Zero tolerance keeps Mr. Gorecki busy

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Last year, Gage Park High, along with Kennedy High, posted the highest suspension rate in the city: 106 suspensions for every 100 students. Gage Park disciplinarian James Gorecki says the school’s “get-tough” approach is necessary because many students are behind academically. “To catch up, they need to be in class as much as possible,” he says. “Unfortunately, [strict] discipline is the way you have to go to do that.” In addition, the school’s active counseling department runs support groups for students with problems, and incentives are offered for good behavior. Detentions and suspensions are heavy at the beginning of the year, Gorecki says, but drop substantially by spring as students strive to stay out of trouble. On April 30, Contributing Editor Dan Weissmann spent two hours with Gorecki as he meted out punishment. In the cases recounted below, students’ names have been changed.

Leaning far back in his chair, James Gorecki sits at a big desk behind a partition in Room 117. Through a window in the partition, he can see three rows of chairs set out for students sent to his office. At any given hour of the day, several students await their fates, slumped stoically in the chairs. Conversation is officially discouraged.

Behind the chairs is a roped-off area known as “hallsweep”; each period, students caught in the hall after the start-of-class bell rings get sent there to stand until the period ends.

To one side, Shirley Jaeger, Gorecki’s assistant, files records, pulls up information from her computer and keeps an eye on the kids. One at a time, Gorecki calls them in.

Robert, fighting

“Man, I’m being suspended again,” mutters Robert, seated in the hot seat next to Gorecki’s desk. “And I got a test to take. Next time I say something, it’s gonna be even more worse.” Robert doesn’t deny getting into the fight.

Reading from the teacher’s note that Robert has brought with him, Gorecki says, “Student exchanged a few words with José. … student called José a whore; José called student a whore…”

“Man, what’s your pet peeve?” Gorecki asks. “When people don’t give you respect. And here you are, calling José a name. You started this one. Why?”

“He said something racist,” Robert explains. “Man, I don’t care who it is, nobody better say nothing about my race.” (Robert is African American.)

Gorecki sighs, then looks through Robert’s records. “Been serving detentions, huh? OK, give me your home phone number.” Robert does, and Gorecki dials.

“This is Gage Park High School calling, and I need to speak to a parent,” he says. “An uncle? Well, maybe you can help me. Robert was involved in a fight about a half hour ago, and what I need to do is to separate these two young men, so I was wondering if I could have your permission to send him home. Because if I don’t, and if something happens later in the day, then his three-day suspension automatically becomes a six-day suspension.”

The uncle tells Gorecki that he’ll page Robert’s dad and call Gorecki back.

“Robert, I’m going to ask you to go sit in the back,” says Gorecki, referring to a room behind his office.

“I want to go to class,” says Robert.

“Robert, please sit in the back.”

“Why’d you send dude to class?”

“Because I couldn’t contact a parent.”

“Dude did just as much as me.”

“Not according to the teacher. According to the teacher, you started the fight.”

“I got a test to take fifth period!” Robert is standing up, and so is Gorecki, who is trying to coax Robert to the door to the back room.

“Robert, please? please? I’m asking you nicely.”

“And I asked you something nicely! Dude called me a nigger!”

“And you called him a whore. … OK.” Gorecki goes back to his desk, picks up his walkie-talkie and pages the chief security officer. “John Massey!” Robert deflates, then takes a seat in the back room.

Gorecki returns to his own desk. “He’s a BD [behavioral disorder] student. Has a history of violence,” he says. “You have to talk to him very calmly and very politely. Otherwise, he goes off.”

John Massey enters the room, taking a seat next to Gorecki’s desk. “I got him finally to sit down and be quiet,” says Gorecki. “Otherwise, I was gonna have you come in…”

Jaeger calls from the other side of the partition, “Mr. Gorecki? Maria just got ahold of José’s mother.”

“We’ll get him to go home too,” says Gorecki. “I’d rather have them out of the building than killing each other.” He dials the extension of Maria Velazquez. “Would you call José’s mom and tell her we want to send him home because we can’t guarantee his safety?”

