On Sept. 27, 2017, Abel Cedeno, an 18-year-old sophomore who had been bullied for his sexuality, snapped. Cedeno says he was being mocked by two boys; he pulled a black switchblade out of his backpack and stabbed them, killing Matthew McCree, 15.
Matthew’s death, in the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, was the first in New York City schools in decades. The story received substantial coverage, but his teachers and friends say the media missed the real story.
“If this were Parkland, the media would have never stopped asking why,” says Christopher Vasquez, who taught Matthew at the Bronx school. “They painted it like [Matthew] was the perp, like he was a thug. Fit it to their stereotypes and forgot about it.”
Vasquez connected me with eight of Matthew’s teachers and six of Matthew’s friends. They say he was not a bully but a very “respectful kid” and “wicked smart.”
They wanted to not only set the record straight on Matthew, but on UA Wildlife, a once-safe school that fell into chaos as new administrators implemented a new approach to school discipline.
New York was on the vanguard of a nationwide movement, spurred largely through federal coercion, to undo traditional discipline in favor of a progressive or “restorative” approach.
The kids quickly realized their teachers could get in trouble for getting them in trouble.
Friends of school stabbing victim wear t-shirts with his face to courtwide movement, spurred largely through federal coercion, to undo traditional discipline in favor of a progressive or “restorative” approach.
At UA Wildlife, meaningful consequences for misbehavior were eliminated, alternative approaches failed, and administration responded to a rising tide of disorder and violence by sweeping evidence of it under the rug. If the administrators had prioritized student safety over statistics, Matthew’s teachers believe he would still be alive.
And they fear the dynamics that destroyed UA Wildlife are playing out across New York City.
UA Wildlife, which serves approximately 450 students in grades 6-12, was founded in 2007 as a traditional public school with support from the Urban Assembly nonprofit.
Five years ago, under the leadership of founding principal, Mark Ossenheimer, it was a thriving school with engaged students and a passionate faculty. According to the NYC School Survey, 86 percent of teachers said order and discipline were maintained, and 80 percent of students said they felt safe in the hallways.
A senior recalls, “Sixth-eighth grade was honestly the best school years of my life. We had the best staff [and] the best students.”
But by the 2016-17 school year, most of the old faculty had fled. Only 19 percent of teachers said order was maintained, and only 55 percent of students said they felt safe. Rumors of weapons were omnipresent, and fights were a matter of weekly, if not daily, routine.
How did conditions deteriorate so quickly?
Back in the 2013-14 year, then-dean Hector Diaz commanded the respect of the students. “He was strict, ex-military. He would take no crap from them,” says one teacher.
The senior says, “Mr. Diaz was a strict person indeed, but he was also a caring dean. Nobody would mess around when he was dean ’cause they realize the consequences were not good.”
But Diaz “didn’t even have to suspend” very much, a teacher says, because the kids knew he meant business and whenever they were suspended, they “were like, ‘Nah, I don’t want to be out again. I don’t want to do that again.’ ”
Then, under Mayor de Blasio, the Department of Education required teachers provide full documentation of a range of non-punitive interventions to at least three midlevel offenses before asking their principal to issue a suspension. Principals, in turn, had to apply in writing to a central office that often rejected their requests.
At first, UA Wildlife resisted the shift. One teacher recalls that when the central office started “kicking suspensions back,” the “dean was like, ‘This is what I have to do, and I’ll do it,’ and he did.”
But the next school year, a new leader, Latir Primus, took the helm. Without tenure, Primus was under pressure to meet the expectation of his superiors. Primus boasted in his school’s comprehensive education plan that the “school has low incidents of behavioral problems as evident in their suspension data.” But lower suspension data can be quite easily achieved by simply not enforcing rules.
When Vasquez told a student to get off her phone or see Vice Principal Daniel Pichardo, the student left class and returned to announce that “Pichardo says it’s OK, I can stay on my phone.”
“How are you going to tell me that I need to write rules, then the second I try to enforce those rules you take away my credibility?” Vasquez asks.
The kids quickly realized their teachers could get in trouble for getting them in trouble. Vasquez shared a video he took of his classroom. Two girls are standing in front of the class, talking loudly. When Vasquez asks them to return to their seats, one yells “I’m gonna stand right here! You not tellin’ me nothing! Mr. Primus not tellin’ me nothing! None of them teachers tellin’ me nothing! So I’m gonna stand right there!” The other girl chimes in, “I’ll take you to court!”
At UA Wildlife, the “restorative” approach accelerated the school’s disintegration. “Instead of suspending the kids, they made this group called the Warriors,” says one teacher. “It was all the kids that needed discipline, and they did this social-justice program, and it kind of backfired on them.”
Instead of punishment for bad behavior, the Warriors were rewarded for good behavior, given special attention, personal lunches and a 15-minute pass to leave class to “de-stress.” They used this last perk as an excuse to cut class, and this all started making well-behaved students resentful.
The school dropped the restorative Warriors program and began a Positive Behavioral Intervention System, offering students tickets redeemable for prizes in exchange for good behavior. “But the students didn’t value them,” Vasquez says, “so that system failed, as well.”
Vasquez explains that after each failure, administrators blamed teachers for not “implementing” it correctly. “The worst and biggest waste of time was advisory lessons on how to be responsible,” he says. “Making posters around the school like, ‘Take off your headphones.’ None of the students took that seriously because they knew no one could follow through.”
The easiest way to get discipline numbers down is to not enforce discipline. And on the rare occasion you have no other choice, take discipline off the books.
No one could follow through because the administration received documentation of a behavioral problem, but didn’t act on it. Teachers were expected to enter “anecdotal” logs of good and bad behavior in Skedula, the school’s student-tracking software system.
Midway through the 2015-16 year, Principal Primus was replaced by Astrid Jacobo. Whereas several teachers had kind words for Primus, none had even one for Jacobo.
“I remember one time, this was right when she started,” says one teacher. “There was one student who was cursing in the hallway. Jacobo comes up very calmly, puts her hand on her shoulder, and says, ‘We don’t curse in this school.’ The girl yanked her shoulder away saying, ‘Get off me, b- - -h.’ She did that. Fine. What’s the result? Nothing. She didn’t get detention. Nothing.”
After that incident and others like it, says a student, “Nobody listened to Jacobo. She would threaten us at first with detention or suspension, and she wouldn’t do it. This caused students to ignore her.”
Facing with increasingly unruly students and a hostile administration, teachers fled. “Mass exodus,” one teacher says.
Some teachers stopped recording misbehavior on Skedula, seeing no point. Others continued, hoping against hope for support that never came. The following logs, from the 2016-17 year, give a flavor of daily life at UA Wildlife:
- Log 1713: “[Name Redacted] and [name redacted] came in to my 3rd period English class and when I closed the door to have them leave [name redacted] stated ‘I’m gonna knock you out one day!’ ”
- Log 18220: “When I went to change the power point [name redacted] told me to not change ‘the f- -king slide’ and that is I did change the f- -king slide she would ‘f- -king slap me on the side of my f- -king head.’ ”
- Log 17119: “[Name redacted] was asked to put away his phone and do his work. He then proceeded to threaten [name redacted] and myself. He informed us that we were ‘c- -k sucking a- -holes’ and that ‘I will beat the f- -k out of you two on the last day of school.’ Threats should not be tolerated. I will attempt a parent call. Prior calls have not worked. ”
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