taking it to the streets

In class, Validus Prep students helm an anti-violence tradition

Students at Validus Preparatory Academy organized the school’s fifth annual March Against Violence as part of a senior-level class called “Art + Action.”

Few current students at Validus Preparatory Academy knew Martin Jackson and Nadairee Walters personally. But that didn’t stop them from honoring Jackson and Walters, members of Validus’s first class who were killed in 2008, with a march against violence last month.

“Even though you didn’t know Martin and Nadairee, everyone has lost someone to gun violence,” senior Destiny Daley said from the center of a wide circle of students, faculty, and staff who marched together to a park near the school.

Andrea Hines, who was the school’s social worker when Jackson and Waters died, said she helped organize the first march, along with the New York Police Department’s Office of Community Affairs, to honor the two students and help their classmates grapple with their murders. It became a tradition, Hines said, when students the following year told her, “Let’s keep this going.”

This year is the first since then that Hines is not working at the school. Daley said she e-mailed one of her teachers, Jamie Munkatchy, last summer to ask how she could make sure the tradition continued.

Mukatchy made planning the march, and an accompanying series of workshops, a main project this semester in “Art + Action,” a course for seniors about the role of art in social movements that focuses on global and local violence.

With support from Validus teachers and staff from BuildOn, a nonprofit focused on engaging students in their neighborhoods, students in Art + Action put wrote press releases, contacted local politicians, and got their peers to spread awareness about the day throughout the school. They also scheduled workshops by the Bronx Defenders, a legal aid nonprofit; the New Settlement Parent Action Committee; and peer mediators from the school, which has long bucked trends to favor restorative justice over more punitive discipline programs.

“Today was our day,” said Bintou Sankaveh, a senior in Art + Action. “We were the teachers.”

In a peer mediation session, pairs of students recounted conflicts and then repeated back to each other what they had heard. “How is paraphrasing helpful when you’re in a conflict?” asked peer mediator, Judith Nwkor.

Naomi, a 10th-grader, responded, “It makes you feel like somebody’s listening to you.”

In another workshop, Dinu Ahmed, a community organizer with the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, asked, “What would make peer mediation more appealing to people? What would make students in a school feel more comfortable intervening when they see something going on?”

Linda McFarland, a literacy specialist and dean at Validus, said her students “learn a lot from these wokrshops, especially the younger ones. We drill it into them often, they get the picture eventually and don’t resort to fights and violence.” She said the peer mediations she has supervised in her office are often more effective than mediations led by adults, because students “can relate to each other.”

Munkatchy said younger students learn not only from the content of the day, but from its structure as well. “It takes a lot to acculturate students to using their power, to wanting to be in charge, to wanting to lead,” she said. Freshmen see seniors running the show “and want to know, ‘What’s that about? How come they’re the ones leading and all these teachers are on the side?’”

The workshops and the march, Hines said, “bring to life for [students] the traits that the school values.” And they hit close to home. “If you ask who has been impacted by gun violence, you’ll see hands going up all over,” she said.

Hines returned for the march and joined students at the center of the circle, as did Jackson’s mother, who spoke about her son and thanked attendees for honoring him.

Students often “start [the march] in crazy high school mode,” said Jess Trane, Validus’s college counselor. “Then when they arrive and hear Ms. Jackson speak, it dawns on them how important this is.”

Sankaveh said the March Against Violence affects the community beyond the school. “When we do it, we’re also out there in the community, and people see that we support non-violence.”

survey says

More bullying reported at New York City schools, study shows

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

More New York City students say there is bullying in their schools, a report released Monday showed. The findings also revealed that many schools reporting the greatest number of violent incidents on campus have no social workers on staff.

The report was commissioned by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer also released an audit of how school safety matters are recorded, and concluded that the education department should provide more oversight and streamline incident reporting rules.

“The audit found clear breakdowns in communication in the reporting and tracking of incidents and actions taken,” according to a press release from Stringer’s office.

The education department disputed some of the comptroller’s findings, and in a written statement, spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote: “We have detailed protocols in place to ensure allegations of bullying are immediately reported, investigated and addressed, and are investing in both anti-bullying initiatives and mental health supports.”

But the pair of reports raises scrutiny of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school discipline reforms, which favor  “restorative” practices that emphasize mediation over punishment, and make it harder to suspend students.

Advocates of the de Blasio reforms say the shift is necessary because black and Hispanic students are more likely to be arrested or disciplined at school. Research has shown such disciplinary action can lead to higher dropout rates. Critics of the reforms, meanwhile, say the changes have created more chaotic schools.

The findings are also likely to add to a chorus of parents and elected officials who say more emotional supports are needed for the city’s most vulnerable students. Students who experience a mental health crisis during the school day may be handcuffed and shuttled to hospitals. The city’s latest budget, which was approved last week, includes an additional $2 million to hire social workers and guidance counselors in schools that currently don’t have any.

Here are some highlights from the reports.

More students report there is bullying in their schools — but the data comes with a catch.

Last year, the education department’s annual survey showed that 82 percent of students said their peers “harass, bully, or intimidate others in school.” That’s up year over year, and up significantly from 65 percent of students in 2012, which was the lowest rate recorded since at least 2010. (De Blasio’s discipline reforms started to take effect around 2015.)

