Friday, January 3, 2014

Missing, Drowned, Burned Students, Bloomberg's Leadership Policies / How Avonte's Case was a Disaster Waiting to Happen

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's leadership of New York City schools has had a disturbing number of students beset by tragedies. The New York Post has a story on how a chemistry teacher accidentally started a fire, burning two students. We educators, for the safety of students have to call out schools on the importance of having seasoned professionals at the top and in key positions. Bloomberg in his mania to do more with less has cut laboratory assistants along with other key positions in schools. Accidents such as the one at Beacon School on the Upper West Side are the result of corner cutting. Proper leadership means having department chairs in the given subject, a science chair overseeing science teachers and their courses. The Nicole Suriel drowning, tellingly happened with cutting corners on parental approval and in the fateful small school trip to Long Beach, which included a first year teacher and a 19 year old teaching intern as adult supervisors. Another analysis connects her death to the new leadership model. These accidents were preventable: just compare the record of drowned, disappeared or maimed students to before Bloomberg. May the new chancellor Carmen Farina pursue a different course.

Original title for article: Missing Avonte Case, Waiting to Happen Under Bloomberg's Reform
There are cases that individually call attention to larger ills beyond the individual case in question. Alfred Dreyfus, and anti-semitism in a modernizing France; Charles Guiteau's assassination of Garfield, and political spoils; Rosa Parks, and America's racist segregation. The disappearance of Avonte Oquendo, if properly recognized, will be noted for inherently raising several issues as to how schools are run in this city, in this era of the intrusion of commercialized prerogatives and institutional mindsets.

In sum, I view the case as representing institutional misconduct that could warrant criminal proceedings against those at the top.

Avonte Oquendo alert in Manhattan
New York City has had a number of missing child cases. Yet, the case of Avonte Oquendo is distinct by the fact that he slipped out of the direction of school authorities. Absolutely, there should be the amount of attention given to him. Indeed, there ought to be much, much more. I applaud the Metropolitan Transit Authority for assigning construction workers to support the search for Avonte. The fact that he slipped out while under school supervision is inherently an indictment of the leadership of mayor Michael Bloomberg. The unprecedented attention, the unprecedented reward (again, warranted, absolutely) make me a little suspicious that the mayor might be quivering in the idea that in the larger analysis there are grounds for a million dollar liability lawsuit against him and the New York City Department of Education. Alas, the media is starting to isolate the blame on the school-level staff, insulating the mayor from responsibility.

In loco parentis
Prime consideration in public schools, before metrics, and even before education itself, should be the physical welfare of the child. Under compulsory education parents yield control and oversight of their child with the understanding that their child will return to their care and supervision of the school day. In the case of Avonte Oquendo, that guarantee, that implicit contract, had been broken.

We must look to the institutional errors that run rampant in the system that in great likelihood played into his disappearance. This is not a vulgar attempt at politicization. Those of us that work in the city's schools, particularly those serving students of the socio-economically weaker part of society, know of the almost routine hazards that happen in school. Just as mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio opined that it is divisive not to speak about economic inequality problems that the city is having, it is an error for those of us with the daily bird's eye view of the situation of school administration, and how these errors pose potential risk, not to speak out.

Let us note the risk factors. And as we study these factors we should note how certain institutional mindset are at work behind these risk factors.

First off, there is the inadequate supervision of school exits. In far too many instances, there are school exits that are not monitored continuously. This, among the issues discussed here, is the greatest issue. Additionally, while not all agents do this, there are far too many school safety agents that spend too much time gazing at their cellphones. Oquendo's particular school building has just two standard entrances and two emergency exits. Certainly this is not that difficult a building to monitor. And just what kind of considerations were made in placing Oquendo in this school? Given that he had a train obsession, was it good judgment to place him in a school a couple of blocks from the Long Island Railroad train yard with plenty of open access points?

Capital New York in "Memo: Safety measures weren't in effect the day Avonte Oquendo disappeared" reported on specifically negligent features of Oquendo's school building monitoring practices on October 4:
The Queens school that a severely autistic teen walked out of earlier this month lacked key safety features that could have prevented him from leaving the building—including working video surveillance, alarmed panic bars and doors with windows, Capital has learned.
None of the administrators or staff at Public School 277 had passwords to access live security camera feeds on Oct. 4, the day Avonte Oquendo, 14, left the brand new Long Island City school through a side door, according to an internal memo written by a teachers' union official that was obtained by Capital.
According to the memo, school employees didn't have the codes to access security footage until after Oquendo's disappearance.
"One administrator said that none of the administrators had the password to log onto the cameras at the computers as of the 20th day of school," which was Oct. 4.
But getting to institutional decisions and institutional irresponsibility, we must identify and indict the city's parsimoniousness with staffing resources. School safety agents ideally serve, among other things, to monitor school exits. In far too many schools there are inadequate numbers of agents and every door is not constantly monitored.

