NESRI Media Center

Bronx High School Struggles To Overcome Record of Most Student Arrests

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Publication Date: 
August 27, 2015
Author: 
Gwynne Hogan and Amy Zimmer
Organization Title: 
DNAinfo

KINGSBRIDGE HEIGHTS — When Santiago Taveras became principal at the struggling Dewitt Clinton High School two years ago, the situation was bleak.

Tensions ran high between students and NYPD School Safety Officers, with massive lines to pass through the school's metal detectors each day and some staff members appearing to expect the worst of students, many of whom live in shelters or have had court involvement, Taveras said.

The Kingsbridge Heights high school had the most student arrests of any school in the city during the 2013-2014 school year, with 26, according to NYPD data obtained by DNAinfo New York.

The school also had the second-highest number of summonses issued to students by School Safety Officers, with 46.

“It was not a kid-friendly building, and I needed to figure out why,” Taveras said of the school that has shrunk from 5,000 to 1,925 students in recent years but still remains one of The Bronx's largest.

"You want to have a place that is welcoming," he said. "If you don’t like kids, you can’t be in the building.”

Under Taveras’ leadership, there are now assemblies and pep rallies, an Instagram account, a prom, signature wristbands, trivia contests and even a recording studio. Fostering a positive school climate so that students have mutliple reasons to want to be their has been one of his main efforts.

Despite making headway, Dewitt Clinton still faces an uphill battle.

Dewitt Clinton is still one of a handful of troubled schools that account for the bulk of the student arrests and summonses across the city.

Just 10 school campuses had 49 percent of all summonses and 19 percent of all arrests in city schools from September 2014 to March 2015, according to a report released Thursday by a team that Mayor Bill de Blasio tasked with coming up with ways to overhaul school discipline tactics.

While the city's report did not name the schools and the Department of Education also declined to provide the information, citing safety reasons, DNAinfo obtained the list of the top 10 schools for arrests and summonses in the 2013-2014 school year via a Freedom of Information Request from the NYPD.

The NYPD has not yet released its statistics for the 2014-2015 school year.

Taveras said he's been working to get his school off the top arrest and summonses list since he entered.

"I know that we're better than that now," he said, though he did not provide the most recent year’s number of arrests and suspensions.

"That culture has been changing," he added, explaining that the number of discipline code infractions and superintendent suspensions had also dropped drastically in the past school year.

The de Blasio administration earlier this year revised the Department of Education's disclipline code with changes to suspension policies, and the task force continued to study how to promote school safety while reducing the overly punitive discipline tactics that advocates said disproportionately affects black and Hispanic students, often leading to a "school-to-prison pipeline."

"The school had a bad reputation, but that's not the same school anymore," Taveras said. "It's a pleasure to be here."

Students seem to agree with Taveras' assesment.

Junior Deja Chatman, 18, remembers a much different school when she started out.

"It definitely has changed. When I got there freshman year there were so many fights. It was very violent." she said. "But after [Principal Taveras] got there things calmed down a lot. The hallways were clearer, students weren't getting into a lot of problems, the staff got a lot better."

Of Dewitt Clinton's 46 summonses, 25 were for disorderly conduct, a category of summons that advocates say is troublesome because of how broadly it can be interpreted.

"It's a vague infraction...disorderly conduct could be anything," said Shoshi Doza, an organizer at the Dignity in Schools Campaign that has been pushing for school discipline reform across the country. "[It's] their word against the school safety officers."

Advocates are hopeful the tide will soon turn.

Among the task force's recommended changes — which the de Blasio administration has already adopted — is that the city should de-emphasize removing students from classrooms and promote "de-escalation, reflection and community building."

The task force would also like to see additional supports and "de-escalation resources" for the highest needs schools, like Dewitt Clinton, according to the task force's report.

A spokesman for the School Safety Officers Union said its members have a challenging job.

“[They're] doing a very difficult job and frankly [sometimes become the victims of] unwanted assaults and physical abuse,” said union spokesman Hank Sheinkopf. He said he is working to compile a list of assaults on school safety officers but not have that information readily available.

Thursday's report points out that methods of harsh discipline like suspensions, arrests and summonses have been on the decline for several years.

Between 2012 and 2014, suspensions decreased by 23 percent, arrests were down 55 percent and summonses are down 67 percent, according to the report.

While the downward trend is encouraging and the mayor’s leadership team that was appointed in February shows a step in the right direction, Doza with Dignity in Schools said she was worried about the report translating into actual changes.

“We understand that these plans take time," said Doza. "Recommendations don’t always get implemented, that’s our concern.”

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