School System with Commissioner Stancik
As the Special Commissioner of Investigation
(SCI) for the New York City School District, Edward F. Stancik
stands alone. His is the only organization like it in the country,
an independent agency, empowered to investigate crime and corruption
in the city’s schools.
His job was created by Mayor David Dinkins
in 1990 after a series of school personnel scandals rocked the
city in the late 1980’s. Among the most serious incidents was
an elementary school principal arrested for buying crack cocaine,
and a local political leader and a superintendent in the Bronx
charged with stealing valuable school property. With the Board
of Education clearly unable to police its own employees and losing
credibility, SCI was formed to investigate wrongdoing among school
staff. The agency has maintained three broad goals since its inception:
to protect against corruption, to protect against financial fraud
and mismanagement, and to investigate crimes committed against
children by staff, including sexual abuse, an area in which SCI
has been very active.
In his decade on the job, Stancik, the former
Deputy Chief of the Rackets Bureau in New York and a member of
the city’s District Attorney Homicide Investigation Unit, has
led more than 300 investigations. Stancik and about 40 investigators
have worked to arrest 174 employees, resulting in a conviction
rate of 81 percent. SCI has tracked down gang related activity
in schools, has found fraud and mismanagement by New York City
custodians, has investigated educator-assisted cheating, and has
uncovered school board corruption that led to the 1995 School
Board Reform Act.
He recently spoke candidly about SCI and
the problems facing our schools.
M.C. Cohen: Although recent statistics
show that violence in schools is down—in the 1992-93 school year
there were 54 violent deaths in the United States compared to
16 last year—it’s still hard to believe that violence is really
down, with all the recent shootings.
Stancik: There are two very different
issues here. One is the overall level of violence in schools.
And the other is the occurrence of these catastrophic events where
multiple students are being shot. I don’t see the two of them
traveling together in terms of there being a pattern. These mass
school shootings with no apparent reason are a phenomenon of the
last 15 years. I think, with respect to violence in general, it’s
going to vary a great deal from school system to school system.
MC: What about in New York schools?
ES: We just came through a major
controversy here in the last several years where we switched control
of the school safety to the police department, and we [SCI] played
quite a role in that. The Division of School Safety, the old internal
security, was simply not professional, not up to the job.
MC: New York has not had a school
shooting since February 1992 when Kahil Sumpter killed two classmates
in Jefferson High School in Brooklyn. How has your agency helped
to prevent this type of activity?
ES: That would be a bigger claim
then I would make. We normally don’t have jurisdiction on student-to-student
violence. Where we get involved is whether it gets reported and
whether it gets handled properly by the school staff. Our function
is to investigate school staff. We have been pushing for more
professionalism over the way you approach policing schools. The
greatest sign of that was the impact we had on bringing in the
NYPD. To the extent it has played a role, I guess we get an assist.
But, we’re not directly responsible for security in the schools.
MC: In Brooklyn Technical High School
on March 21, 2000, there were two separate muggings involving
weapons, and neither was properly reported to the authorities.
Is this an example of a recurring problem in New York?
ES: It is a major problem, though
unlikely to occur with a death. But unfortunately there are too
many schools where the instinct is to cover up problems rather
than face them. And so the police are not notified; the school
doesn’t want to get a bad reputation. There are many schools where
that does not occur, but it is a recurring problem. It’s one that
we have always focused attention on. You can’t track crime or
violent activity in the schools if you don’t report it, and my
view is, with respect to when a crime occurs, the concern is safety,
and peoples’ reputations come down the road a bit.
MC: According to various sources
around the country and also from your own investigations, school
districts are failing to do detailed background checks. For example,
in Rockland County, Georgia, a reading teacher convicted of manslaughter
in 1969 was recently working at a school.
ES: Background check is an area we
have been adamant on from the beginning. You have to do your homework.
You have to do fingerprints, call references. It’s a very labor-intensive
process to search in the backgrounds of people. And there’s another
major issue: if someone has a teacher license and gets in trouble
in one part of the country, they may go to another part of the
country. We certainly had that with sex offenders. Absolutely—you
have to have tight screening.
MC: Are there any steps we can take
to make our schools safer?
ES: You have to have the day-to-day
vigilance. You have to have a culture that clearly states that
kids come first and we’re going to always be careful regarding
safety and crime.
MC: Nationwide, there seems to be
wide-spread crime and corruption in our schools. In 1997 for example,
there were 4,000 rapes and 11,000 weapon fights reported. With
all the problems we’re having would other school districts benefit
from having an independent investigator?
ES: I think you have to give the
New York City Board of Education a lot of credit for pursuing
a course that has an independent investigator, because unfortunately
the tendency among school systems in general is to cover up bad
news. This is an unusual arrangement, but it has been more effective
than anything else that I have seen. I think the approach of an
independent investigator can work anywhere.
MC: Have you achieved the goals you
originally set for SCI?
ES: It’s a funny thing about being
an investigator: investigation is never done. Corruption is never
done. You have to be vigilant all the time. One of the things
that we’re doing now is revisiting some areas that we dealt a
lot with in the first five or six years in the office. What I
can tell you is that I think we’ve done great investigations.
I think we have made the system better than it was. There’s so
much work to be done. Anybody claiming to solve the problems of
the city schools would be overstating it.
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