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New York City
April 2001

Investigating the
School System with Commissioner Stancik

by M.C. Cohen

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.


Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001. Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919. Email: ednews1@aol.com.
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2001.