The attacker came at the girl shouting threats and insults. The child, lying on the ground, expertly thrust her leg into her opponent’s groin, just as she’d been taught, and sent the behemoth tumbling backwards. But the attacker’s protective padding softened the blow and the gym mats broke his fall. It was just another day in self-defense class at Manhattan’s Spence School. Did the young student think her training would do her any good in the real world? “I’ll tell you when I’m attacked,” she stated with perfect seventh-grade sarcasm.
Welcome to the city’s private schools post-9/11, when getting kids into Ivy League colleges seems to have taken a back seat, at least for the moment, to making sure there’s a first-rate evacuation plan in place and the little ones know how to throw an uppercut. In the past, the city’s top-tier privates have striven to distinguish themselves from each other with their state-of-the-art science labs or multimedia arts centers. So it should come as no surprise that since Sept. 11, with the entire city on high alert, the latest point of pride for the schools has become their top-notch security systems.
While some of the schools’ security measures were in place before the World Trade Center attack, they’ve been ramped up in recent months. The long-standing tradition of hiring ex-cops as guards, for example, has gained newfound popularity. There’s also been an increased interest in investing in technology to help keep the city’s children of privilege out of harm’s way. And the latest addition to the schedules of children who are more accustomed to violin or equestrian lessons are classes for perfecting that swift kick to the groin in case of attack.
It’s Friday afternoon and Louis Uliano, the Hewitt School’s director of security, is keeping a close eye on the lower-school dismissal-a middle-aged guy in a suit among dozens of fashionably dressed moms and their young daughters in their dark green plaid jumpers. Until last October when he retired, Mr. Uliano, as he’s respectfully known up and down Hewitt’s winding mansion staircase, was a community-affairs officer at the 19th Precinct. “We were fortunate to learn last summer that Lou might be available for such a position after his retirement from the NYPD,” explained Linda MacMurray Gibbs, Hewitt’s head of school. “I had been considering the addition of such a person for some time, and the tragic events of September only reinforced my intention.”
Mr. Uliano’s responsibilities, besides reading the occasional fairy tale to first graders, have included introducing new security measures (such as arming the school’s entire staff with Motorola two-way cell phones), overseeing afternoon dismissal, and delivering safety lectures to parents and children.
“We have a policy where the teacher whose class goes out on a field trip will take a school cell phone so they can have contact with us or with emergency responders,” Mr. Uliano explained. Having the walkie-talkie feature is important because it was “one of the few means of communication that was working during the crisis,” he said, referring to Sept. 11.
“This illusion of safety has been shattered,” said Donna Chaiet, the president of Prepare Inc., the company that teaches self-defense to children as young as 5 at 30 independent schools in the metropolitan area, among them Hewitt, Spence, Nightingale, Dalton, Horace Mann and Chapin. “Post-9/11, everyone felt vulnerable-even affluent people who lead insulated lives,” she said.
One might question the necessity of these preventive measures in environments where crime has never been a big problem. The typical private-school incident, to the extent one can describe anything that happens rarely as “typical,” might involve an opportunistic panhandler wandering into a school and walking out with a teacher’s wallet or an iMac from the computer center. Furthermore, one may wonder whether the safety measures are any more effective than the old duck-and-cover strategy would have been during a nuclear attack. Effectiveness may not be so simply measured, however. “We had adult graduates at the World Trade Center,” Ms. Chaiet pointed out, referring to former self-defense students. “What they said to us was that they were quickly able to assess what was going on and get themselves to safety. They felt calm, focused and able to make powerful choices to save their life.”
The benefits of stepped-up security seem to be as much psychological as physical. “It’s wonderful,” said a Hewitt mother as her second-grade daughter hugged Mr. Uliano goodbye for the weekend. “I think a lot of people feel better about things since he [started at] the school.” John Dexter, the head of school at Trevor Day, admitted it would be somewhat presumptuous to think that “Yemeni zealots” had the progressive co-ed private school in their cross hairs. “Possibly the level of anxiety is an overreaction,” he said. “But improving the level of security makes the learning place a more comfortable place to be.”
Needless to say, at New York City’s public schools, where weapons and gangs have historically been a real problem, resources do not exist to implement comparable systems.
“I went to Hunter for the day with my friend,” said a Spence ninth grader, referring to Hunter College High School, one of the city’s premier public schools. “There was no trouble getting in, whereas at my school you’d have to sign in. I didn’t notice any kind of security.”
The Dalton School has required students and families to get special photo ID’s, “including the sitters,” reported one mother. While she added that breaking away from work to get her picture taken was somewhat of a pain, she was more incensed by the school’s 6 percent tuition hike for next year (to $23,620 in the upper school). A portion of that increase, she presumed, is attributable to security. Dalton declined to comment on either the price of its education or its security procedures.
