The arrogance of power
Hardships of School Cellphone Ban Are Detailed in E-Mail Messages to Public Advocate
By ELISSA GOOTMAN
Published: November 15, 2006
Listen to the woes that New York City schoolchildren endure in their quest for a simple education, as relayed in e-mail messages by parents opposed to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s ban on cellphones in schools.
There is the 13-year-old who was shot with a paintball gun after school, forced to stumble home, bleeding and disoriented, unable to call his mother for help. There is the high school student robbed three times last year, twice in her school building. There is the girl who got a piece of glass lodged in her eye during school and was saved from a possible cornea transplant only because, having flouted the cellphone ban, she was able to contact her mother and get an emergency appointment with an ophthalmologist.
These are some of the 100-odd responses sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, an e-mail address that Betsy Gotbaum, the public advocate, set up two weeks ago to collect the sort of anecdotes she has been hearing since she started criticizing the ban on cellphones in schools last spring.
The ban has existed for years, but it set off a widespread parental outcry only in April, after a new effort to scan for weapons prompted some principals to send home letters reminding parents that cellphones, too, are considered contraband.
Mr. Bloomberg has defended the ban, saying that cellphones are disruptive and often used to cheat or summon friends for fights. In an emergency, he says, parents can contact schools directly.
David Cantor, a spokesman for Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, described Ms. Gotbaum’s solicitation of the messages, and a news conference yesterday at which she released them, as a stunt that will have “no effect on our policy.”
“We respect the frustrations and the fears that parents have,” Mr. Cantor said, “but ultimately the fact is that having phones in schools always leads to more disorder.”
Many of the e-mail messages from parents deride the ban as “cruel and heartless,” “absurdly wrong-headed,” “anti-parent,” “ridiculous” and a “terrible infringement.” Ms. Gotbaum did not verify the authenticity of the messages and had blacked out the names of the senders.
Some messages provide a snapshot of the dangers that lurk in New York City, where children often go to school far from home and after-school activities are a way of life, and where most parents work and sidewalk pay phones, frustratingly, do not.
This is already a court case, and some of these people will be testifying under oath to similar stories. Yet, the Bloomberg Administration refuses to even negotiate on the issue.
When Gottbaum and City Councilman Robert Jackson delivered the e-mails to the mayor's office, no one, not even a clerk would take them. This was, of course, caught live on TV. Within minutes, his chief education aide Dennis Walcott was outside City Hall talking to reporters.
If it was cellphones alone, it would be interesting, but there is a pattern of making backroom deals and presenting fait accompli with little to no public discussion. There have been notorious problems with charter schools, deals which lack even basic public consultation and now this.
Hunter College and the City came up with a deal to close a highschool so they could build labs near their campus. Without any regard for the mostly minority students who attend the highschool. Now, they want to relocate them two miles further south. No public discussion, no debate.
Then you have NEST or as I call it, DOJ complaint central. While Chancellor Klein bent to the will of the mostly white, connected parents and refused to make them share space with a charter school which would be mostly not white, they only recently discovered that the school was a DOJ investigation waiting to happen. Kids rejected because their parents were pregnant, had disabilities, didn't speak english or "share the school's vision". Consent decrees have been issued for less.
The school has a 52 percent white student body and 19 percent asian on the doorstep of Chinatown. How you get a 52 percent white student body in a system which is 80 percent black and latino is an interesting question. And it should be of interest to the state and the feds. You tell me that black, latino and Asian kids aren't being unfairly denied entry.
The reason this can happen is that there is no oversight. It is just another mayoral agency with limited parental and public input. Bloomberg doesn't have to run the schools with the consent of the public. He can make many decisions without any public voice making an objection.
Mr. Cantor says "it will not have an effect on our policy". Well, this isn't a company, parental complaints cannot be brushed off because Bloomberg has a hair up his ass about this. Nothing short of a lawsuit seems to have an effect on educational policy and that is not how a public resource should be run.
Yes, the old system sucked, but central control from City Hall is rigid and unyielding. It may be time for Albany to make some new rules.
posted by Steve @ 8:43:00 AM