Outcome Of School Violence Crackdown Hard To Detect

Early in the Bloomberg administration, the mayor and then-Chancellor Joel Klein identified a list of high-crime schools they called Impact Schools. In partnership with Ray Kelly of the NYPD, the Department of Education targeted the schools' improvement by assigning additional school safety officers and NYPD police officers to assert and maintain order.

"We are cracking down on the schools with the worst safety records," the Mayor said in early January 2004. “They will be getting more police officers. … Disruptive students will not be tolerated. We have a responsibility to provide an environment free from violence and fear so children can learn. We simply won't allow a few people to destroy the educational opportunities of others.”

In 2004, the formal NYPD presence in city schools was relatively recent – a 1998 memorandum of understanding between Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the NYPD that permitted police in the public schools was quietly renewed by Mayor Bloomberg in 2003 (and publicly dismissed by DOE top brass, until it was made public in 2009).

Now, with police in the schools for more than a decade, it seems timely to ask what happened to the Impact Schools, after all. Seven years after the Impact Schools initiative, did the program make schools safer – did it permit more students to learn well, to graduate on time, to succeed in work or college after high school?

Answering those questions proves onerous – because most of the Impact Schools have been shuttered by the DOE, their school buildings now occupied by numerous small-school'organizations.’ Some Impact Schools got safer and were removed from the list, even as new schools were added. As public records and privacy mandates rightly don’t permit tracking the progress (or failure) of individual students, determining whether Impact School students have graduated from their phasing-out schools before they closed, transferred to other schools, or left school entirely is near-impossible.

The Impact Schools theory was grounded in'broken-windows' policing, common in many of the city's poorest districts, like the South Bronx, Bed-Stuy, East New York and Brownsville. The Giuliani-era urban-crime strategy mandates resolving small issues before they become inflamed; fix a broken window and foil a burglary, the thinking goes. In schools, the goal is to defuse conflicts before they escalate into physical violence. Over time, more than two dozen schools eventually made the Impact list, mainly large high schools with low graduation rates that served predominantly poor students.

Adding extra officers to Impact Schools meant more rigorous screening at building entries for metal objects, like weapons, belt buckles and cell phones. It meant additional officers in hallways during passing times, making sure students went to class and stayed safe in lunchrooms and auditoriums. Impact policing meant hundreds of extra adults in school buildings, often with little training: Safety officers get 14 weeks at the Police Academy, compared with 6 months' training for NYPD cadets. Today, more than 5000 safety officers work in the city's public schools – a force that's greater than the entire police corps of Boston and San Francisco, combined.

To date, of nearly 30 Impact Schools listed by the DOE, more than 20 have closed or are in phaseout – current students may graduate, but no new students are permitted to enroll. Three former Impact Schools are alive but on federal'life-support' – awaiting their share of the $22 million School Improvement Grants that are targeted to “restart” the city's weakest schools. Only a handful of Impact Schools are still open – including one, JFK High School in the Bronx, where 46 percent of students graduate in four years and enrollment has been cut to less than a third of its 2002 census as five new schools have come to share its building. Long story short, of the targeted Impact Schools, only about 20 percent survived their improvement.

Asked about the status of the Impact Schools, DOE officials said the program was still active, although much smaller than in 2004-07. "Currently there are eight campuses that are part of the Impact Schools program," wrote Marge Feinberg of the DOE press office. Some schools have cycled off the Impact list, like Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn and Newtown High School in Queens. But most have closed, their buildings repopulated as educational campuses housing up to six schools.

So did the program work? That most basic question – was the effort worth the outcome? – cannot be answered with the statistics and accountability data the DOE prizes. What is certain is that many of the high-crime schools targeted for improvement by DOE no longer exist; whether their eradication qualifies as improvement is a matter for ongoing debate.