I was not carrying a bag, only a book and a few sheets of paper. Yet the policewoman demanded that I place these items on the conveyer belt. Then she ordered me to empty my pockets and dump the contents into a basket for screening as well. Removing my belt came next. Finally, I was allowed to walk through the metal detector. But for some reason (an old filling, perhaps?), I still set off the alarm and was instructed to head to the table just ahead. When I arrived there, another police officer asked me to raise my arms and stretch them in front of me perpendicular to the ground while he scanned me with his wand. Meanwhile, I noticed the boy standing next to me yielding the object that had raised a red flag and sent him to the table before me: a stick of chewing gum encased in an ordinary foil wrapper. Eventually allowed to lower my arms, I then had to lift up my left foot with my toes pointed and touching the floor. Then the right. At last, all clear.
Welcome to high school in the Bronx.
A neighbor who teaches at this location had invited me and dozens of other professionals to talk about our jobs during the school’s “Career Day.” She told us that once we arrived, somebody would be on hand to greet us and lead us to where we needed to go.
After getting through security intact, I moved with the crowd looking for a friendly face that indicated its bearer might be my escort.
“ID!” another policeman, seated at yet another table, called out to me as I was passing by.
“I don’t have one,” I said, thinking he was referring to an official card distributed by the school.
“Whattaya mean you don’t have an ID?” he demanded.
I quickly figured out all he wanted was to see any general form of identification, so I showed him my driver’s license. Taking it from me and recording its information, he then asked me where I was going.
“Career Day,” I announced, assuming he would know about the large-scale event.
“Where is it?”
“In the high school.”
“Which high school? We have seven of them in this building.”
“I don’t know,” I spit out, now feeling testy as my tendency to resist authority rose to the surface. “I think she mentioned it’s on the seventh floor.”
Time for Mr. Man in the Blue Uniform to get on the walkie-talkie to inquire about the suspicious, respectfully-dressed bald man in the gray sport jacket.
“Stand to the side,” he said after finishing his conversation on a device I had considered one of my favorite toys as a child. “Somebody will come to get you.”
While waiting for my guardian to appear and whisk me away from these hostile surroundings, I counted the number of police officers comprising the high school’s daily welcoming committee: eleven in view, perhaps more around the corner.
Is this what public education has come to?
I had read about big-city school security and some of the especially disturbing cases, such as the one involving a 12-year-old girl from Queens who was arrested, cuffed, and dragged from class to the local precinct after doodling on her desk. “I love my friends Abby and Faith,” she had written in erasable marker, adding a smiley face.
It must have been the smiley face that got her.
Still, until you’ve actually encountered for yourself the ominous police presence in a space devoted to learning, you don’t fully realize how truly unnerving it is. In essence, every child on the way to first-period math, English, or chemistry class is treated as a potential criminal. Is this the message we want to convey to our kids? What kind of society have we constructed when a 16-year-old honors student is forced to accept screening and frisking as just another part of the weekday morning routine?Look, I’m not an expert on the topic and hence have no magic-bullet (the metaphor is apt here) solution. I remember well the shootings in Columbine. I know some kids like to carry box cutters as a sign of status. But we can’t simply scapegoat the youngsters and reinforce the never-ending moral panic that perpetuates the refrain, What’s the matter with our youth today? Surely, the adults have created this mess. And even if we grown-ups decide, given the crime reality-show culture we’ve made, that some type of screening is indeed necessary, do we really require scowling cops in double-digit numbers to perform the task? For that matter, do they have to be police at all? Couldn’t we train women and men who actually like kids how to conduct effective security procedures while expressing an amiable Walmart-greeter attitude?
I have always been a strong believer in public education. My seven-year-old son attends a local dual-language (only Spanish is spoken half the day, only English the other half) elementary and middle school in Northern Manhattan populated by kids of every color and from a wide range of socioeconomic conditions. I’m horrified by the attacks against one of our great institutions, a democratic (okay, socialistic too) foundation that over a century ago provided the model much of the world came to emulate. I shudder at the attempt to turn our educational facilities into privately run, corporate-backed mills for churning out students who tow the company line and regard a belief in the invisible hand of the market as their highest duty.
Yet when the day comes that my son bids farewell to the teachers who have nourished him through nine years of learning and is ready to step into the corridors of a neighborhood high school, I will refuse to enroll him in a place filled with intimidating figures wearing badges and holsters containing handcuffs and clubs. He’s better than that. And so are all the rest of his peers in the hood. I never want the gates that surround my boy’s school playground to double as the bars of a juvenile prison.
Fortunately, removed from the human barbed wire at the building entrance and situated in a spacious classroom that could just as easily be located in a Midwest suburb as in the Bronx, the rest of Career Day proved rewarding. A few of the presenters had come from similar backgrounds as the students and, through their stories, suggested that these teens could achieve the same type of professional success. Yes, some will, I’m sure. But, tragically, far too many won’t, especially in a political environment that places ever greater demands on schools to meet homogenous quantitative standards even as it demonizes their teachers and eviscerates their budgets. Someday they will look for work in a country that incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation on earth, a fact any person entering a Bronx high school on a sunny morning in May would likely find unsurprising.