En Español Know Your Rights
Source: The Columbia Journalist
Subject: Education Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Council Mulls Report Card for School Safety Agents

 


 

It’s
the fifth largest police force in the country. But it isn’t the Mafia or drug
lords that that these police officials have their eye on. They’re focused on
the teenage students who attend public school in New York City.

 


With
5,249 officers charged with security at more than 1,500 public schools, the New
York Police Department’s school safety division is larger than the police
forces of Washington D.C.,
Dallas or Detroit
– and their presence is palpable for some students.

 


“I see about 30 to 35 cops just on my side of the
school building,”
observes Chasity Soriano,** a 15-year-old student of the Bushwick School for Social Justice.  Three years ago she was handcuffed to a chair in the school’s main
office for arguing with a friend, she says.

“They (the school safety agents) told me to shut
up and relax and not to move,”
claims the Queens resident, adding, “they portrayed me as an animal.” Strip searches in school,
according to Soriano, occur two to four times a week.

 

The
City Council will soon vote on the Student Safety Act, a bill that would
require quarterly reporting by the Department of Education and NYPD to the City
Council on school safety and disciplinary issues, including incidents involving
arrests and suspensions of students. The act, introduced by Council member
Robert Jackson in August 2008, could be the first step in keeping a tighter
check on policing in schools.

 


“Right
now, there’s no formal mechanism to report misconduct by school safety agents,
people have to go to great lengths to complain about them,” says Jen Carnig,
Director of Communications, New York Civil Liberties Union. The NYPD received
2,670 complaints against school safety agents between 2002 and 2007, according
to a 2007 letter Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly sent to the City Council’s
education committee.

 


NYPD
officials say they would require the addition of more than 100 police members
to handle the anticipated increase in complaint receipt and investigation and
to fulfill the recordkeeping responsibilities if the Student Safety Act is
passed.  “At a time when the City’s resources are under severe strain, we
suggest the enactment of Intro 816-A (the Student Safety Act) as written would
compromise our ability to maintain safety and security in the City’s public
schools,” says Assistant Chief James Secreto, Commanding Officer, School Safety
Division, NYPD, in a November 10, 2009, statement before the City Council.

  

In the
past six years, dwindling education budgets and pressure to raise test scores
has led to a 65 percent increase in the school safety division along with a
tendency to refer disruptive students to the police and the courts instead of
working with them in a collaborative manner, say NYCLU members. Moreover, this
quick-fix solution has come with a price-tag of $221 million.

 


Shoshi
Doza, a youth organizer for Jackson Heights-based South Asian non-profit Desis
Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) asserts that many parents and students complain to
her about aggressive policing in schools. “There’s a lack of training of police
officials on how to deal with youth,” she states.
 


The
fallout has been that students, many under the age of 16, have been arrested
for non-criminal violations such as disruptive conduct. However, it’s hard to
pinpoint numbers as no clear data has been made available by the police.

 

The
NYCLU claims that NYPD consistently ignores or unreasonably delays Freedom of
Information Law requests on police-student interactions. The Department of
Education also delayed providing information on student suspensions and
discharges for almost a year and even then furnished only a partial response,
the NYCLU says.

 


The
Student Safety Act will require such information to be made available easily
through periodic reports to the City Council and DOE.

 


Although
Secreto acknowledges receiving 1,159 complaints in 2008 of “misconduct or other
type of incidents involving school safety agents”, he says only 15 percent of
that number actually alleged unnecessary force, abuse of authority, discourtesy
or offensive language.

 


The
department also points to statistics that indicate the need for school safety
agents. Since the functions of the Board of Education’s Division of School
Safety were transferred to the Police Department in 1998, total crime in
schools has reduced by 34 percent over nine years ending in the 2008-2009
school year, testifies Secreto. Furthermore, since September, total crime has
decreased by an additional 27 percent from the year prior, violent crime
dropped by 22 percent, non-criminal incidents fell by 29 percent and the
possession of weapons and “dangerous instruments” declined by 32 percent.

 


“These
dramatic decreases are of course attributable to the hard work of many people,”
says Secreto, “but it is clear that the school safety agents are the backbone
of school security.” He refutes claims that they are inadequately trained to
deal with youth, saying they go through a comprehensive 14-week training course
upon being hired.

