Analysis: 3 Lessons From Tragedy at Out-of-Control NYC School That Left Student Dead and Classmate Guilty of Manslaughter

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Two weeks ago, a judge found Abel Cedeno guilty of manslaughter for the death of his fellow student Matthew McCree in September 2017, the first homicide in New York City schools in decades. The facts suggest that criminal justice was served; Cedeno provoked a confrontation and pulled out a knife before the deadly altercation began. But the needless death of a teenager demands that we learn the lessons that this tragic case presents.

There are at least three.

The first lesson, as I detailed at length previously, is the dangerous unintended consequences of school discipline reform. Five years before the incident, the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation was thriving; 86 percent of teachers said order was maintained and 80 percent of students felt safe in the hallway. There wasn’t a hint of homophobia; one teacher told me, “Kids who were transgender or gay or lesbian were comfortable. It wasn’t a thing.”

But during the 2014-15 school year, new administrators took command — armed with orders from their bureaucratic superiors to decrease suspensions, per Mayor Bill de Blasio’s directive. They complied quite efficiently, by simply not enforcing rules. One teacher told me that “as teachers, policymakers have made it so we have no authority. Only perceived authority. … Once the kid finds out he can say “F*** you,” flip over a table, and he won’t get suspended, that’s that.”

The school descended into chaos. Among students, acceptance of sexual preference and gender identity was the first thing to go. One gay student, victimized by bullying that school administrators allowed to go unchecked, tried to take his own life by hanging himself with his sweater in the stairwell. He survived only because Matthew McCree and his friend Ariane Laboy, who was also stabbed by Cedeno, found and rescued him.

McCree’s killer, Cedeno, was also bullied for his sexual identity. According to Cedeno, he feared so much for his safety that he felt the need to bring a knife to school. Given that violence had become a near-daily occurrence, one can understand why he felt that way. But he may also have been itching for a fight.

His mother had called the school soon after the new administration took over to say he had a knife and that she was worried he might bring it to class and hurt someone. But school administrators, incentivized to underreport bad behavior, simply ignored the warning. Indeed, they did little to respond to the hundreds of serious behavioral problems that teachers reported on Skedula, the student tracking software — and, teachers suspected, deleted some referrals.

The second lesson relates to the danger of teacher evaluation systems in the hands of bad school administrators. Teachers I spoke with recalled feeling targeted by the new principal, Astrid Jacobo, who would have authority over their evaluations — but they could not figure out the root of her bias against them. Some couldn’t offer explanations beyond grumbling expletive epithets. Others thought it was a “power trip” thing. One former teacher and assistant principal, Cynthia Turnquest-Jones, suspected that Jacobo’s actions were racially motivated. She recalled to me a time when local district superintendent Rafaela Espinal toured the school and turned to Jacobo and asked, “Why are there so many white teachers teaching our students?” Jacobo answered in Spanish, shutting Turnquest-Jones out of the conversation. (Jacobo never responded to requests for comment.)

Whatever the reason, the teacher evaluation system gave Jacobo the tool she needed to target and drive out most of UA Wildlife’s veteran teachers. The year before Jacobo arrived, 86 percent of teachers were rated effective; after her first year, 71 percent were rated Developing/Ineffective on Engaging Students in Learning. One teacher estimated turnover at 80 percent and explained that “that plays into the whole discipline thing. You took out the experienced teachers who could control the students.” A former student, Jeremy, recalled, “Jacobo started to get rid of teachers and hire teachers that didn’t really care about us.”

The third, perhaps broadest, lesson from this tragic story relates to the tyranny of political correctness. A decade ago, if a black student was killed in class, education reformers would have been outraged and demanded serious inquiry, reflection and policy change. But these days, the bigger outrage for some reformers and journalists seemed to be that conservative commentators could dare question whether a “social justice” policy may have played a role.

Instead, the readily accepted takeaway was that homophobia and bullying were to blame. Never mind that this narrative slanders the memory of Matthew McCree, who was not a homophobe and had no history of bullying Abel Cedeno. And never mind that it plays to racist tropes by painting a dead black child as an anti-gay thug.

One final thought that should be profoundly unnerving: Of the dozen former teachers I spoke with, only two agreed to be named. “Teachers aren’t going to speak out, period,” one explained, “because it’s going to cost them their jobs.”

For the past year, almost the entire “social justice” conversation framed by New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has revolved around the racial composition of selective admissions high schools and the idea of “white privilege.” But it wasn’t “white privilege” that made these teachers afraid to speak on the record about why a black student was killed in the classroom. It was, rather, a form of bureaucratically enforced political correctness, which today’s reformers perhaps do more to compound than ameliorate.

Max Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, specializing in education policy.

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