Saturday, March 29, 2008

D.C.'s Gangster Education

In today's Washington Post, Colbert I. King let's us know how bad it has gotten in many of the public schools in our nation's capital:
"Security at Wilson High to Be Tightened" announced a headline in The Post's March 21 Metro section. More stringent measures were being put in place after 13 students were arrested because of two fights that week, the story said.

I first visited Woodrow Wilson High School 52 years ago as a 155-pound guard on Dunbar High School's football team. We played the Wilson Tigers to a 13-13 tie. Back then, student clashes were largely governed by rules and referees and limited to the athletic field.

Today, they play war in the cafeteria.

To reduce the violence, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee wrote in a letter to parents that when Wilson students return from spring break on Monday, they will stay in their classrooms for lunch. Rhee told me in an interview Wednesday that the "classroom lunch" will last for two days "while the school finalizes plans for a new lunch structure."

How did the District's once premier high school end up like this? It didn't happen overnight. And Wilson's sad state shouldn't surprise the city's powers.

On March 1, Mai Abdul Rahman, the mother of a Wilson student, sent Rhee an e-mail laying bare the problem.

Rahman sent copies to Mayor Adrian Fenty; the deputy mayor for education, Victor Reinoso; the D.C. public school ombudsman, Tonya Kinlow; D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray; Mary Cheh, who represents Ward 3, where Wilson is located, on the D.C. Council; as well as The Post and another local paper.

Rahman described an assault on her son that occurred Feb. 26 in Wilson's gym during lunch recess:

He "walked unaccompanied into the gym [and] found himself surrounded by five 9th grade students. . . . For several minutes they proceeded to punch him in the face until two 12th graders broke it up."

"On the same day," Rahman wrote, "a 9th grade student was also 'jumped,' a term used to describe the violent assault action of one group that belong to a gang as they hit and maim their lonely victim. All these violent crimes occurred a day after Wilson security had discovered a gun that was found through the metal detector scanner in a student's bag."

Of her son, Rahman wrote: "The doctor says he was lucky to escape a skull fracture or loss of vision or hearing. He was instructed to recover at home with pain and swelling medication, ointments and a sun lamp to loosen the blood clots and facial trauma he has suffered."

The e-mail continued: "This school year, Wilson has had a rash of violent student assaults and countless number of robberies. I am sure you are aware that our students are often victims of the same crime two or three times. . . . So far in the last three weeks both the Hawk security guards and D.C. police have confirmed to me that they have made 4 arrests of students in the school facilities for a combination of assaults and other criminal activities."

Rahman said that she was concerned that some Wilson students have been subjected to "terror and violence," that teachers and staff weren't present to protect students, that security guards are few and poorly trained, and that security cameras are poorly placed and vandalized.

She pointed to teenagers who roam hallways and the gym, looking for others to prey upon. "Most lack the proper tools to maintain class interest and focus, so they are rarely in class to the delight of most teachers who are tired of the discipline issues."

Things are so out of hand, Rahman wrote in a follow-up e-mail, "that assailants at Wilson often capture their attacks by video and circulate them with little fear of being caught and these videos that offensively chronicle their attacks are being used" to intimidate "all those who dare challenge their assailants."

In her e-mail, Rahman pleaded for more trained staff and services at Wilson.

Rahman, who is active in the PTA, is a doctoral candidate in urban school reform at Howard University. She echoed the worries of other Wilson parents.

Her initial e-mail to Rhee had about as much impact as a mosquito biting an elephant's hide. Sure, there was plenty of huffin' and puffin' -- expressions of sympathy, promises of meetings and committees to do this and that.

But without Rahman's persistence, her son's chief attacker -- an 18-year-old ninth-grader -- would not have been arrested and expelled.

So what? This youth was detained at the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services "Youth Services Center" for one night and released to his home the following day.

Perhaps that's a good outcome for him. But it's bad news for the children who want to learn.

Rhee now understands what she's got on her hands.

She is giving Wilson more security officers, closing the school to further enrollment and adopting a zero-tolerance policy that can get disruptive students expelled. She is meeting with staff members from Youth Rehabilitation Services to work out better arrangements for dealing with DYRS-supervised youths who are entering public schools. Some parents believe -- wrongly, Rhee says -- that DYRS youths in public schools are the source of the problem.

News for Rhee: The problem is not confined to Wilson.
Here's some more news for Rhee: the problem of out-of-control students isn't confined to the D.C. public school system.

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