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New Fort Hamilton HS principal nixes unorthodox $1 student fee

The price of admission for forgetful students at Fort Hamilton High School is finally falling.

Under new leadership, the school has put an end to an unusual and unpopular policy that for years required students who did not bring a paper copy of their schedule to school to pay a fine.

Like all large high schools, Fort Hamilton faces a daunting task of keeping track of thousands of students’ whereabouts each day. At some schools with advanced technology, administrators can scan students’ plastic identification cards to check their schedules. Most schools instead require students to carry a program card, a sheet with their official schedule printed on it, to prove that they are where they are supposed to be.

But unlike many other schools, Fort Hamilton had for years enforced the rule by charging $1 to students who came to school without their program cards. Students and teachers at Fort Hamilton, which enrolls 4,000 students, said the policy was strictly enforced.

“I’ve wasted a good $30 during my entire four years here,” senior Matthew Cora said.

One teacher estimated that as many as 50 students per day had to wait in a separate line before they could go to their first-period classes, suggesting that the school likely took in thousands of dollars a year through the fine.

Principals are allowed to collect money from students under a “fund raising activities and collection” regulation issued in 2002. The regulation technically allows principals to charge students to compensate “for loss, breakage or damage” of a number of school supplies, including textbooks, laboratory equipment, student identification cards, and program cards.

But students said Fort Hamilton required them to pay the fee if they left their program cards at home but didn’t lose the cards. The students said they weren’t allowed to go to their first-period classes until they received a new program sheet. If they didn’t have the money, they said, they sometimes had to leave behind collateral, such as headphones, until they could pay in full.

And Fort Hamilton’s $1 fee was less about paying for ink and paper than it was intended to teach the students a lesson, one teacher said.

“In the long run you’re doing them a favor,” said the teacher, who said he supported the rule. “A dollar is a small price to pay.”

Current and former principals at both large and small high schools said they were aware that regulations permitted them to charge for misplaced programs. But they said the policy was ineffective, unfair, or both.

Stephen Duch, principal of Hillcrest High School in Queens, said that his school once experimented with charging for replacement program cards, but dropped the fines because they did not reduce the number of misplaced schedules. At Francis Lewis High School, staff members use iPads to scan ID cards to see if students are where they’re supposed to be.

“Sounds archaic to me,” a principal said when asked about Fort Hamilton’s policy.

Now, Fort Hamilton’s penalty is on the verge of going extinct. The school’s new principal, Kaye Houlihan, suspended the fines in one of her first changes to policies maintained under her predecessor, Jo Ann Chester. Chester retired abruptly last month amid investigations about possible payroll and Regents scoring improprieties.

“I have put a hold on collecting any monies to replace these cards until I’m more acquainted with the school and the flow of students who need replacement cards,” Houlihan said in an email.

It’s unclear if the money collected was always used to pay back printing supplies used to replace program cards. Houlihan did not respond to questions asking about the funds.

Schools continue to charge for the replacement of lost student identification cards, which are more expensive to replace. At Park West Educational Campus, which houses six small high schools, principals will begin charging students $3 to replace lost ID cards in November.

Udi Ofer, advocacy director at the New York Civil Liberties Union, said any policy that charged students for misplaced materials went too far.“It’s one thing to lose it and need a replacement; it’s something else entirely to financially penalize a student if they forget their program card at home,” Ofer said. “This is not the way to teach students right from wrong.”

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