The underlying causes of rioting at Bergtraum HS

On Thursday, December 9, students rioted in the halls of Murry Bergtraum High School in lower Manhattan. The latest straw that broke the camel’s back was the announcement of the new “executive” principal, Andrea Lewis, who received a $25,000 bonus to run the school, that none of the students could use the bathrooms for an entire day – a punishment for a fight that had broken out between a couple of students the day before.

Her announcement led to rioting in the halls. More on this at GothamSchools, which broke the story, here and here; and NY 1 has video.

But as John Elfrank-Dana, the UFT chapter leader points out below, in a missive to fellow faculty members, the anger that erupted last week was also the result of deeper issues -- the awareness on the part of students that they are receiving a “junk education.” Indeed, Bergtraum is another NYC high school in which rampant overcrowding, large class sizes, fraudulent credit recovery, and other learning conditions have worsened considerably as a result of the wrongheaded policies and educational and neglect of this administration.

From: John Elfrank-Dana []
Sent: Saturday, December 11, 2010 11:58 AM
Subject: So Much Junk... So Many Suits - A debrief of Last Two Days...

Many of our students chose to vent their outrage on Thursday in the form of running wild through the halls. A very dangerous situation. Hundreds participated. The principal's announcement of curtailment of bathroom access no doubt precipitated this action. Try and spin it how you like; that's the overwhelming consensus.

However, it seems to me that was just the last straw, i.e. that the revolt wouldn't have happed if it were not for a deep seated resentment brewing in the students. That resentment stems from the fact that they know they are getting junk education. They understand that they aren't getting their needs met by this system. That they need smaller class sizes, more family and guidance support, a genuine curriculum and not some cookie cutter/corporate template imposed upon them like Kaplan. They know that elsewhere in this city and country there are schools with class sizes of 12 or so, with students using the latest in computer technology to engage in enrichment activities not meaningless drill exercises and credit recovery fraud. Where teachers, who are not over-stressed and threatened by U ratings on a daily basis, are patiently providing needed individual attention to their needs. You won't find in the affluent suburbs; those parents would be outraged. They know all this, but they don't know they know it. As Palo Freire, the education theoretician, said that education is making the subjective objective. Not quite objective yet, the junk education is what the students would understand is the source of their rage.

The principal's curtailment of bathroom privileges was perceived by them as a slap in the face, adding insult to injury. It was, I believe, perceived by the students as punitive in nature and not to protect them. It was also ill conceived to create a demand overload situation for the nurse's office; which has many other vital services to provide students. While the principal does damage control with focus groups of students there's also the concern expressed by some of you that maybe she's on a fishing expedition to find evidence for blaming the teachers for the incident. If you hear of any such notion from students that this is the agenda of these meetings, do not discuss it with them or probe. Just let me know what you heard. As in my class yesterday we had a special lesson on student rights and responsibilities as well as creative and constructive ways to redress grievances. This should be the focus of moving ahead with our students.

Yesterday morning we saw a major operation of support by the UFT. Some of you met Michael Mulgrew and myself in the hallway. He brought with him a delegation of union personnel who are committed to providing the necessary means for protecting the students and staff. He sat at one end of the table, flanked by me and UFT reps, while at the other was the head of security for the entire DoE system. Present also was Glen Rasmussen, our main security liaison with the DoE and about 5 other suits from the DoE and our Network Support Group, and, of course, the principal. The discussion centered on the plans for the day and the short-term road ahead. It was understood that other volatile eruptions were likely if we didn't take appropriate action. We will meet throughout the week, myself, the administration, special reps from the UFT and DoE security to monitor and put together a more concrete plan to secure the school. Any suggestions and/or information you can share would be greatly appreciated.

At the morning meeting the head of DoE security commented that there was significant improvement in the school's security numbers (incident reports) compared to last year. Whoa! I thought, would my members really think that things have dramatically improved?! Therefore, at the end of the afternoon meeting I had to call out the "elephant in the room" that no one is talking about. I said that "morale in this school is at an all time low!" That we won't get as full support from the staff if they continue to feel harassed and intimidated by the spike in U-ratings. That many teachers fear that there will be retaliation for reporting disciplinary problems. It's because they feel the administration is out to get them. Against this backdrop the security situation in the building cannot improve.

I referred to the beginning of the school year that when, after he called for support for a classroom situation, the same teacher was told (within ear shot of his students at least) by the principal who came that he's getting a U for not having a lesson plan (forget the fact that he did, in the form of the NY lab book, but was too frazzled to point that out). That got around to the faculty the message: You ask for help with discipline and it will be held against you.

Second, that just yesterday during a class a girl's cell phone was stolen, the likely perp was asking to go to the bathroom, and the teacher, thinking on her feet, denied him. An SSA and Dean were called. The dean was reluctant to have the boy in question's bag searched by the SSA but chose instead to chastise the girl for bringing her phone to school and was going to leave it at that. Fortunately, the victim herself then went into the boy's bag and produced her phone. When the teacher went up to the dean's office to report it, another dean told her there was no need to as it was resolved. Mr. Rasmussen stated that's a Level IV infraction and should have produced an occurrence report. I will follow up. But, I am afraid this kind of thing goes on in the school on a daily basis. While I am confident MOST of our deans don't sweep things under the rug, I have to assess if we benefit at all from those who assist in keeping the school's crime numbers down.

No doubt you will hear the response: "They're gonna close the school! So, see no evil, hear no evil, say no evil!" However, they will close the school whenever they want for whatever reason they want. We could improve the stats (either by intimidation to pass 80 percent or more and/or scrubbing Regents exams scores and bogus credit recovery) or in a real way.

The DoE has closed improving school for real estate to open charter schools. All we can do is do the right thing by the school community; stand up for what is right and decent for our students and staff and be public about it. Our staff must be treated like professionals with fairness and respect, parents need to be parents and provided school support. Last and not least, the students must be given what they deserve; a quality education. Without this, we will measure success though quietly putting out fires and suppressing reports of incidents in the school while cooking the books on student achievement. Such a fraud produces a house of cards. And when that house of junk blows over, all suits in the DoE's army may not be able to erect it again.

In solidarity, John

John Elfrank-Dana
UFT Chapter Leader
Murry Bergtraum High School

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