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Editorial: Suspended logic

It was nothing more than a terrible coincidence that Schools Chancellor Harold Levy would announce his plan to bring stricter discipline to the city's public schools on the same day that a 13-year-old student at IS 5 was caught with a stungun.

Mr. Levy and others have reason to fear that the next student massacre could happen here. Only days before this announcement, three students at IS 59 in Springfield Gardens were arrested for releasing pepper spray into the school's ventilation system. It was a foolish prank that could have caused serious injury. Still, we are not convinced that the measures introduced last week by the chancellor will increase school safety.

The new rules give teachers the freedom to suspend students who are disruptive. Teachers now enjoy a power and responsibility that has always been reserved for principals, assistant principals and deans.

We fail to see the great benefit in this arrangement. Teachers in the public school system have always had the option of sending a student to the principal's office. Principals are fully aware that their first priority is creating an atmosphere where children can learn and where all students can feel safe. But these administrators must also weigh the fact that suspending a student has long-term consequences both for the school and the child. We are not convinced that all teachers share this larger view.

The principal must also be concerned with the future of the problem student. While safeguarding the welfare of all students, educators are challenged to find out what factors are contributing to disruptive behavior and to come up with a plan to address the needs of the problem student. As a society our shoulders must be big enough to bear the burden of educating the problem child. Weeding out these children is not enough.

Should teachers have the right to suspend? Parents expect that the principal will adhere to a standard that is applied consistently to all students. But what happens when each teacher gets to set his or her own standard for suspending students. Will we see students being suspended for chewing gum or bringing a Walkman to school? If you think this is an exaggeration, consider how much the grading standard in any given school varies from teacher to teacher.

To his credit, Levy has given the parents the right to attend a conference before a suspension is ordered. In addition, Levy has said that teachers can only suspend after they have exhausted other behavioral interventions and suspended students will continue to be taught in “suspension centers.”

Although his intentions were good, we think Levy has made a mistake. Teachers should not be sucked this deeply into the discipline process. Let teachers teach and let principals and deans do the punishing.

Sadly, the new discipline will do little to prevent the next Columbine from happening in Queens. The kid who brought a stun gun to school and zapped nine of his friends was not disruptive, not a discipline problem. Far from it. This was a child who actually enjoyed school and was getting excellent grades. He claims that he brought the spray to school because he was afraid that someone might try to steal his bubble coat. Like the students with the pepper spray, he may very well be a good kid who did a very stupid and dangerous thing.

Rather than focusing on easing the path to suspension, Levy should find ways to make it easier to reach out to at-risk children. For this to happen class sizes must be smaller and the number of guidance counselors must be dramatically increased.

Fearful parents may welcome the new get-tough approach. But they would be wrong to hope that letting teachers punch the eject button on problem children will make our schools safer places.

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