First Person

First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school

PHOTO: Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio with school safety agents earlier this year.

I am a high school social studies teacher, and for two weeks every year, I report to a school with scanners to score Regents exams. I wait in line with students and follow their routine. I empty my pockets into a plastic tray and putting my bag on the conveyor belt. I am watched as I gather my things once they’ve passed inspection.

I know the supposed purpose of this process is school safety, but every time I walk into this building, it’s unsettling. It’s hard for me to imagine working here — and I certainly cannot picture learning here.

This month, more than 100,000 New York City students started their school year by walking through a scanner. Since scanners were first introduced in 1992, they have only been removed from two schools, primarily because there is no process to reevaluate their necessity.

That appears to be about to change. Prior to the start of this school year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would clarify the process for considering if and where scanners are truly needed. And the release of new data just last week by the New York Police Department and New York City Department of Education, showing that our schools are the safest that they have ever been, feels like an important opportunity to follow through on that promise.

But others, including the union representing school safety agents, aren’t convinced. And through all of the back and forth, key voices have been absent from these pivotal conversations: those of students and teachers, even though we will be directly affected by the outcomes.

So I asked my students what they thought. One of my students, Justin, summed it up: “At first, scanners definitely make people feel safe and make kids think twice about doing something wrong. But after a while, most people have that mentality that [school] isn’t the place for weapons, and then [scanners] are not necessary anymore, because the school’s culture isn’t violent.”

To Justin, school climate and discipline are inextricably linked. “Metal detectors give off that vibe that the school is saying ‘We can’t trust you,” he explained. That “vibe” is unfortunately all too familiar to Justin, who attended a middle school with scanners and has friends who have continued on to high schools with metal detectors installed.

To be clear, there are legitimate arguments to keep scanners in some schools. All students should feel safe at school, and we shouldn’t remove scanners from buildings where the school and surrounding community has done a recent evaluation and found scanners to be effective.

But it’s clear that many scanners are a part of daily life for plenty of students and teachers who see them as unnecessary and discriminatory.

Black and Latino students comprise over 85 percent of all students who walk through school scanners daily, while their white and Asian counterparts account for a combined 12 percent. Sixty-two percent of Bronx schools have scanners, while not one school in Staten Island does. And students notice.

“It seems like there’s no escaping the idea that kids who grow up in neighborhoods like this are dangerous or something,” another one of my students said. “School is supposed to help with that, but the way it happens, that isn’t always the case.”

Schools and communities often become overwhelmed when thinking about how to address systemic injustices — and that is certainly a part of what has prevented reforms to metal detector policies for two-and-a-half decades. But today we have a clear opportunity to address one, and we cannot afford to put it off any longer.

After all, school safety is about so much more than scanners. Some schools are already taking steps in the right direction, such as providing wraparound services to address underlying causes of violence in schools. Others are participating in a pilot program to train teachers in restorative justice approaches and reduce suspensions.

We need to expand these kinds of innovative approaches. We also need to create a process to remove scanners from schools where they are doing more harm than good. And let’s not forget to involve teachers and students in that process, too.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.