Security Detail: An Inside at Safety and Discipline in the Hyperlegalized World of a New York City High School. (Feature)

By Epstein, Marc A. | Education Next, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Security Detail: An Inside at Safety and Discipline in the Hyperlegalized World of a New York City High School. (Feature)


Epstein, Marc A., Education Next


AT THE HEIGHT OF THE BABY boom, Jamaica High School in Queens, New York, enrolled approximately 5,000 students, who attended school in triple session. Each cohort of students had to start and end school at a different time in order to maximize classroom use. There were only two or three deans to address disciplinary issues, and a lone patrolman stood watch in the lobby of the school. It was assumed that a large portion of the school's graduates would go on to college, while the rest would become society's secretaries, plumbers, carpenters, printers, and butchers. Although Jamaica High was considered one of the school system's academic gems, it also provided vocational training that has long since disappeared.

Today the school population has been sliced to 2,500, yet Jamaica High now has eight deans (myself included), who devote much of their time to disciplinary issues; an assistant principal for security; two secretaries, one part time, one full time; and a school aide assigned just to the dean's office. In addition, ten school security agents employed by the New York City Police Department patrol Jamaica's halls. The number increases on those days when "random scanning" of students for weapons is in effect.

Schools Under Siege

The extra personnel alone do not even begin to account for the costs of attempting to maintain discipline and safety in the school. Consider the following tales from Jamaica High. In one instance, a teacher saw a student take a gun from his locker and show it to other students. He informed the security agent, who in dereliction of his duty did nothing. Then the teacher cam the Dean's Office, and I immediately began looking for the student But the student had fled the building. When he returned two hours later, the police searched him and found nothing. The superintendent was informed, and an investigation of the event proceeded. The student claimed that he had no gun. When asked why he had exited the building, he claimed that a security agent had thrown him our. He could not identify the agent by sex or by race.

Statements were taken from students who had seen the gun, the student's parents were notified, and a hearing date was set. For the teacher and me to attend the hearing; substitutes had to be hired to cover our classes. At the hearing, after waiting for two hours, we received word that the parent had asked for a postponement by making a telephone call, which was within his rights. It was the end of the school year, so the case was carned over to the next fall. The postponed hearing was scheduled for September 13, which wound up being just two days after the horrible events of September 11. As I walked to the offices located near Madison Avenue and 22nd Street in downtown Manhattan, an acrid stench hung in the air, even though I was some distance from Ground Zero.

At the hearing, the parent of the accused asked me a very good question: Why had we allowed his son back to school if we believed that he had a gun:' His son had rights, I said. And it took a couple thousand dollars' worth of personnel hours to protect them. The hearing officer eventually found in our favor, and the student was transferred to another school.

In another instance, a learning-disabled student in a mainstream class asked a teacher for a hail pass. When the teacher refused to give it to him, the student called the teacher, who had badly injured her hand in a car accident, a "crippled bitch" and threw an object at her. A security agent who had witnessed the event removed the student. The superintendent was informed, and the student's home was contacted. The next day I confiscated the hand of a store mannequin that the student was carrying around with him. He said he wanted to show the teacher that "he had a hand like hers:' At 16 years of age, the student had earned just one of the 40 credits needed to graduate.

The teacher, the security agent, and I had to appear at the hearing. …

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