A note about these numbers: Prior to 2017, the survey asked whether students harass, bully or intimidate other students none, some, most, or all of the time. The most recent survey responses were slightly different: none of the time, rarely, some of the time, or most of the time — a change that may have artificially inflated the bullying numbers.

That’s enough to render the survey data unreliable said Max Eden, a researcher who has studied school climate for the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute — a critic of the mayor’s discipline reforms. Still, taken with other findings, it’s reasonable to think that bullying is on the rise at city schools, he said.

Among the other evidence: A first-of-its-kind report, released this month under a new city law, that showed substantiated bullying incidents are on track to increase this year.

Schools that log the most violent incidents often lack mental health supports.

Guidance counselors and social workers are key when it comes to creating safe schools because they can help address the root cause of violent or troublesome behavior, advocates who want more mental health supports say.

But many of the city’s neediest schools go without that help.

Of the schools reporting the most violent incidents on campus, 36 percent lack a full-time social worker, the comptroller found. On campuses where there are social workers, caseloads are a staggering 700 to one. That far exceeds the recommended ratio from the National Association of Social Workers of 250 general education students per social worker — and it’s higher than the citywide average of 612 students per social worker, according to the comptroller.

The comptroller’ compares that to the ratio of New York Police Department school safety agents who are placed in schools: There is one safety agent per 228 students, according to the report.

“Our city is failing to meet the social and emotional needs of our students,” Councilman Mark Treyger, of Brooklyn, who has pushed the city to report more up-to-date bullying data and to hire more school counselors, said in an emailed statement.

Schools may be underreporting violent incidents, something the education department disputes.

In a separate audit, the comptroller compared logs kept by school safety agents to incident reports filed by school leaders. In 21 percent of cases, incidents that were noted by safety agents were not reflected in the school reports.

The school data, in turn, are used to report incidents to the state for its Violent and Disruptive Incident Report, or VADIR. The discrepancy could raise questions about the already-controversial reporting system. (VADIR has been criticized for classifying schoolyard incidents as serious offenses, and the state has tweaked its definitions in response to those kinds of concerns.)

This finding also comes with some caveats. The comptroller looked at only 10 schools — a tiny sample of the city’s portfolio of about 1,800. And the education department took issue with the methodology.

In its response to the audit, education department officials said that the police data doesn’t align with the state’s reporting categories, and that the information may not be comparable because of student privacy concerns and recordkeeping issues on campuses where multiple schools share a building.  

Student Voice

Boasting impressive resumes, five Newark students compete for a school board seat

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Top row: Amanda Amponsah, Nailah Cornish, Andre Ferreira. Bottom row: Shalom Jimoh, Emmanuel Ogbonnaya.

Earlier this year, Newark residents elected three new members to the city’s re-empowered school board. Now, public school students can choose one of their own to join the board, which in February became the district’s governing body for the first time in more than two decades.

Students have until midnight on Tuesday, June 5, to vote online for a rising 12th-grader to represent their interests on the school board. The winning student representative will provide the board with student perspectives on district policy, but will not be permitted to vote.

Eligible candidates are required to have a minimum 3.0 grade-point average, a satisfactory disciplinary record, and to submit peer and faculty recommendations. Last week, the five candidates participated in a debate, which can be heard here.

The candidates are:

  • Amanda Amponsah, of University High School, who is class president, captain of the softball team, a member of the marching band, and an aspiring pediatric oncologist.
  • Nailah Cornish, of Barringer Academy of Arts and Humanities, who plays basketball and volleyball, runs her own modeling program, and plans to study law and business in college.
  • Andre Ferreira, of Science Park High School, who is a soccer player, debater, and vice president of the student leadership organization. He plans to major in political science and aspires to work for the United Nations.
  • Shalom Jimoh, of Weequahic High School, who immigrated from Nigeria, and is now a member of the student government council, the National Honor Society, and the track and volleyball teams. She plans to study medicine and theater arts in college.
  • Emmanuel Ogbonnaya, of Weequahic High School, who serves as school photographer, soccer team captain, and is a member of the National Honor Society. Emmanuel wants to study engineering, and then start a company that combines photography, architecture, and engineering.

The winner will join the board at an historic moment. Control of the district reverted to the city in February, when state officials determined the district had met its requirements for home rule. The district had been run by the state for 22 years prior.

Last year, more than 1,200 students  — or about 13 percent of Newark public high school students — voted for a student representative to the school board, which then functioned in an advisory capacity only. This year, a Newark student group tried to ramp up turnout with text messages and a video posted on Facebook encouraging voting.

“The student representative will work closely with administrators and board members to make sure that all student voices are heard,” according to a video produced in advance of the vote by the Youth Media Symposium at the Abbott Leadership Institute, a Newark civic-engagement group. “Now that we have local control, this is more crucial than ever.”

As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, 1,381 votes had been cast. District officials said the winner will be announced Friday, and will be introduced publicly at the board’s June 12 meeting. The representative will then be required to attend at least four board meetings and various district events during the 2018–2019 academic year.