The York Preparatory School, a for-profit private school, has devised perhaps the city’s most cost-effective security system. In addition to employing a live guard, the school employs a dummy-not an individual of less than impressive intelligence, but an actual mannequin-to stand sentry by the school’s front door. “He’s in a security guard outfit with blue pants, a white shirt and his little badge,” reported Luz Rodriguez, a school receptionist, who added: “People come up to talk with him all the time, thinking he’s real.”
The Spence School uses a rather more sophisticated system. It includes “proximity cards” that automatically note whenever girls in the middle and upper schools enter or leave the building. With the card anywhere on their person, their comings and goings are registered by sensors at the front entrance.
“It can print out instantly a list of employees and students in the building or out of the building,” explained Madlyn Deming, a Spence spokeswoman. “For any emergency, it’s incredibly powerful.”
Were there a fire, for example, the administration could get a printout of every person on the premises within seconds. Ms. Deming said no one had raised privacy issues, though carrying the card definitely makes it harder to skip a class or oversleep, as machines are now conducting the roll call.
“They have to keep attendance records,” said Steven Capogna, a representative with Innovative Security Systems, the company that developed the software for Spence’s system, “and it definitely streamlines that.”
“They’re so cool,” said Ginger Cutler, a Spence seventh grader. “I don’t think it’s an invasion of privacy, except some people’s photos are really bad.”
Mr. Capogna said that the Trinity School and the Brearley School are also planning to install the system. “The sky’s the limit,” he said. “Once we have G.P.S. [a Global Positioning System] and cellular phones and a student checks out, we’re going to know where a student is-in or out of school.” The linkage to a teenager’s cell phone would, of course, be voluntary.
When all else fails, one must be ready to defend oneself. Prepare Inc.’s Ms. Chaiet said that most of the schools had hired her company to teach their kids self-defense techniques before Sept. 11, but that the events of that day have added significance to the training.
The children don’t necessarily see the value in self-defense, but they admit it’s a lot more fun than algebra. “It certainly wasn’t boring,” said Ginger Cutler. “If I did use it, I’d probably win a fight with it. The moves are really good-they make the most of your attacker’s weak spots.” She claims she’s resisted the temptation to employ her newfound prowess on her younger siblings. “I wouldn’t do it just to make them get out of my room,” she vowed.
Of course, if the schools didn’t frown upon it, some parents would undoubtedly have bodyguards shadowing their kids-the way Mayor Giuliani did when his son Andrew attended St. David’s last year. The mother of a child in Andrew’s class described his bodyguard, who waited for Andrew in the lobby during classes, as something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, she feared that if Andrew were to become a target, she didn’t want her son next to him. On the other hand, the bodyguards accompanied the class on a trip to Italy last year, providing extra protection. “They were extremely nice guys,” she said. “It was like having two more teachers.” In fact, one of them has since been hired by St. David’s as the school’s full-time director of security.
Parents, while obviously applauding the increased safety, still do have mixed reactions. One mother was somewhat upset when the Nightingale-Bamford School recently evicted her as she was waiting to pick up her daughter. “I was up there one afternoon sitting in the lobby, and we were told we could not hang out there,” she reported. “Granted, that’s what suicide bombers do, but I don’t think a political statement is going to be made by taking out a private girls’ school.”
On the other hand, some parents are proud of their school’s get-tough attitude toward potential intruders, familial or otherwise. “Buckley has some seriously loaded kids, obviously, and they have guards at the door,” boasted one mother. “You would never in a million years walk into Buckley and walk around.” In comparison, she said, she visited the Convent of the Sacred Heart last year for a recital and “walked in and walked upstairs,” she recalled. “You could never do that at Buckley.”
Actually, you can no longer do that at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, either. They also have their own friendly ex-cop now. “He’s wonderful,” said one mother. “He knows every single girl by name. He knows all the siblings’ names. He knows their pets’ names. I mean, the guy is stunning .”
Improved security procedures also offer some unlikely benefits, for the socially ambitious in the crowd, at least. Indeed, the latest fashion accessory for the top-tier mommies isn’t the Balenciaga bag, but the ID card that parents are required to wear-at least if they have any hopes of setting foot on school property. Once upon a time, if you wanted to figure out what school someone’s child attended, you had to be able to distinguish between uniforms. Now, you just have to read the security tag around their parents’ necks. The Trevor Day School’s, for example, reads “TDS” in bold red letters, though it doesn’t include the parent’s photograph as the Dalton School’s does.
Some of the precautions seem almost quaint, but then again they were as useful as any on Sept. 11. Some schools have taken to asking parents to list four families within walking distance of the school where they’d permit their children to go in case of an emergency. (Many parents, particularly those living in the outer boroughs, couldn’t pick up their children on Sept. 11.) In typical Manhattan fashion, one Collegiate parent who lives on the Upper East Side saw the drill as an excuse to network a little. “I’m putting down Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson,” she said, referring to the high-profile West Side parents whose son is in her son’s class. “They said we didn’t even have to know them.