Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Bradley Tech and Mrs. Jane Pettit

As an example of what Pat Moynihan called "re-defining deviancy," Charlie Sykes cites a column by Alan J. Borsuk of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Moynihan theorized that when the amount of deviant behavior in society reached levels beyond that which the community would tolerate, the previously stigmatized conduct was redefined as within the realm of standards of normal behavior.

Sykes accurately labels Borsuk's piece as an instance of "defining deviancy down."

Borsuk tries to make the point that "Jane Pettit might see good - and bad - at Bradley Tech High School." His column is in the form of a letter to the late Mrs. Pettit.

While presenting ideas in the form of a letter can be a powerful technique, I think Borsuk's presentation is odd and rather creepy.

Borsuk's letter is actually a reaction to Alderman Bob Donovan's comment that "Bradley Tech High School, the school [Mrs. Pettit] made happen with a $20 million gift, is 'a disgrace that is likely causing Jane Pettit to turn over in her grave.'"

Borsuk mocks Donovan. Via his letter, he informs the reader not to worry, that Mrs. Pettit is resting comfortably.

As I said, creepy.

Borsuk writes:

I thought I'd fill you in on things I saw and heard when I spent a few hours at Tech the other day, as well as in other visits over the years, in case that's helpful in making up your own mind whether to be pleased or horrified.

The community at large appears to be on the horrified side - at least if you listen to the radio talk shows and some similar chatter. But the folks at the school, both adults and kids, are convinced Bradley Tech is pretty much your typical school, except better than some others. They feel like the kid who incurs the teacher's wrath even though everyone else did worse things - except in this case, it's the wrath of the TV helicopters circling overhead after a fight in the school.

Of course, high schools these days - even in the suburbs (did you hear about the New Berlin Eisenhower mess?) - aren't like they were when you were a student.

Borsuk goes on to tell of the good and the bad at Bradley Tech. Basically, he concludes that Bradley Tech has just a few people who misbehave and give the school a bad name. Borsuk believes Bob Donovan is overreacting. Tech has been unfairly labeled as a problem place, at least in forums such as talk radio.

The thing is that conclusion doesn't follow from what he writes earlier in the letter.

A couple years ago, Pete Pochowski, the now-retired MPS security chief, told me how, when he went to what was then called Boys Tech, there was a principal and an assistant principal and that was it for enforcing the rules. Now there's a principal, five assistant principals (three dealing full time with behavior problems), two police officers, eight safety aides and seven people working in the Violence Free Zone project that is aimed at building relationships with kids.

The VFZ people are from the Latino Community Center, wear red shirts and are quite visible, talking with kids, hanging around during lunch, that kind of stuff. In fact, all the security people are visible. You feel like you can't walk down a hall without someone watching you. But that seems to be necessary.

It's necessary to have someone watching the students at all times?

That's not good. That's not normal. The students should not need to be watched as if they're on the verge of acting out violently at any moment. The school environment should not be such that chaos might be lurking around every corner.

Borsuk lays out the magnitude of the problem, all the security that's required to maintain order today compared to the past when a principal and an assistant principal got the job done.

That's how I define a mess.

Borsuk, on the other hand, redefines the deviancy as normal.

Times have changed, Mrs. Pettit. Oh, well.

That's ridiculous. There's no reason to expect less from students. There's no reason to redefine what's acceptable behavior.

And yet some kids still cause trouble, from small incidents every day to the fight involving a half dozen girls on Feb. 12 that brought a couple hundred kids running to see the spectacle, brought the cops in force, and brought the media. A lot of the kids don't think the fight was such a big deal, although I bet one thing you and Ald. Donovan would agree on is that injuring a police officer, the work of one of the girls, is very serious.

I know three people - I'm one of them - who have gone over records of police calls in the last several years. Each found that police are called to Tech about as often or less often than the average for MPS high schools. Some of the incidents at Tech have been pretty eye-catching, but you have to wonder if the amount of attention on violence at Tech is disproportionate. Personally, I could name maybe a half dozen high schools that I worry about more when it comes to safety.

Violence in schools, whether it's at Tech or a suburban school, deserves attention. Millions and millions of taxpayers' dollars are poured into the schools.

There should be transparency. Problems shouldn't be ignored or diminished or kept from public view. There should be accountability.

Borsuk doesn't seem to get that redefining deviancy doesn't help the students and it doesn't help the community.

Mrs. Pettit gave Milwaukee an incredible gift when she donated $20 million to establish Bradley Tech. She wasn't giving funds for a new building as much as she was investing in the future of every student who would attend Bradley Tech. Her gift was providing education that would lead to opportunity for a productive life.

What we can learn from Bradley Tech is that a multi-million dollar facility is worthless if students don't want to learn.

With all due respect to Mr. Borsuk, if kids are fighting and bringing drugs and weapons, including loaded guns, to Tech, if it's necessary to monitor them at all times to prevent an explosion of violence, they aren't there to get an education.

You don't need an army of security to control only "a small number" of kids "who are just trouble."

For some reason, Borsuk wants to redefine the degree of the severity of the problems at Tech, defining deviancy down. He wants to change the community's perception, arguing that the deviant behavior at Tech is being blown out of proportion.

Bottom line: Borsuk is part of the problem.

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