As more than 100 public high school students rallied on the steps of the Department of Education headquarters recently to protest the "criminalizing" atmosphere of their schools, another group of city students prepared to have its recommendations for achieving a more peaceful school atmosphere implemented this fall.
The more activist Urban Youth Collaborative (UYC) (Make the Road by Walking’s Youth Power Project is a founding member of the UYC) and more research-oriented Youth Justice Board (YJB) use different approaches, but share the view that the security atmosphere in the city’s public schools is too harsh — and the desire to have more input in shaping a different climate as the next school year is set to begin.
"We’re students, not felons. We need books, not prisons," UYC members chanted as they packed the DOE steps on a warm Wednesday afternoon in late July, causing traffic to slow on Chambers Street. Holding signs that read, "We want cops out of our schools," and "Stop silencing students now," the students were there to protest metal detectors and the police presence in schools. The students presented a report card giving the DOE failing marks when it came to providing a safe learning environment and listening to student voices.
Meanwhile, the YJB is in the process of implementing Student Safety Advisories at five high schools around the city. The Advisories will be composed of students who identify safety problems within their school by talking to students, collaborating with school safety administrators and safety agents, and informing the student body about existing safety procedures.
In time for school’s start next month, Paul Robeson High School in Brooklyn and Washington Irving High School in Manhattan will have Advisories in place, YJB Project Coordinator Dory Hack said. Midwood High School in Brooklyn, Adlai E. Stevenson High School in the Bronx and Bayard Rustin Educational Complex in Manhattan all are in the process of creating their Student Safety Advisories, Hack said. None of the principals at the affected schools responded to requests for comment on the new programs.
Between them, UYC and YJB have described a number of problems with current safety practices in public high schools. They include the failure to address minor incidents that can lead to major conflicts, a frustrating suspension process, overcrowding, tensions between school safety officers and students, and the lack of student involvement in policy decisions regarding safety.
"There are so many policies about student life and teenagers, and we don’t get to say anything about it," said Elizabeth Canela, a YJB member and recent graduate of Midwood High School. "We should be the ones to OK the policies," said Leidi Chavez, an 11th grader from Franklin K. Lane High School in Brooklyn and a member of UYC.
The goal of YJB is to "create a cadre of young people that could research and understand issues and make credible and informed decisions," Hack said. The Youth Justice Board is a project run by the Center for Court Innovation, the research and development arm of the New York State Unified Court System. Each year, 15 to 20 students are chosen to research and develop policy recommendations for a public safety and juvenile justice issue. This year, students tackled the issue of school safety and presented their report in June.
"The YJB recommendations are feasible and realistic," Hack said. She pointed to the Student Safety Advisories as an example of an idea that has become reality. The Student Safety Advisory is an initiative that "really addresses the issue of students having an investment in how the schools are run in regards to safety," she said. Among the other recommendations of the YJB are hiring conflict advisors to mediate conflicts and train staff to respond effectively to conflicts, and suspension counselors to help suspended students by informing them of their rights and easing the transition back into school.
The UYC considers itself more of an activist group that campaigns for reforms in public high schools, rather than a research and recommendation group, said UYC staff member Amy Cohen. Two years ago, the NYU Community Involvement Program in collaboration with other organizations helped spearhead this youth movement, which has become critical of the school safety practices of public high schools.
UYC takes a stronger stance against metal detectors and police officers in schools than does YJB, Cohen said. Police officers are "not taught to deal with students. They are taught to deal with criminals," said Jeffany Elington, a UYC member and rising senior at Independence High School in Manhattan. UYC also calls for removing armed police officers from schools, granting principals the authority to remove school safety agents and intervene in arrests, and reducing the student to guidance counselor ratio.
The UYC protest was a response to failed attempts to get the DOE to adopt some of their proposed reforms. "They kept saying no to the proposals we were making to them," said Chavez. If UYC does not get a response from the DOE, "We will be back here doing the same thing," said Chavez.
NYPD Asst. Chief Gerald Nelson, the commanding officer of the School Safety Division, and Rose Albanese-DePinto, senior counselor of the DOE’s Office of School Intervention and Development, both declined comment for this article.