Metal Detectors, Murder, Effective Instruction and School Leadership

Most mornings Sheila, the assistant principal, hosted coffee and whatever in her office. The school “brain trust,” the union, a few old timers, influential teachers would drop by to sip and nibble. Sheila would ask: “What do you think about …?” “We’re thinking of making a change …” “I have a problem: any ideas …?”

The school administration, the union and the “de facto” school leadership had a mature relationship. We worked out problems, very few grievances, occasionally Sheila would suggest, “Why don’t you file a grievance ….” The principal sustaining a grievance – and telling an assistant principal, “The principal had no choice; it’s the contract – he had to sustain the union.”

One morning the principal dropped by, agitated, and told us the the Board has chosen schools to install airport-type metal detectors and we were one of the schools. “I can’t do anything about it – the union should lead the charge, this is terrible- the neighborhood will think we’re an unsafe school.”

The brain trust mulled, why fight a losing battle? Why highlight the safety issue? Maybe we can extract more school safety officers, an additional teacher or two, and, we can make the scanning work. We set up homework helpers in the auditorium, we had a student DJ who piped in music, and it went smoothly.

Across the borough at Thomas Jefferson High School, a school plagued by safety issues had also been selected for scanning. The principal, Carol Beck, fought against scanning. Her kids were being stigmatized as criminals, the school wasn’t a prison, she mobilized parents and electeds and the Board of Ed backed away and removed the school from the scanning program.

Carol Beck, principal of Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, criticized what she called an emerging ”police state” approach to ridding schools of drugs. ”I’m not going to run this school like it is a Rikers Island annex,” she said, referring to New York City’s jail complex.

The next school year a student was shot to death in Jefferson hallway. (read accounts here and here) and additional in-school fatalities followed.

Last week in a Bronx high school students were stabbed by another student in a classroom. (Read account here and parents call for metal detectors here )

School safety procedures in schools are highly controversial. The “school to prison pipeline” has become a mantra that we hear again and again. Cries to rid schools of metal detectors are commonplace.

Some parent groups and advocates say the scanners installed at the city’s most troubled institutions more than two decades ago are now unneeded because of low crime rates, and they condemn them as discriminatory, since by and large they sit in schools serving minority neighborhoods.

The death at the Bronx school may not silence the opponents of scanning. Sadly, metal detectors are routinely used at airports as well as government buildings. Last week I attended a meeting at City Hall, metal detectors, visited an elected official in his office, metal detectors, and entered the office building that housed the offices of the New York State Attorney General, metal detectors; not only metal detectors, a photo ID, a phone call upstairs to the office to be visited for “approval.” I attended a football game: metal detectors.

Whether we like it or not we live in an unsafe world and enhanced safety precautions have become standard.  To rid schools of metal detectors is both reckless and a foolish denial of reality.

Schools reflect their neighborhood; reflect the culture of the neighborhood. The New York State Juvenile Justice Task Force tracks all juvenile crime, and, high rates of juvenile crime are highly concentrated in small number of neighborhoods and secondary schools in high crime neighborhoods frequently have metal detectors. Gangs and guns permeate some communities. The metal detectors in the ninety or so schools have been effective; the murder in the Bronx school was the first fatality in a school in over twenty years,

The use of metal detectors in schools should not result in long lines and long delays at school entrances, the school safety officers should treat student civilly and avoid needless confrontations, avoid treating students as felons.

I spent a few years working with a school plagued by discipline/safety issues. The Department of Education school safety folk showed us how to “map” incidents. On a grid map of the school we identified all incidents, by location, by time of the day, by the nature of the incident. Not surprisingly, incidents in the school cafeteria led the list, also, outside of the boys’ gym and in the hallways. The better use of school safety personnel solved the first two locations and, we discovered that the hallway “incidents” began in the classrooms of new and/or less effective teachers.

There is no secret to safer schools:

  1.  keeping weapons out of buildings is essential,
  2. the intelligent use of school personnel in the building;
  3.  effective, engaging instruction
  4. and school leadership.

In the same neighborhoods, schools in the same building or only blocks apart can be safe and orderly or out of control: for me the key is school leadership.

Characteristics of School Leadership:

Respect: Staff and student must respect the school leader – a highly visible leader, in the halls, in the classrooms, in the lunch room, interacting with the students and the staff, supporting the staff: respect is earned; it does come with the title of principal.

Teach a Class: The license, Principal was originally Principal Teacher, the first among all teachers. Teaching a class, maybe not everyday, maybe not for an entire period, you earn respect by acting as the lead teacher.

Consistent Discipline: I watched a principal stop kids in the hallway who belonged in class, she chastised the kids, and said, “Promise me you’ll go to class every day.” The kids nodded, and smirked when the principal turned away. The same principal told me she was totally committed to restorative justice practices, unfortunately, the students were not. Students need and respond positively to fair, sensible rules evenly applied rules.

Accountability: Students and staff must be accountable; from not being absent, to getting to class on time, for doing your homework as well as being prepared for class, both students and teachers, and, the school leaders using a smile or a frown, a few words, a “dressing down,” a call to a parent or a disciplinary letter; a word of praise when merited and a frown, of disapproval when necessary.

Leadership Gene: Too many school leaders have never exhibited leadership in their previous positions. Most applicants for college leadership programs are accepted and most candidates earn leadership degrees. Too many school leaders do not exhibit the requisite skills; they are not respected by students or teachers.

Kids should feel comfortable turning to teachers and school leadership to resolve conflicts.

Suspensions are post event consequences.

School safety and student achievement begins in the classroom. Effective teachers control their class, they sense student “issues,” they have the skills to resolve potential conflicts, to soothe, to mediate, to avoid potential conflicts. School leaders who “know” their students, who are respected, who both listen to and talk with students create nurturing climates.

The Every School Succeeds Act in New York State will measure schools by growth as well as proficiency, an improvement. We know also that non-cognitive skills are important, maybe, in the long run more important than a score on a test

Unfortunately if a school in a crime infested neighborhood with high suspension rate schools is orderly the powers that be tend to ignore the school: test scores rule.  No one in authority asks:  what are the skills of the leader and teachers in the orderly school?

It would be interesting to track the students in orderly schools beyond their school days.

In a nation with almost as many guns as people, in a nation where an angry man slays over fifty people for no apparent reason, metal detectors are a necessary safeguard.

Suspensions do not make for safer schools, they are a tool that is used when all else fails or to respond to a serious breach of behavior;; the key to safer schools are staffs that are connected to students, staffs with ability to listen with a third ear, staffs that understand the school as well as the community surrounding the school.

Let’s search out true school leaders who can train and guide their staffs. Safer schools are learning schools.

2 responses to “Metal Detectors, Murder, Effective Instruction and School Leadership

  1. It seems that an effective solution to this matter would be that metal detectors become standard practice in ALL schools. Thus, the discriminatory argument would be lacking and all schools could possibly become safer. Metal detectors may be cost prohibitive, but when Avonte Oquendo died, ALL city schools are now required to have alarmed doors. Avonte’s family was paid 2.7 million, which needs to be taken into account when discussing the cost-prohibitive nature of having metal detectors in all schools. Just an idea since, like Ed in the Apple blogs, metal detectors are commonplace in many public places.


  2. Pingback: Can We De-Police Schools and Assure Safety for Students and Staff? | Ed In The Apple

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