Abel Cedeno, a bisexual 18-year-old high school student, sits at Rikers Island charged with manslaughter. Cedeno claims he killed another student in self-defense, and Wednesday appeared in court to plead not guilty. He insists his school did nothing to address years of homophobic bullying. And that on Sept. 27, two teachers in his history class did nothing as classmate Matthew McCree confronted Cedeno — who, claiming to fear that Matthew was armed, snapped and stabbed him with a serrated knife.
Parents don’t care about narratives. They just want to know that their children are safe at school.
While the families of the perpetrator and victim dispute some details, they agree that, in the words of Matthew’s brother, “Nobody had the kids under control” at Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx.
Five years ago, a nightmare like this would’ve caused a call to action from education reformers for higher disciplinary standards and perhaps more charter schools. Today, the outcry has been conspicuous by its absence.
The reason, we suspect, is that being outraged at the death of a student in a school that had sacrificed traditional school discipline in favor of “restorative justice” — which tries to replace punishment with softer corrective interventions that teach children the error of their ways — would go against a new education reform dogma.
For a time, education reform used to be a bipartisan or nonpartisan enterprise for improving student achievement. But much of the movement has morphed into an arm of the social-justice industrial complex, dedicated to causes du jour from the travel ban to transgender bathrooms.
One of those causes is fighting the “school-to-prison pipeline” by overhauling school discipline. Activists are alarmed about the racial disparity in suspensions and refuse to admit the possibility that differences in poverty and family structure play a role.
No, according to former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the disparity is “not caused by differences in students.” Teachers are to blame, so teachers must be restrained.
And were they ever restrained at Urban Assembly. Before Mayor de Blasio’s citywide push to reduce suspensions began in 2015, it was a safe school. In 2013-14, according to the city’s official school survey, 86% of teachers said order was maintained, and 80% of students felt safe in the hallways.
Last year, a mere 19% of teachers thought the school was in order, and only 55% of kids felt safe. How did that happen — and so suddenly? There may have been multiple causes, but one factor seems clear.
Under policy orders to limit disciplinary interventions and implement a “restorative” approach, the school got so bad that some parents reportedly began patrolling the hallways themselves.
Matthew could easily have been the second death: In February, a vice principal caught the suicide attempt of another student who’d been bullied as he hung by his neck with his own sweater in a stairwell.
Parents have rightly demanded to know why the school district declined to give Urban Assembly metal detectors that could have caught Cedeno’s knife — and then one was installed after the slaying. Gay rights groups demanded to know why the bullying of this young boy was permitted to continue — and then de Blasio announced a new anti-bullying initiative.
But neither metal detectors nor tolerance seminars were likely to bring order to a school where administrators and teachers abdicated responsibility for the bedrock job of maintaining order to parent volunteers.
That’s not normal behavior for adults entrusted with the safety of schoolchildren. But it is a rational response for teachers who are told, in essence, “Don’t punish students. Just pull them to the side and talk to them a bit.”
Shockingly, the principal who presided over this catastrophically unsafe school wasn’t even fired. Astrid Jacobo was merely reassigned to an administrative support center.
It used to be a scandal for education reformers if a teacher swore at a student and was put into a “rubber room” with full pay. So why have there been no calls for greater accountability over the death of a child?
When student safety comes into conflict with social justice ideology, there’s not even a debate.
Maybe because the principal and city Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña were implementing policies that today’s reformers hold dear.
Social justice reformers are apparently so ideologically committed to fighting the “school-to-prison pipeline” by limiting teachers’ subjective disciplinary judgment that they are willing to blind themselves to reality as a school spirals dangerously out of control.
Parents don’t care about narratives. They just want to know that their children are safe at school. Reformers used to care about that, too. But today, when student safety comes into conflict with social justice ideology, there’s not even a debate.
This piece originally appeared at New York Daily News
Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.