Opinion

The safest school year on record

By Lois Herrera |  

January 29, 2017 |  

Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at a 2014 press conference with school safety agents. (Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office)

I spent 18 years as a guidance counselor in Queens, working with students and staff to build safe and supportive school climates. For the last 13 years, I have brought this same focus to the New York City Department of Education, where I now oversee the Office of Safety and Youth Development. My team works with the NYPD and other city agencies on various preventative and response measures that continue to improve the school climate.

We are making real progress. Across the city, index crime is down 35 percent in schools, and as City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton announced last summer, New York City schools are the safest they’ve ever been. Crime, summonses, arrests and suspensions in schools continue to drop as we expand effective programs that are keeping students, educators and families safe.

We are also investing $47 million in school climate and mental health initiatives annually. Schools across the city are making restorative practices – an approach where students take ownership of their behavior – a staple of their school’s culture, and the results are inspiring.

At P.S. 142 in Manhattan, a majority of educators have participated in training on restorative practices, and under Principal Daphna Gutman’s leadership. The school has effectively addressed behavioral concerns and has only had to suspend students on rare occasions.

To build on this progress and better allocate our resources, we need to use detailed and accurate safety information. I commend my colleagues at the New York state Education Department for approving the overhaul of a system, VADIR, that has long been criticized – including by former Education Secretary John King, who called it a “well-intentioned, but poorly-enacted law," and that it "rarely reflects the realities of school health and safety." It’s clear that this old system gave misleading and confusing information to schools, and the general public, and told us little about what’s actually going on inside of schools.

The old VADIR system was based on penal code language and included 36 categories, making it complicated and uninformative. It categorized apples and water bottles as weapons – and that discredits the whole system. Our shared goal is always ensuring safety, and misleading snapshots undermines our work to properly allocate resources and provide additional supports to schools in need. The state’s new system has only nine categories that better align with language used in schools about discipline, and I’m hopeful that it can be a better tool for meeting the needs of children and addressing persistent behavioral issues.

As part of the overhaul, “reckless endangerment” is one of the many categories that’s being eliminated. In the past it included incidents like swinging a backpack in the air near others – something that might not be intentional and didn’t cause any physical harm. This can hardly be considered “dangerous” or “violent,” and I’m pleased that this category will no longer be included.

Together with the state Education Department, we will support schools and provide safe learning environments. Once implemented, the new streamlined system will serve as a better and more reliable tool for the department and families. 

We remain focused on keeping all kids safe, promoting a positive school culture, training staff on procedures and protocols, and ensuring that when an incident does occur, it is immediately addressed.

Lois Herrera is the CEO of the Office of Safety and Youth Development at the New York City Department of Education.

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