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Editorial: What can we learn from Santana H.S.?

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Across the country, educators and law enforcement officials are asking the same question: How can we stop the next high school massacre? In the wake of the shooting at Santana High School in San Diego, the nation is involved in a healthy debate. The New York City public school system is no exception.

Much has already been done in the wake of the tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado. Today metal protectors have been installed at high schools in the city where the risk is greatest. The Board of Education has implemented a no-tolerance policy when it comes to threats and violence.

Until now the focus has been on the act of violence itself. We have done little to identify the at-risk child and to address the root causes of school violence. Our schools are not prepared to help the bullied and frustrated children becoming the next Andy Williams.

Since the tragedy in San Diego, there has been a stream of commentary from people who know what it means to be the tormented victim of school bullies. No one excused what Andy Williams is alleged to have done. But all of them agreed that the school system was ill-prepared to help the kids who live with a daily diet of psychological and physical abuse.

There are not enough counselors for the hundreds of thousands of children in our city schools. In many cases, two or more elementary schools share a counselor. At the junior high and high school level, a single counselor may be responsible for the welfare of more than 1,000 children. In the classroom, the teachers have too many students to give individual time to the children who need it the most. They are just as happy if the problem child is removed. This is a recipe for disaster.

There is bullying in every school. We used to laugh about it. No more. When an emotionally battered kid can get his hands on a gun, everything changes. When serious bullying is taking place, both the victim and the bullies need help. Through counseling, mediation and ultimately punishment, schools have an obligation to ensure that every child feels safe. This cannot and will not happen when counselors are overburdened and underpaid.

What will not help is the attitude of some elected officials that holds that the solution to school violence lies in harsher punishment. In their effort to appease the frightened crowd, elected officials across the country have enacted laws that order the courts to treat children as adults if they commit violent crimes. Andy Williams was smart enough to know that his murderous plot could put him in prison for life. But he was still a kid, too young to make a decision that could deprive him of his freedom for the rest of his life. If anyone thinks this severe punishment will make us safer in Queens, they are dreaming.

Nor are we safer because the state of Florida has elected to send a 14-year-old boy to an adult prison for the rest of his life without the possibility of parole for an act of violence he committed when he was 12. The fiasco in Florida shows the dangers of mandatory sentencing. Both the judge and the prosecutors said their hands were tied. Nothing in the law allowed them to consider that the offender who sat before them was only 12 when he committed his crime. New York's legislature is not immune from the pressure to enact such foolish legislation.

Hillary Clinton was ridiculed for championing the motto: “It takes a village to raise a child.” But she was not wrong. Both the bully and the victim are children of our village. Neither child is dispensable. If we ignore the needs of either child, we do so at our own risk. Just ask the parents at Santana High School.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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