Tanya, swearing

Tanya takes the hot seat.

“OK, here’s your ID, young lady. … Hmm…” Gorecki looks over teacher Dan Caine’s written complaint against her.

“What he wrote down there is a story,” Tanya protests. “You can ask Mr. Newberry. He was standing right there.”

Reading from the write-up, Gorecki says, “I asked Tanya to clear the hallway. Her reply was ‘F— you.’ “

“I didn’t even say that,” Tanya insists. “There must have been somebody else yelling out at him. I didn’t even know he was there. I was just trying to get to Mr. Newberry’s class, and next thing I knew, this other guy’s writing me up, telling me to come down to hallsweep. And he took my ID, so I had to come here.”

“So you’re saying he’s lying.”

“Mr. Newberry was standing right there.”

“I want you to get a pass from Ms. Jaeger, go to Mr. Newberry’s room and ask him to write down whether he heard you say anything to Mr. Kane.”

George, cutting

In a flash, a boy named George replaces Tanya in the hot seat.

“OK, I’ve got you cutting third period. Consider this a warning,” says Gorecki. “Next time I see you down here for cutting third period, you’re gonna be gone for five days. OK, sign here.” George signs, leaves, and is immediately replaced by Robin.

Robin, fighting

“Ms. Webster?” says Gorecki. “You want to explain what happened yesterday at dismissal?”

Robin quickly and quietly describes the beginning of a fight, with one girl “talking all crazy” about a friend of hers. “I just hit her two times,” she says.

“Just a quick shot in there, huh?” says Gorecki. “Well, at least you’re honest. Were you the one who hit the police officer?”

“No, that was that other girl. He couldn’t handle her.”

“Now, whose idea was it to fight?” Gorecki asks. Robin tells him of plans made over a couple of days. Returning her ID, he says, “This is yours.”

“Number?” She gives him one; he dials and leaves a message. “Give this to Ms. Jaeger, and go on back to class. Then you’re gone for three days. You come back Monday.”

Gorecki sighs. “Now, I’ve got to go back to Robert. OK, I’ve got permission to send him home. Here’s where all hell breaks loose. He’s not gonna go. I’m gonna have to escort him out of the building…” He calls Massey.

Then Tanya returns with a note from Mr. Newberry, who says he “wasn’t close enough” to hear anything that Tanya said but that if she’d been where she was supposed to be—in his class, on time—she wouldn’t have gotten into trouble.

“You read it?” Gorecki asks her. She nods. “You got no help from him.”

“Now, back to Robert,” he says, stepping to the door to the back room.

With Gorecki gone for a minute, Tanya says she doesn’t think discipline is fair at Gage Park. “I’m getting in trouble for something I didn’t even do,” she complains.

Gorecki returns to weigh Tanya’s fate. He reviews her record, reading excerpts out loud. “Was involved in disruptive behavior. … Continued saying ‘hell’ and ‘shit’ to a teacher. … Ran through the lunchroom with food in her hand. … Refused to go to hallsweep and left the building…”

“Well,” he concludes, “this sounds like something you would do.”

Gorecki calls Tanya’s house and talks to an aunt, leaving a message that’s becoming familiar: The student is being suspended, and a parent will have to come to school with her during the suspension to discuss the situation.

“Next time, I’ll know to just say it to him, since I’m going to get in trouble whether I say anything or not,” says Tanya, disgusted.

As Gorecki finishes writing her up, he offers some advice. “The only person who can help you is another adult. Someone who was there and can back you up. Another adult.” She leaves.

Diane, no ID

Next up, Diane, who’s been sent to Gorecki for not having an ID, which warrants an automatic 3-day suspension. “My ID must have fallen off my jacket,” she says.

Gorecki tells her to get a note from a teacher who can attest that she was wearing her ID earlier in the day. Later, she does, and she’s off the hook.