 


Challenging
unauthorized visitors, removing unruly students and taking enforcement action
when necessary are required to maintain order in schools, the NYPD says. It
cites a 2009 Department of Education survey showing that 76 percent of students
and 92 percent of teachers feel safe in their schools, while 93 percent of
parents believe their children are safe as well.

 


“Police
officers and school safety agents are trained to utilize aggressive street
policing tactics that are inappropriate for schools,” says Udi Ofer, advocacy
director at the NYCLU, who believes their training is inadequate to meet the
developmental needs of students and those with disabilities.

 


Every
morning as Chanwatie Ramnauth, 15, walks on the school grounds of Hillcrest High School
in Queens, she’s confronted by three or four
metal detectors. That’s followed by another minefield of eight or nine metal
detectors in the front room and five more in the hallway.

 


Secreto
emphasizes that scanning is an invaluable tool in schools claiming it,
“routinely results in the discovery and seizure of hundreds of dangerous
weapons each year.”

However,
NYCLU members argue that a vast majority of items confiscated at metal
detectors are not weapons or “dangerous instruments”. Most of the time, the
culprits are cellphones and IPods.

 


While
walking down the school hall one day last September, Ramnauth saw a fight break
out. “The police pushed me into the wall and I banged my hand really hard but I
didn’t know where to complain,” she says at a 75-person strong rally supporting
the Student Safety Act on the steps of City Hall in October. Wearing glasses,
braces and bright blue polish on her fingernails, she declares that the school
safety agents commit “both verbal and physical assaults”.

 

The
students harassed by school safety are disproportionately students of color,
students with special needs and immigrants, according to community non-profit
organizations. Those of undocumented workers might find it particularly
difficult to approach the police.

 


“There’s
definitely a form of bias. Muslim students especially may be laughed at during
searches by school safety agents,” says Doza, DRUM’s youth organizer.Secreto, however, counters that approximately
70 percent of school safety agents are women while about 93 percent are black
or Hispanic, adding that, “Virtually all of our school safety agents are city
residents, and many are parents with children in the city’s public schools.”

 


But
NYCLU points out that, unlike other school employees, most school safety agents
do not participate in anti-bias based harassment and sensitivity trainings that
could help them handle students.

 

The
Student Safety Act originally contained a provision to extend the jurisdiction
of the Civilian Complaint Review Board to give the public the same right to
complain against police behavior in the schools as on the streets. However,
this was later removed from the bill for a better shot at passing the Act in
the City Council.

 

“It’s
all part of the negotiation process,” explains Council member Melissa
Mark-Viverito of Manhattan,
who supports the Student Safety Act.

 


Secreto
opposes NYCLU’s efforts to educate the public on how to make a complaint
against a school safety agent. “This type of campaign invites students who may
be the subjects of necessary action by student safety agents to make
retaliatory complaints, in a manner that could serve to chill the very actions
that are necessary to keeping the school safe and orderly,” says Secreto.

 


NYPD
officials also believe that a portion of the Student Safety Act will authorize
the City Council to go beyond its oversight role, because it will mandate that
school safety agents with more than one complaint against them will be reported
to the council.

 


Gregory
Floyd, President of Teamsters Local 237, the union representing the school
safety agents, takes a much softer approach toward the bill than the NYPD.

 


“This
is valuable information for the public, and Local 237 supports this type of
statistical reporting,” he testifies to the City Council. His primary concern
is that the Act “unfairly singles out school safety agents as wrongdoers.” He
accuses the NYCLU of “urging” students to complain of harassment by
distributing leaflets at schools.

  

However,
the contents of the leaflet are just a matter-of-fact explanation to students
of their rights. For example, it tells students in trouble to ‘not run away
from a student safety agent’ and to ask for a lawyer if they are arrested.

 


This
summer, the NYCLU along with the Annenberg Institute for Social Reform and
Make the Road New York released a report on six schools in New York City that were exploring ways to
solve student discipline problems without schools safety agents and metal
detectors.

 


Students
in these schools were allowed to help frame school rules in order to help them
understand their function. The principals in these schools were also more
empowered to make decisions on discipline. NYCLU members claim the experiment
was successful. “We’re keen to see principals play a larger role than police personnel
in school safety,”
says
Oona
Chatterjee
of Make the Road New York, one of the
19 organizations that is a part of the Student Safety Coalition pushing for the
Act.

 


**Make the Road New York
member