En Español Know Your Rights
Source: The Epoch Times
Subject: Education Justice
Type: Media Coverage

New York School Safety Act Could Pass Monday

NEW YORK—Dozens of students from across the city made noise Thursday, Dec.16, on the steps of City Hall to ensure that the Student Safety Act (SSA), which has been in the works for three years, will pass Monday, Dec. 20, when City Council is expected to vote on the bill.

A few extreme cases have recently fueled the cause, including when 13-year-old Alexa Gonzalez was arrested in February just for writing on her desk. Another instance was in 2008, when 5-year-old Dennis Rivera threw a violent tantrum and was then handcuffed and taken to a psychiatric hospital.

The act would provide information regarding arrests, expulsions, and suspensions by NYPD school safety agents and increase transparency regarding the disciplinary actions taking place in the city’s public schools.

“SSA will make sure that the city provides a safe and secure learning environment for all school children by promoting transparency in the way that discipline is administered at schools and the way that schools are being policed,” said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Quinn lauded the students who worked to lobby for the legislation calling them very professional and focused.

Under the legislation, which was introduced by the chairman of the Educational Committee Robert Jackson, both the NYPD and Department of Education (DOE) will need to submit reports to the City Council regarding all disciplinary actions taken by school safety agents including suspensions, arrests, and summonses. The report will also include details about the students, including ethnicity, gender, grade level, age, and any special program the student may be in, including English language learning or special education programs.

According to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), the act would also allow complaints regarding misconduct of safety agents to fall within the Civilian Complaint Review Board, ensuring students and parents are able to contest a disciplinary action. They cite 2,670 complaints were made, between 2002 and 2007, against these safety agents despite the low numbers of students and parents who have knowledge of how to file a complaint against an agent.

NYCLU claims that the country’s reliance of “overpolicing and overly harsh disciplinary policies are criminalizing, rather than educating” children, claiming that oftentimes suspensions are used as a “quick fix” to disciplinary problems.

“In my community and other low-income communities of color throughout the city, students are often put on the jail track instead of the college track,” said Jaritza Geigel, youth leader for Make the Road New York.

Quinn thanked the NYPD and the DOE for coming to the table early and working to make the bill logistically enforceable. She said this is not a bill against the departments; rather it is a collaborative effort to ensure students are kept safe.

“The vast majority of them are doing important work keeping school children safe, but any system with this many human beings may have bad apples who do occasionally the wrong thing,” said Quinn.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly announced in May that, since 2002, crime in schools has decreased by 31 percent. Also in May, the NYPD introduced an Assault on School Safety Officers Program to combat assaults on school officers, who are the victims of over 30 percent of assaults in schools. According to the NYPD, there are 5,100 school safety agents in the city spread over 1,600 public schools overseeing 1.1 million students.

A hearing was held this Thursday afternoon with the Public Safety, Education and Juvenile Justice Committees. City Council will then proceed to vote on the bill this coming Monday.

In a July 2009 report published by NYCLU titled: “Safety with Dignity: Alternatives to the Over-Policing of Schools,” the authors assert that the zero tolerance policies adopted nationwide following the 1990s Columbine school shootings, have created a climate of fear.

According to a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics, at least 79 percent of public schools have adopted the zero tolerance policies, noting that the NYC Department of Education (DOE) has not adopted this across the board. For the schools in which it has been adopted, the policy emphasizes punitive measures including suspensions and expulsions for violations such as writing on desks and tardiness. The report cites that many of these practices have had a demoralizing effect on students.

The NYCLU report states that the task of securing safety in the schools was transferred to the NYPD by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1998, on the condition that students would not be arrested by these officers.

The number of safety officers in schools has since increased by 62 percent.

“We will finally find out what is happening inside our schools when it comes to school safety practices and begin shedding light on unproductive impacts of zero tolerance policies and aversive policing in our schools,” said 17-year-old Nazifa Mahbub.

Mahbub said that the next round of advocacy would focus on looking toward Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS) programs to “achieve dignity and respect in our schools.”

The Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) system was established by the U.S. Department of Education under the Office of Special Education Programs. PBIS emphasizes less reactive and aversive measures and encourages preventative behavior focused on engagement and addressing issues such as tardiness and attendance.

Donna Lieberman, executive director for New York Civil Liberties Union said that the act will not change the punitive oriented policies that for example lead to 13-year-old Alexa Gonzalez being arrested for writing on her desk, but will shed light on the impact of “heavy-handed” policing and provide the tools for change.

“[The reports] will tell us why they’re getting in trouble,” said Lieberman. “Is it for cell phones or guns?”