Then, we have numbers of instructional staff: teachers, para-professionals and school aides. Their numbers are far too often inadequately low. Investigation into the case of Oquendo may well reveal that ratios for his classes were insufficiently low. We have already seen other instances illustrating the city's parsimoniousness with staffing. Look at the United Federation of Teachers (UFT's) having to lead a special education law compliance campaign, to agitate for proper staffing levels. What does it say about a school system when the teachers unions are needed to enforce compliance with education laws? Despite the UFT's initiative there are too many schools that drag their feet in making teachers aware of the Individual Education Plans (IEPs) of their students.

But the city's school administering prerogatives alone cannot be faulted. Added blame must be placed on federal policy makers of the last fifteen years that decided on the increased mainstreaming of special education students. True, there are some students that are better served with a level of mainstreaming. Yet, in the hands of excessively frugal city administrations mainstreaming in New York City too often means putting high ratios of special education students in classes taught by general education teachers. With gaps in staffing with properly licensed special education staff, improper education can result and improper handling of students can result.

This is part and parcel a core value that is in violation with the ethical obligation to protect and to educate children. The city, viewing staffing with more paras and school aide as a nuisance drag on the budget, inherently makes a definitive choice to staff on the cheap. And there are many known cases when there are school aides tending to children in contexts when a certified teacher should be filling the spot. It takes a tragedy such as the present instance to become aware of the ramifications of the profound safety risks that result from tight-fisted budgeting.

School administration improper handling of the discipline issue probably did not factor into the present case, but it could play into similar cases that might arise. Namely, some school leaders, reflexively blaming teachers for everything, actually take retribution against teachers that report students leaving. Too often there are fearful teachers that feel damned if they make such a report. School leaders should be collaborative, not predatory towards teachers. Alas, in Avonte's case, it appears that he slipped away during a transition between classes, suggesting short staffing and inadequate safety agent monitoing on the exits.

Co-location at what cost?
Beyond city policies, the trend towards school funding stinginess is not merely a Bloomberg prerogative, it is a feature of national education trends. And aside from this trend there is the trend of co-location of schools with other schools in a single building. What on earth was a speechless autistic child doing in a school co-locating with a regular high school population? Just a week ago Chapter Leader John Elfrank-Dana spoke at a hearing on the safety risks of placing schools with entirely different age ranges in a single building.

In a breakthrough report by WNYC the anxieties over co-location were expressed. This is remarkable because the radio station usually just parrots the pronouncements of Bloomberg, Walcott and Suransky as though they were received gospel; for example, this summer Suransky revealed the truth to the public that new technologies make school libraries and librarians (dismissed as curators) obsolete, with no dissenter following for equal time to this outrageous claim. The local news reporters usually state "____________ [one of the above education "leaders"] tells us . . ." And these echoes of official pronouncements are rarely followed by community or union critiques of the policies.

I usually excerpt such pieces, but given the gravity of the situation I incorporate more. [Italics mine] I strongly differ from the last attorney cited. This case demonstrates the risks of co-locations. Additionally, I take issue with the teacher at the end. Even those these things can happen, policies ought to be in place to make sure that they do not happen.
For families of children with special needs, the week-long search for a missing 14-year-old boy with autism has many wondering what went wrong in a public school created to serve some of the city’s most vulnerable children. One of the concerns in the special education community is that his school – like many special education programs – shares space with another school, an arrangement that may make security more challenging.
Anyone with leads on Avonte Oquendo should call police at 1-800-577-TIPS.
Avonte Oquendo is a student at the Riverview School, a District 75 program for children with special needs. A high school, the Academy for Careers in Television and Film, also occupies the new building on 51st Street Avenue in Long Island City.
District 75 schools rarely get their own buildings. This is largely because the programs are required to provide individualized education plans, or IEPs, for the children which in turn means small classes and extra rooms for therapy and other services. With space as a premium, it is common for the children of one District 75 school to be scattered among several different public school buildings.
According to the family's attorney, David Perecman, a school security guard did not stop Oquendo from leaving on Oct. 4 because she may have confused him for one of the high school students. 
Joe Williams is the former president of the city’s District 75 parents council. He said almost all of these District 75 programs share space with other schools. His own 14-year-old son is autistic and attends the program located inside Sunset Park High School.
“Most of the time they’re on an entirely different floor,” he said. But they don’t have their own separate security guards. “The security guards are for the building,” he said.
Nonetheless, Williams said everyone in the building is supposed to know which students are where, and when the students from one school are using the gymnasium or cafeteria.
Williams said the schools are generally treated like "stepchildren" and that they are feeling more pressure now because the city is opening more schools inside existing buildings. One former school official agreed. Adding a school doesn’t mean the building gets an additional security guard, the official told WNYC, meaning security can be stretched “very, very thin.”
Safety agents are trained by the police department. Gregory Floyd, president of Teamsters Local 237, which represents the safety agents, issued a statement:
“Our school safety agents are highly trained and effective. Keeping our children safe while they are at school is always our top priority. We are heartbroken that Avonte left the school without notice and are determined to do everything we can to ensure he is found safe and sound.”
Chancellor Dennis Walcott said Thursday that he remains confident in the safety procedures, but that something went wrong in this case and the D.O.E. will investigate in conjunction with the police department. Neither the Chancellor nor anyone else interviewed by WNYC could recall a child who disappeared from school and remained missing for more than a few hours.
Walcott also said Avonte was supposed to be in a class setting of no more than six students per teacher, plus one paraprofessional (school aide). These settings are for students with the most serious disabilities.
But Williams said teachers or paraprofessionals are supposed to accompany the students to and from lunch, and other activities such as speech therapy.
"So that child should have not been out of the class alone,” he said, referring to the lawyer’s statement that the boy disappeared during a transition.
He said he wants to know whether the other children in Avonte’s class had their own paraprofessionals, and whether they were all present last Friday, in order to determine whether there were enough adults watching the boy in the hallway.
Gary Mayerson, an attorney who has represented many children with autism, said he has met many families who claimed their children were not safe in public school buildings and requested a transfer to a private school. However, he said this does not mean co-locations, or shared schools, are inherently unsafe.
He also said he supports the goal of inclusion, mixing children with special needs in the same building as general education students so they are not isolated in their own schools.
But Mayerson acknowledged children with autism are at risk of slipping away from school, because they have a tendency to wander. One special education teacher in a New York City public school, who did not want to be identified, agreed.
“Unfortunately, it’s a common occurrence with kids with autism,” the teacher said. “What frightens me is that this could happen to any teacher, in any school, no matter how many procedures are followed. These kids are quick and it does happen. What's important is to realize their missing quickly, so they can be located quickly."
There are additional factors we should consider. Teachers and staff working in "tough" schools are aware that even conscientious, pro-active principals can have their hands full. School leadership means not only supervising instruction but also meeting with parents and being a presence in the halls and being familiar with the students, taking a first had role in guiding the "school tone." So, already, principals have had enough to do. Now, with Race to the Top's beefed up evaluation dictates and the state level version of it, the new APPR law, principals' traditional role of school steward and leader is high-jacked by that of constant watchdog over teachers. And we have not even considered the time that it will take to write the summative analyses for the teachers in the school.

