Wyatt Cenac explores educational ‘Problem Areas’ in New York City and beyond

Wyatt Cenac brings his series "Problem Areas" to Brooklyn. 
Wyatt Cenac brings his series "Problem Areas" to Brooklyn.  Photo Credit: Li Yakira Cohen

Following what’s been deemed the worst year on record for gun violence in schools, Wyatt Cenac knew his informative late-night show needed to switch focus to new "Problem Areas." 

"The conversation around education feels very different from it did not too long ago," Cenac says, rattling off heavy topics that have made recent headlines, from teacher strikes to what’s believed to be the largest college admissions scandal in the nation, involving actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.

But for his HBO series, the New York native is taking a different approach. With the second season focusing on education, he finds himself sitting in classrooms across the country, speaking with students and administrators to bring light to topics such as the school-to-prison pipeline. 

In Friday’s episode, Cenac brings his series to New York City to speak with prison inmates and high school students — several of whom say they feel their "hardened" school experience (with metal detectors present) has raised them to become accustomed to run-ins with the law.

Principal Allison Farrington, of Brooklyn's Research and Service High School, walks Cenac through her school's pantry.
Principal Allison Farrington, of Brooklyn’s Research and Service High School, walks Cenac through her school’s pantry. Photo Credit: HBO

"What does school safety mean if the same hardened measures that reassure one community have done the exact opposite to another?" Cenac says. "Just take a look at New York City where schools have been using hardening measures since the late ’80s." 

In the episode, an interview subject admits feeling "corralled" through metal detectors and says he feels he "might as well start acting like the animal you’re treating me like." Another says his hardened school helped get him used to people "grabbing me by the collar" and "going through my pockets." 

In Cenac’s research, he compares New York City’s school safety officer total to that of the Houston police force — both approximately total 5,000. According to Department of Education data, there are 1,135,334 students currently enrolled in the NYC school system, about half of Houston’s entire population. 

Much of the episode serves as a platform for locals to share their views on the impacts the presence of police and metal detectors in schools can have on youth. 

"With a metal detector or something like that, we’re saying that provides safety," Cenac says. "But is that truly the safest thing if students are dealing with mental health issues or problems at home? Is that the thing that’s going to address all those needs?"

He continues: "Maybe if we spend more time addressing these things, we wouldn’t be in the situation to have to resort to metal detectors as a catchall for potential problems."

Taking his cameras inside Brooklyn’s Research and Service High School in Bed-Stuy, Cenac shows what he says is an exception to the norm: A school — with metal detectors — that’s also taken a very hands-on approach to keeping students safe and engaged. 

"What I think was fascinating about Principal Farrington, was both her investment and commitment in the school and to her students," he says. "It feels like the approach she takes in her school is so different from what I think of as far as what a principal does."

Allison Farrington isn’t cornered to her office. She places her movable desk in the hallways and knows students by name, the episode shows. And, she helps fill a pantry where students in need are free to take home items weekly. 

"I think there’s a transparency in the work she does, and I do wonder if that helps her students relate to her and her relate to the students. They have a lot of respect and appreciation for her as she does for them," Cenac adds.

In its premiere season, the late-night series kept his focus on policing in America as he visited neighborhoods where topics such as police brutality and cop-involved shootings remain timely. New episodes of "Problem Areas" air each Friday at 11 p.m. on HBO.