When I asked the students at The Collegiate Institute for Math and Science, a public high school in the Bronx, what they thought of the metal detectors they have to pass through on their way into school, they replied that they hardly thought about them at all. The scan machines had been installed in the entry hall years before they arrived. Lining up outside, often in the cold, removing their belts, surrendering their backpacks and purses to the conveyor belt, and producing their ID cards was a part of their morning routine. But what really bothered them, what seemed unfair, and what they wanted to talk about, was a more recent development: the cell phone trucks. Cell phones are officially banned from public schools in New York City, and each morning, the students, many of whom are poor enough to qualify for the free lunch program, pay a dollar apiece to leave their phones in the privately owned trucks parked outside. Why, they asked, are the students in more prosperous neighborhoods unofficially allowed to ignore the ban, as long as they aren’t caught? And why are the poor kids in the eighty-eight New York schools that have been equipped with metal detectors forced to spend five dollars a week—an expense that, for some, means going without food?
For almost a decade, I have been visiting classrooms in Harlem, the Bronx, and Far Rockaway under the auspices of a nonprofit organization, Behind the Book. The students (usually but not exclusively in honors or advanced placement classes) are assigned to read one of my novels, to come up with questions, and to write brief essays that I then discuss with them. I always find these visits interesting, highly enjoyable—and immensely educational. Each time, I’m given a glimpse of a city very different from the New York in which I live.
I usually spend the first part of each class talking about whatever book of mine the students have read and about books in general; the kids want to know how I became a writer, what my typical day is like, how I make a living. After that, I ask them what they have been thinking, about what concerns them, about their lives—which, I know, are often extremely difficult. The fact that they are excelling in their studies seems all the more remarkable given how often their teachers have told me about the challenge of educating kids who may not have enough to eat, a safe place to do their homework, or, for that matter, a home. One hears that teenagers are secretive and shy, but in my experience they are often so astonished that an adult is interested in what they have to say, they’ll start talking before they realize that’s what they’re doing. In one class, in Far Rockaway, the students, many of whom lived in the projects, wanted to complain about the omnipresence of surveillance cameras in their lobbies, hallways, and elevators. They laughed when I asked if the cameras made them feel safer.
A girl said, “They’re watching us.”
Last week, I visited the Collegiate Institute, one of the seven schools included within the Christopher Columbus Educational Campus, an enormous institution (most of whose 3000 students are black or Latino) that has been broken up into smaller units, partly in response to the city’s repeated efforts to close it for poor performance; Collegiate is considered the most academically challenging of the schools within the larger complex.
The students had read my novel After, which is set in a school that becomes an Orwellian police state, a transformation effected by following, then exceeding, a series of guidelines I found on the internet simply by typing in “Preventing School Violence.” The students hadn’t failed to notice that, in my novel, one of the first steps on the road to dystopia is the installation of metal detectors. And they said what kids in the so-called “scan schools” always say. The students who want to smuggle in weapons find ways to smuggle in weapons. And the scans just make everyone else late for class.
On the other hand, the cell phone trucks were, they felt, an outrage. Their phones are not merely a way of getting in touch with friends, but a necessity for their safety. Many have long and late commutes through dangerous neighborhoods and need to be able to reach their parents and to get help in case of emergencies.
The kids told me that they had asked the administration about the possibility of having a storage area in the school where they could check their phones, but were told that this would be “too chaotic.” Yet a Philadelphia school principal, quoted in the Huffington Post in October, said that her city does indeed have an on-site student-run storage area. In the same article, the PTA president of the Frank McCourt High School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which is also equipped with metal detectors, said that the parents’ organization had offered to run a cell phone storage room in the school, and that their offer had been rejected.
Meanwhile the cell phone trucks are generating large amounts of cash for the companies that operate them. With seven trucks, Pure Loyalty is the largest of the firms; others include Safe Mobile Storage, Cell Secure Electronic Storage, Smart Dock, Archangel, and Holding Cell. According to The New York Post, the cell phone storage business takes in $22,800 a day, or $4.2 million a year—most of this from poor kids, and in a city that is slashing its school budget. When the City Council suggested lifting the ban on cell phones to ameliorate the problem, its recommendation was countermanded by DOE Chancellor Walcott and Mayor Bloomberg.
During the two hours I spent at the school, a request came over the loudspeakers (the lessons are routinely interrupted by messages that erupt at random and last for minutes, announcing the start of the Toys for Tots Program, and so forth) for back-up to help deal with a “situation”—indicating some kind of violent incident involving one or more students. It would be naïve to deny that these kids inhabit a frequently violent culture from which we want to protect them—just as it would be naïve to deny that the majority of New York’s middle-class white parents have found a way for their children to attend school that does not involve metal detectors.
Everyone who has ever driven north along Park Avenue has noticed how dramatically the scenery changes around 100th Street. Not only do the luxury apartment buildings give way to tenements and bodegas, but the smooth, well-maintained streets of the Upper East Side become the rutted, pocked roads and sidewalks of Spanish Harlem. On the northern side of that divide, minority kids are being forbidden something that their more fortunate white counterparts are freely allowed, and poor students are being heavily taxed for the privilege of being harassed and inconvenienced. Were it not for my own brief trips across that border, I would never have known about the cell phone trucks. I might never have noticed them, as I do now, in my own neighborhood, outside Washington Irving High School, another “scan school.”
I hope that my visit to their class energized or inspired some of the students. I know that I’m grateful to have learned about something I might otherwise not have been aware of, about yet another example of what is allowed to happen when no one is paying attention, or when no one cares sufficiently about the inequities that exist, when no one sees a problem when companies, with the full endorsement of the mayor and the schools chancellor, are able to exploit the security requirements of schools in poorer neighborhoods to make millions of dollars from the students who can least afford to pay.