Defending Student Rights
For my entire career, I have taught at public high schools in the South Bronx, the poorest Congressional District in the United States. Many of my students come from low-income families, face stressful circumstances outside of school, and have a history of below level academic performance. Most of my students are identified as struggling readers and several are classified with special learning needs.
In my teaching, I employ a version of Critical Social Theory to directly challenge the social reproduction aspect of education that would channel students into lives on the margins of poverty and to empower them to seize control over their lives. Everything about history and society is analyzed, nothing is accepted on face value; everything is dissected by students to uncover the individuals and groups that benefit from the way society is organized. I agree with Lisa Delpit, who defined the structures of power in society as a system of hierarchy that necessitates the participation of some and the exclusion of others. Delpit also argued, “if you are not already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly the rules of that culture makes acquiring power easier.” This means that for students to receive a complete education, they need to be aware of, analyze, and critique all of the forces that shape their education, their communities, and their lives.
Critical theorists argue that education should guide students towards political activism and that teachers should be models for their students of active citizens exercising their democratic duty. As a critical educator, my primary goal in the classroom is to promote critical thinking through political discourse and by encouraging students to translate their ideas into action through some form of activism. My teaching involves the recurrent use of projects, alternative assessments, semi-structured learning, promotion of classroom dialogues, student voice, and the development of classroom community. My approach to teaching even includes the way I structure the physical classroom. Desks are organized into a large square that takes up the entire room. This arrangement removes hierarchy by taking the teacher out of the front and allows students to speak to each other and the teacher on an equal social footing.
While I follow the New York State history curriculum scope and sequence, I begin units with student analysis of current events. That helps them connect themes and issues with the specific historical period they are studying. In their analysis of current events, students already have some familiarity with military conflicts, climate concerns, prejudice and inequality, and government responsibility, so these topics spark student interest and lead to engaged classroom dialogue. Students delve into a topic and connect what they are learning about to their own lives. Content is delivered and then evaluated through student and teacher presentations and an examination of primary and secondary sources. I try to present material as much as possible using different platforms including photographs, artwork, movie clips, music, poetry, charts, graphs, and text. Working individually and in groups, students conduct additional research on topics and formulate theories to explain the historical record. Some topics end with renewed discussion of contemporary issues and ideas for participating in current campaigns to redress inequality and injustice.
According to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), during the 2015-2016 school year, over 10% of American high schools subjected students to random metal detector searches at school entrances and another 6% conducted airport-style metal detector searches on a daily basis. Most of these schools were in urban areas and a majority of their student population was Black and Latino. Calls for installing metal detectors at schools usually spikes after a mass shooting, although these incidents have not been at urban and minority schools.
New York City pioneered the use of metal detectors in schools in the late 1980s and the 1990s. A majority of the metal detectors currently in use were installed after a series of incidents involving students with weapons. Until recently the policy was rarely revisited and no procedure was in place for ending scanning at a school building once metal detectors were installed. During the 2010s, over 100,000 New York City students, mostly in high schools with overwhelmingly Black and Latino student bodies, lined up to be pass through metal detectors before entering school every day. The New York Civil Liberties Union argued that the metal detectors “criminalize” students in largely minority school. Its advocacy director, Udi Ofer, proposed that the “Metal detectors should be used as a last resort, and for a limited time.”
In 2015, some New York City officials began to question the policy. Councilmembers Vanessa Gibson and Corey Johnson introduced legislation to require the Department of Education to report on the number of schools where scanning took place and the number of students who were being scanned. In support of the bill, Councilmember Brad Lander, argued: “There is an absence, a really embarrassing absence, of a New York City Department of Education policy around metal detectors. Telling our young people that we look to them as potential criminals in the schools that have metal detectors does more harm than good.” Yet five years later in 2020, metal detector placement and policy in New York City was unchanged.
Dennis Belen-Morales, a student at Alfred E. Smith High School, agreed with Councilmember Lander and the NYCLU and decided to launch a campaign to have metal detectors removed from his school. Dennis spent a Christmas vacation researching the Department of Education metal detector guidelines, a research adventure that included a trip to its central headquarters. He also spoke with the principal of one of the city’s new, small, high schools that had a similar student population to Smith but was located in its own building. That school had no metal detectors. The principal told Dennis, “What do we look like? The airport? Our students are already minorities, we don’t want them to feel like criminals too.”
Dennis was startled to discover that there actually was no formal metal detector policy and was furious about the irrationality of the entire system. Following his investigation, Dennis started a Change.org petition that he directed to the city’s Mayor. In the petition, he wrote, “I am always hassled when entering the school facility, I am always told to remove all metal objects from my pockets and place them in my book bag, to remove my belt, and to place my boots through the machine. While entering the school building, I feel like I am entering a penitentiary. I feel as if my high school is preparing me for prison, when it is supposed to be ushering me into adulthood.”
As a follow-up to the petition, Dennis and a classmate organized a forum on metal detectors in schools that was attended by students from other schools and a representative from their local Congressional Representative’s office. At the forum, students talked about the importance of school culture. They felt if a school had a culture of violence, metal detectors might be necessary. But students and teachers at Smith and in other schools had created a climate of caring and concern. They called it a team culture. But the city had no policy in place to remove metal detectors when a school’s culture no longer warranted them. Since Alfred E. Smith is a vocational school, students don’t have to smuggle weapons into the building. If they wanted a weapon, they could find one in the shop classrooms.
The campaign by the Smith high school students stalled in September 2017 when an eighteen-year old student in a different Bronx high school stabbed two students in his class, prompting demands for more airport-like metal detectors in schools. Dennis had a very different reaction to the incident than that expressed in the local media. According to Dennis, “Metal detectors might prevent actual weapons in a classroom, but they cannot prevent a student from doing harm to another. When pushed to their limit, a student can either find a way to bring in a weapon or use something available within the school. Smith is an automotive school and we are in possession of very dangerous equipment every day. All an angry person needed to do was grab something from a shop class.” When they became seniors, Dennis and classmates in a Participation in Government class, decided to make one more effort to have the metal.