Jaime, lunchroom antics

Gorecki calls the next student. “Gomez!” he booms.

A gangly, shy, smiling student takes the hot seat. It’s the first time Jaime Gomez has been sent to the discipline office in three years at Gage Park, and it’s only for standing on a chair at lunchtime. He gets off with a warning and a stern look; Gorecki has him sign a pledge to be good.

Jane, cutting

Next. “Princeton!”

Jane Princeton takes the hot seat. “Well, well, well, Ms. Princeton, you don’t like Mrs. Morgan, do you?” She’s a freshman, and she’s here for repeatedly cutting teacher Laura Morgan’s class. Jane says she was late with an assignment and came to hallsweep rather than face Mrs. Morgan.

“You know what this is called? This is called cutting,” says Gorecki. He calls Jane’s mom.

“You didn’t tell her it was hallsweep,” Jane protests. “She’s gonna think that I was just cutting—out wandering the halls or in the bathroom or something. Put down there that it was hallsweep. Hey! That says cutting. My mom, she’s gonna think I’m sneaking around, having fun…”

“Maybe we want your mother to get on your case about this stuff,” Gorecki offers. “Give this to Ms. Jaeger. She’ll give you a copy. Have a nice day.”

Jerry, cutting

“Ramos!”

Jerry’s here for cutting music, but he’s about to face suspension for ditching detention as well. “Why don’t you go to sixth period?” Gorecki asks him. “Three times you’ve been suspended for not serving detentions, so you don’t really care about that. But why don’t you go to music?”

“I just don’t get there in time,” Jerry offers. Gorecki doesn’t buy it. Looking at Jerry’s schedule, he notes that Jerry has lunch just before music—and the music room is right next to the cafeteria.

“My locker’s on the second floor, though. How’m I going to carry my books and my lunch? I can’t just leave my books on the table; people’ll take them.” Jerry tries to bargain. “Can’t you just give me detention?”

“I did that before, and you didn’t serve any of these detentions. I was a nice guy, I gave you a break. I didn’t have to. You’re making me look bad, guy.”

Gorecki calls Jerry’s house, leaves a message with Jerry’s brother, gives Jerry his suspension papers and wishes Jerry a nice day.

Meera, ditching detention

Meera, who has ditched two detentions, is next. She’s alarmed. “Please, Mr. Gorecki, give me another chance,” she pleads. “You know my father, you know how strict he is. Please, Mr. Gorecki.”

“But if you’re so scared of your father, why didn’t you serve your detentions?”

“I swear to God, tomorrow morning I will come and serve one of those detentions, and I will serve the second one on Thursday, and that’s a promise. Please, Mr. Gorecki? Please?”

He relents, and later explains. “The father came in here about two weeks ago, and we had to physically keep him off of her,” he says. “When you know there’s trouble at home, sometimes you approach the situation in a different way.”

With Meera gone, Gorecki’s day is about over, and he says this has been a quiet one. “It starts at 8, and it goes ’til about now, about 2. Two or three days it’ll be quiet, and then all hell will break loose. It goes like that. It gets hectic. But it’s different every day.

“I like it better than being in the classroom,” says Gorecki, who taught science for 22 years. “I like talking with the kids, the unique situations, and having an effect on kids lives. I get to see their home life. I get to see the problems they’re having, and there are some kids I’m really proud of. I’ve got one kid, a Latin King: Last year, he was suspended twice a week, almost. This year, he’s been written up just once, all year.”

Gorecki credits the whole security staff and local police officers with consistently encouraging troubled kids to straighten up and fly right.

“Then there are the kids who are here every day. You hate to call the parents; they’re at their wits end. I had to call one girl’s mom—she was the third girl in on a fight—and this girl’s mom said to me, ‘You tell her to get her f—in’ a– home, and I’m going to beat the f— out of her. You understand me?’ I said, ‘Yes ma’am.’ ” He shrugs. “I told that girl, ‘You better go right home. Your mother really wants to talk with you.’ “