On an unseasonably cold May afternoon, I left my internship a little early to meet some old acquaintances on the steps in front of New York City Hall. Another member of The National Youth Rights Association had heard about Lew Fidler’s bill to end the cell phone ban in New York City schools, and he wanted our organization to send a few members to the press conference. Councilmember Fidler’s speech, like every other speech delivered in front of City Hall, was barely audible only a few rows back.
From what I could make out, Councilman Fidler and the other speakers (who included a number of angry parents and two students) said that the ban on cell phones was dangerous. They emphasized the fact that parents need to be in touch with their children before and after school, how the ban was an example of Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein infringing upon “parents rights,” and how parents had not been included in the decision making process. I thanked Councilmember Fidler for his bill (which will do a great service to New York City students,) but I could not help but think that some of the reasons behind it were misguided. The cell phone ban, like most other restrictions in public schools, is not wrong because it infringes on the rights of parents, it is wrong because it infringes on the rights of students themselves. After the press conference ended, a great many angry students carried signs that read “we are not criminals” and “more books less cops.” I think that with only a few reductionist chants, these students said more about what is wrong with the Mayor’s policy than anything I heard during the press conference.
Over thirty years after the Supreme Court ruled that schools can not be enclaves of totalitarianism, schools continue to be driven more by misguided protectionism and a fear of litigation than by respect for student’s rights or the democratic process. Despite the fact that the socio-economic conditions under which compulsory education laws were first passed have been largely eradicated in The United States, students are punished for choosing not to attend class. Despite the fact that experiments with Sudburys and Free Schools have all but proven the educational theories of people like John Holt and A.S. Neil, their ideas remain far outside of the mainstream.
While their schools ignored Tinker V. Des Moines, or perhaps even operated under the misconception that Tinker V. Des Moines had been overturned in the 1980’s, students from across New York City honored the legacy of Mary Beth Tinker by standing up for justice in the face of ridicule and disciplinary action. Walk outs, letters to politicians, and other acts of resistance lead to a critical mass, and the New York City Council was forced to take action. If only this outrage could be channeled in to a general outrage over ageism in America, the root cause of things like the cell phone ban. If only this outrage were present at Croton-Harmon High School.
I have sincerely enjoyed my time at CHHS, and I have found that our school is more relaxed than many others. Over the past four years, I have often felt that rules were enforced because they had to be, not because anyone wanted them to be. But all of that seems to be changing. A few months ago, the administration changed the detention policy. They will tell you that they simply reinterpreted an existing policy, but for all intents and purposes the policy has been changed. Students who cut a class now receive twice as much detention, and “repeat offenders” may have to sit through a Saturday detention. This new policy was instituted with virtually no input from the student body. While I doubt that the faculty was consulted either, it seems abundantly clear that they support the change.
The policy change was brought up at a Student Faculty Congress meeting, and some members of that body expressed opposition to the recent changes. This opposition was not followed up on, and I am partially to blame for not making enough of a fuss. The administration essentially said that while they understood where I was coming from, there was no chance that the decision would be revisited. This was only a week or two after the school had the audacity to send the School Board President to an SFC meeting, essentially to try to get us to lobby on behalf of the school budget. The school should know that I will not vote for or work on behalf of any school budget increase until students are treated with a greater degree of respect.
I hope that during the next school year students will write letters to the editor, distribute flyers, and possibly organize some kind of event in opposition to the increased totalitarianism in Croton-Harmon High School. It is so easy to bite your tongue for four years, but if we continue to stand by the ageist powers that be will continue to walk all over us. I hope that one day Croton Harmon High School will be the exemplar of a free society, not the antithesis.