The campus of my public school building in New York City is a fortress these days. Gazing through the mesh caging of any stairway window, I can spot faculty deans, campus security (a branch of the NYPD with arresting powers), as well as regular NYPD uniformed officers patrolling the grounds like medieval sentries. As I move through the halls of this majestic, seventy year-old building, I’m forced to sidestep a quartet of firefighters in full regalia, escorted from the building by two police officers, nine millimeter Glock handguns bouncing off their hips. The students are unfazed, just part of life in the big city, but imagine, New York’s Finest, Bravest, and Brightest, all right here in one high school– and no one’s quite sure why. Was there a fire in the building today? That’s really none of your business. Information will be doled out on a need-to-know basis. Oh, and welcome back to a brand new school year.
Lunchtime. I find my way into one of the faculty men’s rooms, a police officer’s cap resting on a windowsill, its owner inside one of the stalls, making and taking phone calls like the commissioner himself. In the library, where I go to grade papers, yet another officer. I ignore him, he ignores me, two separate entities here for completely different reasons. I grade my quizzes. He makes his phone calls. Apparently that big sign on the door with the red slash across a cell phone no longer applies. I leave a bit early to beat the rush, an officer on the second floor sees me and bows into a wall, as if in prayer, only he calls the wall, “Sweetie,” so I assume he’s not speaking to his respective deity.
It’s not so much the constant cell phone use, the squinting, dirty looks as I enter a corridor, or the fact that no one notified the faculty of a police presence in the building. It’s those Glocks in their holsters, the “hand cannons” at their hips. It simply looks obscene in the halls outside my classroom. This is supposed to be a sanctuary. Any literature teacher in the city will tell you, a few well placed props changes the entire setting of a location. I wouldn’t dream of teaching a lesson on Macbeth from the backseat of a squad car. What in the world are these people doing with loaded weapons in our halls? It’s just no way for a kid to go to school.
Last semester I had an opportunity to experience what the students go through. While snapping photos of the building to display in the school’s literary magazine, I inadvertently stepped off campus. An NYPD van immediately rolled up and demanded identification. I didn’t have any. Then who was I? Terms like “pedophile” and “terrorist” were used as casually as one might order up, say, a box of doughnuts. Terms like “overkill” and “police state” were hurled back at them. The conversation went downhill from there.
Yet this is the way that many of the city’s teenagers attend high school each day. Instead of using the auditorium for assemblies and school plays, it’s been turned into a weigh station for students to adjust their backpacks and redo their belts after removing them for the metal detectors twice a week. Maybe this type of indignity is worth the trouble at the airport, on your way to vacation in the islands, but to gym class? My first year in the building the assistant principal of security would prove to the students how effective the scanners were by pressing one against the fillings in his teeth. Definitely a yearbook moment, boys and girls.
You see, once a building has been labeled an “Impact School” the police arrive. Once the police arrive, negative publicity ensues. Negative publicity results in a failure to attract good students and low test scores are right around the corner. Low test scores simply mean that your school building is doomed. In order to avoid this nightmare, many schools fail to report the petty crimes in their buildings. My building, however, was recently praised for a policy of ‘zero tolerance’, everything from cell phone theft to verbal harassment was reported in good faith. Nothing was swept under the proverbial rug, and now the place is surrounded. Catch-22, anyone? The end of the day. My girlfriend, who also teaches in the building, likes to give me the day’s news. Since the matter has never been addressed by administration, all the faculty has to go on is hearsay, nothing more than ridiculous trench coat meetings in hallways outside of classrooms. She tells me that police guns were pulled on two students today. “ ‘If I tell you to do something, you better do it,’ ” was the cop’s explanation before bragging how, in a separate incident, a Muslim student attempted to enter the building using another student’s i.d. and the terrorist unit was called in. Then the officer asked my girlfriend out to dinner. “Well, did you feel a whole lot safer afterwards?” is all I have to say.
This fall, to pound the student body’s collective esteem further into the ground, a Daily News sports reporter covered one of our home football games. The article made its way throughout the school, passed from hand to student hand until a tattered copy reached my desk. For some reason, the reporter’s article got personal. He ridiculed our field, mocked the students who showed up to watch, even jeered the parents who cooked the hot dogs. He questioned our school’s heart, never bothering to wonder if other factors for a lackluster season might be at play. Though, in the reporter’s quest to deride the school, he got our nickname incorrect. For the record, we are the Beavers, sir, the Fightin’ Beavers, and don’t you forget it.
All it takes is for one student to have a bad morning, to carry that burden to school with him and then to act out on it, something that occurs in countless variations throughout schools nationwide. Instead of a routine suspension and a call to Mom, Dad, or even Grandmama, with the NYPD presence inside a school the end result could be a world of hurt that no one ever imagined.
On our way out of the building, we pass one of the flyers some of the students have taped to the walls in an effort to win back their school. It shows a graphic with a pair of young hands gripping steel bars. This is not a penitentiary, it says. We are students, not inmates… If tales of danger are truly what you seek, dear reader, I’m writing this essay during the first semester of my tenure year. Now that is truly frightening.
JB McGeever teaches writing and literature in a public high school in New York City.