Law Makes NY Schools Safer for Students

Published September 1, 2000

For a long time, teacher unions in New York pushed for a law to protect teachers from students. At the same time, schools boards pushed for a fingerprinting law to help them protect students from teachers with a criminal background.

On July 24, both sides got most of what they wanted when New York Governor George Pataki signed into law a series of comprehensive school violence measures. Looking on and applauding were three teachers injured in classroom assaults by students or their parents.

Under the new law, which takes effect in July 2001, teachers will have more power to banish troublemakers from their classrooms, and students or parents who assault teachers will face felony rather than misdemeanor charges. By the same token, teachers who assault students will face similar felony charges. Parents will be better informed about school safety with the inclusion of statistics about school violence in each school’s Annual Report Card.

The new law enhances student safety by requiring teaching applicants to be fingerprinted for a criminal background check. It also makes school administrators subject to a felony charge if they cover up student-abuse cases by allowing school employees to resign without reporting the incidents. However, students will find more expected of them under new codes of conduct that administrators will write, and students will be schooled in character and civility. School officials are also required by the law to write more detailed safety plans for their facilities.

“These new laws will give parents, teachers, and students the confidence that their schools are safe and that their schools are creating an environment where disruption and violence are simply not tolerated,” said Pataki.

But NYC School Buildings Still Pose Dangers

Last year, the New York Post ran an exposé revealing that one in three of city school cafeterias was crawling with vermin, exposing students to diseases carried by mice, roaches, and flies. “If you were a restaurant, you could be closed down for that–but people still have to send their kids to school,” said Jill Chaifetz, executive director of Advocates for Children. The newspaper also ran a series of stories about student-on-student sex attacks in the schools, with a former school safety chief advising students not to walk alone in the hallways or go to the bathroom alone.

New York Post reporter Carl Campanile revealed recently there’s yet another danger to students in the city’s public schools: the school buildings themselves.

Complaint files reviewed by the newspaper revealed that the 10-year-old agency responsible for building and maintaining the schools, the School Construction Authority, had bungled repair jobs and endangered the safety of students and staff.

Last summer, for example, loose bricks from PS 57 in The Bronx fell off and landed in a playground, fortunately not hitting anyone. Other incidents included:

  • Faulty sash balances caused windows to crash down on the hands of two students in IS 52 in The Bronx.
  • A wooden beam fell on to a school safety officer in IS 135 in The Bronx.
  • A boy was injured when he fell into an unsealed construction hole at PS 113.
  • A roofing contractor allowed leaking rainwater to do extensive damage to classrooms, books, and computer equipment.
  • Contractors blocked a fire exit at one school, forcing students and staff to exit through a smoke-filled hallway.
  • School officials and neighbors charged the School Construction Authority with endangering their health by stirring up dust that then infiltrated classrooms and homes.

Unfortunately, the problem is not a new one. Last July, The New York Times detailed how students are put at risk by careless and inept contractors who are given second chances and, in some cases, sixth and seventh chances. In 1997, a student was killed by falling bricks because of contractor ineptitude; in March 1998, a construction worker was killed and two students injured when a brick wall collapsed.

“We’re much better than we were, but we’re still a far cry from where we need to be,” city Schools Chancellor Harold Levy told Campanile.

In early 1999, New York Governor Pataki established a state commission to investigate possible mismanagement in the New York City school system. When the commission issued its first report in June this year, it charged the Board of Education with delaying the repair of conditions that were hazardous for both staff and students. According to the commission’s report, the Board failed to conduct required safety inspections and repeatedly violated other requirements to include the public in the planning of school construction and repair.