“My name is Nat Hentoff.”
“I know that voice,” I said to myself as I broke into a WNYC announcement of the death of Nat Hentoff—a legendary historian, novelist, music critic, and famed Village Voice columnist—on January 17th.
We had a number of phone conversations in his effort to get back to writing after the Village Voice let him go in 2008. In 2009, I convinced him to write for WestView. His first column came in ahead of time, with the phone message, “I am very pleased to be writing for WestView—very pleased.” Yes, he paid the paper some compliments, which I think were true—he even paid for a subscription (more of you should do that).
The following is a revised excerpt from Hentoff’s September 2009 front-page article in WestView.
Bloomberg: Teaching Kids to Fear the Police
By Nat Hentoff
Since the 1950s, I’ve been reporting on education nationally and in this City. I’ve also written books such as Our Children Are Dying, Does Anyone Give a Damn: Nat Hentoff on Education, and Living the Bill of Rights. During those years, at The Village Voice, I covered every chancellor of the school system. When Michael Bloomberg—who shares Hugo Chavez’s disdain for term limits—retained control of the schools, I recoiled at the celebratory headline in the August 7, 2009 New York Post: “The Kids Win!”
Which kids? The ones in overcrowded classrooms in various parts of the City, including the Village? What did they win, since Bloomberg is still the puppet master of the Panel for Educational Policy?
And how about such youngsters as 16-year-old Rohan Morgan? His attorney, in a lawsuit against the City of New York, alleges that the boy was handcuffed by school safety agents at Hillcrest High School in Queens, dragged into what kids there call the “Strip-Search Room,” and beaten. What dread crime had he committed? Rohan brought his cell phone to summer school.
Persistently, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) has inserted these reports into documents such as “Criminalizing the Classroom” and at press conferences. They organized the School Safety Coalition to finally bring accountability for this teaching of students to fear the police.
How did it happen that of all the nation’s big school systems, only this city’s education department lacks control over the police and, more urgently, the school safety agents, who have the power to arrest? In 1998, Mayor Rudy Giuliani turned over to the NYPD the basic responsibility for safety in the schools.
Attorney Jeffrey Rothman, in a civil rights suit in U.S. District Court on behalf of 11th grader Stephen Cruz, badly injured by a school safety agent, told the NYCLU and me: “It is appalling that the system is so broken that the only way for a parent to stand up for his son, and to prevent the same thing from happening to other children, is to file a lawsuit and an Internal Affairs complaint.”
Doesn’t School Chancellor Joel Klein give a damn? Early in his tenure, Klein and I sometimes discussed his plans—some of them pragmatically impressive. I even sent him a copy of a book I wrote on New York schools, which he said he found useful. But once I began reporting on his and Bloomberg’s total abdication of responsibility for the school safety agents’ frightening civics lessons, Klein no longer took my calls.
Neither Klein nor the mayor were heard from when Mark Federman, a principal at East Side Community School, was arrested trying to prevent the arbitrary humiliation of one of his students. Neither Klein nor Bloomberg supports the Student Safety Act—bringing the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights into our schools—that is before the City Council.
The Act gives students and their parents the right to file complaints against bullying school safety agents (those who use excessive force, abuse authority) and it mandates reports from the NYPD on the race/ethnicity, sex, age, and special education status of any students against whom action is taken by the NYPD’s school safety agents.
As the NYCLU’s Donna Lieberman emphasizes, suspended students are three times as likely to drop out of school, making them more apt to enter the school-to-prison pipeline.
Why is there no attempt to find out what happens to the drop-outs—the disappeared youth failed by our school system, on which Bloomberg continually says his administration should fundamentally be judged?
In one of the mayor’s multi-million-dollar re-election ads, a cheerful public school teacher assures us: “New York public schools are getting better because everyone is held accountable.”
Everyone except for the mayor, the school chancellor, and the police commissioner.