En Español Know Your Rights
Source: City Limits
Subject: Education Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Who’s Keeping Them Safe? School Oversight Advances

A move to increase accountability
among those charged with protecting students is gaining support.

With a new
school year underway, an effort to increase the accountability of public school
safety agents is gathering momentum among lawmakers – but hitting resistance
from the agents’ union as well as the city budget crunch that could mean a lack
of funding for implementation.

The
Student Safety Act, introduced into City Council last month by Councilman
Robert Jackson, chairman of the Education Committee, mandates quarterly
reporting of school crime and safety infractions to City Council. It also
requires that complaints about school safety agents and their actions be
directed to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), the independent agency
that evaluates complaints against police officers. The bill has 24 cosponsors,
as well as the endorsement of a 15-member coalition of community groups,
including Advocates for Children, the Correctional Association of New York, the
NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Make the Road New York.

Though the
bill was introduced Aug. 14 with a near-majority of Council sponsors, and few
would argue against the concept of increasing school safety and accountability,
neither the Department of Education (DOE) nor the NYPD has come out in favor of
the move – and some lawmakers often linked with education and safety issues
also are silent on the issue.

School
safety agents are employed by the police department but are meant to be under
the daily direction of principals and other leadership in the schools where
they are assigned. (Some school leaders have said agents do not obey them,
however: See New Questions About Policing Schools, City Limits Weekly #628,
Feb. 25, 2008.) Last year, 1,042 major crime incidents were reported in the
city’s schools, representing a drop from 1,166 reported incidents in 2006-07 –
but still, that means about five major incidents occur every school day of the
academic year. According to the Bloomberg administration, less crime correlates
with more safety agents: In 1998, there were 3,200 agents, but by the 2006-07
academic year, the count swelled above 4,600, along with 200 armed police
officers assigned to schools. Because the lines of reporting responsibility are
muddy, school safety agents can avoid accountability for their actions, no
matter how questionable (see Principals, Police and A Question of Authority,
City Limits Weekly #609, Oct. 15, 2007).

"The
Student Safety Act is a meaningful, confidential vehicle [that] will give the
public the information we need to assess the impact of school security policy
and the massive infusion of police presence in our schools," says Donna
Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which
months ago put forward a draft version of the Student Safety Act legislation.
"It will protect everyone in our schools – students and their parents, teachers
and school safety agents – by holding rogue school safety agents accountable.
Nobody benefits when abuse goes unpunished."

Some key
city officials may not agree, however. Melinda Katz and Peter Vallone, Jr.,
both of Queens, are the only members of both the Education and Public Safety
Committees – the committees to which the bill was referred, prior to hearings
later this fall – who have not signed on as cosponsors. Brooklyn Councilman
Bill de Blasio, long an outspoken education advocate (and a public-school
parent) declined comment through his chief of staff Freya Riel. Council Speaker
Christine Quinn declined comment as well, saying through representatives that
it was still too early in the legislative process to comment on the bill – the
same demurral given by DOE spokeswoman Margie Feinberg. Public Advocate Betsy
Gotbaum, who is often vocal about education issues, did not respond to an
interview request.  

Councilman
Peter Vallone, Jr., who chairs the Public Safety committee, says that the first
part of the bill duplicates Local Law 4, which he introduced and was enacted in
2005.

"I fought
for years to get DOE to give out information on crimes in schools," he said in
an interview. The mandated disclosure and regular reporting outlined in the
Student Safety Act "have already been covered, in my bill," which requires
annual school safety reports to the City Council. Vallone’s bill outlined
quarterly reporting – as does the Student Safety Act – which was "whittled down
in negotiations. It’s what happens to get any bill passed without a veto."

In fact,
the Student Safety Act requires more detailed reporting than Vallone’s prior
effort, including specifics on suspensions and non-criminal incidents, and data
on race, ethnicity and student disability.

Assigning
oversight to the CCRB is "an idea that is very worthy of discussion," said
Vallone. "But we can’t ignore the financial times we’re in right now." With
additional funding estimated at $1 to 2 million – less than 1 percent of the
current school safety budget, according to the NYCLU – "that is clearly not
going to happen." And if CCRB oversight was made into law without dedicated
funds, Vallone said, "oversight would be more lax than it is now."

"There’s
no indication that misconduct is not being investigated," Vallone maintained.
"I’m not in favor of giving responsibility to an agency without the resources.
I’m against unfunded mandates which would result in less investigation, but I
do believe the idea of the CCRB is worth discussing." Hearings on the bill this
fall should cover that and more.

The
agents’ union doesn’t share Vallone’s thinking on possible CCRB oversight, says
Teamsters Local 237 President Greg Floyd. "Our safety agents are not NYPD
officers. They don’t get the benefits, they don’t get the salary, they don’t
have the job protection that those officers have. They should not be subject to
the CCRB."

The city
recently negotiated a tentative agreement with Local 237 covering wage
increases and health and welfare funds. (Starting salaries for school safety
officers are more than a third below the base wage for NYPD officers; disabled
safety officers receive one-third pay, while NYPD officers on disability
collect three-quarters wages while disabled.)

"We were
ambushed by the NYCLU and Education Committee chair Robert Jackson with a
preposterous bill," Floyd said last week. Coming on the heels of Mayor
Bloomberg’s recent announcement of 10 percent less crime in the city’s schools,
Floyd said, "they said that our agents, who are 70 percent women, abuse
children."

Floyd
supports the reporting and disclosure elements of the bill, saying "We think
everyone needs to know what goes on in the schools. We will support the section
of the bill that supports transparency." But he is critical of CCRB oversight,
preferring instead the internal police department investigative unit dedicated
to school safety. "I think they are more than sufficient," said Floyd. "I don’t
think school safety agents get away with anything, and I have the legal bills
to prove it. You could make anything up, they will investigate it. They don’t
let things go in the police department. They are more stringent on our safety
agents than they are on their own; we’re not going to get away with anything."

Police
department oversight is both narrow and "opaque," charges the NYCLU’s
Lieberman. "The Police Department only talks about crime statistics, and they
are the only ones with access to the raw data. Their reporting strips out
information we need to make our own judgments."

"We need
to look at a lot more than data to see the impact on education," Lieberman
continued. "School safety becomes a flashpoint: How often is the criminally
justified response a counterproductive measure that undermines the individual
and the school community? The law enforcement response to things that call for
an educational response is incompatible with educational principles. We don’t
believe that police belong in the schools, in the ordinary course of events."

In 1998,
responsibility for school safety was shifted from the then-Board of Education to
the police department. Floyd says, "Everyone in the city wanted safety agents
in the police department because crime in the schools was out of control.
Everyone approved back then – the parents, the teachers, even the NYCLU."
(Lieberman and Advocacy Director Udi Ofer of NYCLU deny Floyd’s assertion as
implausible and "contrary to our view of what ought to happen in the schools.")

"Now here
we are, 10 years later, they say ‘the police are too harsh.’ Didn’t you think
they would be harsh back then? They’re police officers, not guidance
counselors," Floyd said.

On this
point, NYCLU’s Ofer concurs: "Street tactics are inappropriate for the schools.
Schools should be nurturing and hospitable. That’s not how police are trained."

Even
though the safety agents are peace officers, Floyd says, police strategies are
sometimes appropriate – although he adds, "some measures, they go to extremes,
and they should not."