Just as we recognize Dwight D. Eisenhower's adviso in his 1953 speech now cited as his "Guns or butter" speech,
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone.
It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
We ought to recognize the disservice we are doing by supplanting proper education objectives with the Danielson Frameworks and Bill Gates' Common Core prerogatives, goals that were not sought by parents and local community leaders but by a shock doctrine false emergency concocted by Gates, Broad and other malanthropists. Too many principals will have to scrimp on time meeting family and students needs and instead served Gates and their other commercial masters.

The teachers union must be faulted at some level also. With chapter leaders well distributed through the system they see these trends and must surely conceive of their risks. Conscientious teachers that express concerns such as those expressed on this page are treated as alarmists and are told by administrators and too often by union leaders to not "rock the boat." The union should play an important part in agitating for better staffing of the schools. Furthermore, the union should have put a sincere effort at fighting co-location which poses extreme risks to special needs students. It is the kind of adequate levels staffing to properly educate and to guard students that is the conception of what social justice means to many of us in the UFT's MORE caucus.

At the school supervision level we have the problems of the bureaucratic competency. Veterans of the school system, from the days before the Board became the Department of Education, recall that school leaders rose through the ranks, from master teacher, to assistant principal, to principal. These professionals took supervision courses at actual academic institutions, not Eli Broad's "leadership academies" for quick training of hardly seasoned educators to become principals. Before Bloomberg's mayoral control superintendents, themselves veterans in the same fashion as principals of yore, had to approve principal appointments. Now, these are a new kind of political appointments, where pretenses of ambitious plans for meeting statistical goals are the main hiring criterion.

How, then have we reached this situation? We have a union that is afraid to cross hairs with school administrators and with the city's school leadership as a whole. Forget for a minute about squabbles over Common Core. Children's safety is at stake. (I am not blaming the union overall. Dissidents, and even some members of the dominant caucus do sincerely endeavor towards proper school-level policies and broader school funding. What I do fault is the union leadership's consciousness of the risk level in the schools and its failure to aggressively challenge the city on this.)

Moreover, we have the conscious decision of the political class and all of the commercial media to support the negation of the public voice in school administration. In the absence of any parent or community voice, the kinds of concerns or question raised in this article never get raised. The factors raised in this article and others never get raised or listened to in the current autocratic regime. Both candidates Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota are committed to perpetuating mayoral control. They must shed this attachment to personal power and must give up their opposition to democratic governance. The Panel for Educational Policy is as democratic as the Electoral College. Are we still in the 18th century with its ambivalence about popular power?

If this were a situation that could be pinned on one teacher, we can bet that that teacher would be in the rubber room. It will be a tragedy if in this case, the only media consciousness in this case were in the blogosphere, and if the commercial media and the politicians did not consider how the city's top administrators bore responsibility and betrayed their responsibility. Michael Bloomberg will never be in a rubber room.

May this situation turn out well for Avonte and his family. UPDATE: Village Voice: School principal was out of building on day of Oquendo's disappearance. Mother had unsuccessfully requested for Avonte to have one-on-one supervision; and we might add that this is something that New York City schoolteachers know is a commonplace provision available for students. Link for the New York Times report on release of investigation of his disappearance.