
suspensions and arrests began to soar. Local authorities were emboldened by the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, a federal law
that required states receiving federal education money to expel for at least a
year any student found bringing a weapon to class.
But the zero-tolerance
net came to be thrown ever wider, ensnaring far more than gun toters, knife
wielders and drug dealers. Infractions once deemed the province of school
disciplinarians — tardiness, say, or mouthing off to a teacher — often made
their way to police blotters. There were eyebrow-arching moments like the
arrest of a 12-year-old girl for doodling on her desk with a green marker, of
an autistic child who had kicked a trash can, of teenagers who got into
fistfights (as teenagers have done probably since Neanderthal days).
To some degree, school
administrators were like generals who go to battle relying on tactics from the
last war. Zero tolerance kicked into high gear, and stayed there, after youth
violence had already entered what would become a steep decline. Homicides
involving juvenile offenders, for instance, peaked in 1994, Justice Department figures
show. By 2014, their numbers had fallen by two-thirds. Even occasional mass
murders in schools, horrifying as they are, have not materially altered the
overall pattern of reduced mayhem.
It is not lost on
researchers that students expelled, suspended or arrested on charges like
disorderly conduct are disproportionately black and Latino, or disabled
mentally or physically. In kindergarten to 12th grade, blacks were 3.8 times as
likely as whites to receive out-of-school suspensions, according to the United States Department of Education.
Youngsters in those grades with disabilities were more than twice as likely as others
to be suspended.
Researchers talk about a
“school-to-prison pipeline” that runs like
this: Young people are suspended from classes for long stretches, or are handed
over to the police. As a result, they become prime candidates for quitting
school entirely. Dropping out, in turn, makes them less likely to find jobs and
more likely to become part of the criminal class.
Perhaps not surprisingly,
a sense that school systems and police departments went overboard has begun to
take root. An outspoken critic is Steven C. Teske, the chief judge of juvenile
court in Clayton County, Ga., just south of Atlanta. Teenagers, Judge Teske has
cautioned, will be teenagers.
“Zero tolerance as a
philosophy and approach is contrary to the nature of adolescent cognition,” he told a Senate subcommittee in 2012. For all
the arrests, suspensions and expulsions that he had observed, “school safety
did not improve,” he said. If anything, “the juvenile crime rate in the
community significantly increased.”
“These kids lost one of
the greatest protective buffers against delinquency — school connectedness,”
the judge said.
To foster that
connectedness, some schools are shunning harsh punishment in favor of talking
things through with rule breakers. They are places like Furr High School in
Houston. Its principal, Bertie Simmons, prefers consequences that are
“academic,” as with two students who forged a permission slip. Rather than
being suspended or put on detention, they were required to write a paper about
“If you just treat people
with kindness, it’s far better than being so punitive,” Ms. Simmons told Retro
No public school system
in the country is bigger than New York City’s, with 1.1 million students. It,
too, has moved away from harsh discipline as an automatic response. Suspensions
in the second half of 2015 were down by one-third from the same
period the year before.
At the same time, safety
improved. Major crimes — like rape, felony assault, burglary and robbery — were reported at their lowest level since
the police started tracking them in 1998.
For many months, the
administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has even raised the possibility of
removing metal detectors from some of the scores of school buildings where they
are fixtures. Many students regard them as “intrusive and denigrating,” a
mayoral panel concluded last year.
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But transforming talk
into action has been slow. An episode like that of the boy caught trying to
slip a gun into school last month is unlikely to dissuade school safety agents
and others who insist that the scanners save lives.
Notwithstanding the need
for continued vigilance against that sort of lawbreaking, Mr. Holder contends
that broad changes are essential. “We have a connection between our school
system and the criminal justice system that did not exist before and that I
don’t think should exist now,” he said.
The video with
this article is part of a documentary series presented by The New York Times.
The video project was started with a grant from Christopher Buck. Retro Report
has a staff of 13 journalists and 10 contributors led by Kyra Darnton. It is a
nonprofit video news organization that aims to provide a thoughtful
counterweight to today’s 24/7 news cycle. Previous episodes are at nytimes.com/retroreport.
To suggest ideas for future reports, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
breaking news and in-depth reporting, follow @NYTNational on