September 17, 2012
In a School Built on Trust, Metal Detectors Inject Fear
It looms inside the door of the school on Palmetto Street, a hunk of metal and a rubber belt. Innocuous, right?
What’s the big deal about walking each day through a metal detector, past security officers with wands and handcuffs?
Except Ashley Vinas saw those machines for the first time this month, and felt queasy and wanted to run.
Sydney Rodriguez, a bright, impatient pip, had to go through twice because a locket from her grandmother set off that machine. She was late to class, and her frustration bubbled.
And Justin Lugo [member of Make the Road New York], a shy 19-year-old with a luxuriant shock of dark hair falling across his eyes, forgot the quarter in his pocket and “Beep! Beep!” the alarm went off. Security officers told him to place his hands against the wall. “Lift your left foot! Now lift your right!” He felt a hundred pairs of eyes watching him.
“The guards tell us, ‘When someone cracks an orange juice bottle over your head, you’ll feel different,’ ” Ms. Vinas says. “Really? When I came here last year, I remember feeling one thing: This is family, and that makes me feel safe.”
On the list of indignities, the Education Department’s decision this year to demand that the 420 students at Bushwick Community High School submit to a metal detector might register as a small one. But that is to miss the meaning of this school. Never in its history had it used a metal detector.
Bushwick Community is a transfer high school, a last-chance refuge for last-chance teenagers. This is where the 18-year-old who lives in a homeless shelter and has 10 credits wanders in, and the 17-year-old boy who has half-left gang life and wants to grab for a diploma.
This is not a fairy tale; not all graduate.
But enough jump that hurdle to qualify this place as a curious New York miracle. Last year, it survived an attempt by the Education Department to close it, as officials got lost in the forest of metrics and almost forgot to trust their eyes and ears.
Which circles us back, after a fashion, to those metal detectors.
Any school that works has an ethos, a culture and a language known to these particular students and these particular teachers. Here, on Palmetto Street in a very nonhipster corner of Bushwick, that ethos is scouring honesty and trust. You cannot pull one over; you will be challenged, but you will not be discarded.
Until this month, students entered through a metal door on Wilson Avenue, past a security guard who knew all of their names, and walked up to the third floor. (Their school shares the building with a junior high school that has acquired a reputation for violence. City education officials explain their current diktat this way: If one school in a building is on a list for violence, all students must walk through metal detectors.)
Bushwick Community has not had a violent episode in a decade. On official surveys last year, 97 out of 101 students said there was no bullying problem here. And 100 out of 100 say they trust an adult at the school to help defuse tensions. That unanimity is almost unmatched in the city.
“The glue in this building is love, and the metal trespasses on that,” says Ellie Weiss, a longtime dean and teacher.
Now one can reasonably argue, why take a chance? Better to be alive than not. Gun violence is a reality. Tira Randall, the principal, knows that ambivalence. She stands downstairs each morning, watching security guards order her male students to spread arms. She sometimes feels as if she were peering into a police lockup.
And yet she worries, too, that her school’s great run, nine years without an episode, could end. That haunts her.
No less corrosive, however, is the toll taken by fear. Mr. Lugo, the student who forgot the quarter in his pocket, lost his mother when he was 13 and is slowly learning to walk tough streets as an adult. “I’m becoming a man here,” he says quietly. “Honestly, these detectors add to my stress and isolation.”
You ask Ms. Weiss, the dean, what she thinks as students shuffle through the detectors and security guards run wands down their backs. “It burns a hole in my heart.”
Another teacher, Brian Favors, an ebullient fellow, feels impatience welling up. “We’re not scared of you, ever,” he says suddenly, pointing at each of the six students talking about this. “No, no, no. You’re my family, and this is not how we are supposed to treat you.”
One wonders about a system that cannot take such words at face value.
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