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Teens Challenge Police in Schools
Dan Costume

My high school has a bad reputation concerning safety. Because of this, I feel better having school safety agents and metal detectors around. All the same, I keep asking myself: “Shouldn’t our school safety agents be more educated and respect our rights?”

One time I brought an iPod to school. I knew we’re not allowed to bring electronics into the school, so I planned on hiding it somewhere around the outside of the building. Before I could, the school safety agent (SSA) caught me and forced me to hand my iPod over. He gave it to our principal without even mentioning that I wasn’t trying to get in with it. The incident went on my record, even though I wasn’t breaking any rules.

Apparently I’m not alone in objecting to some of what school safety agents do: Earlier this year, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), a nonprofit organization that defends New Yorkers’ constitutional rights, filed a lawsuit against Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York Police Department charging that school safety officers frequently violate students’ rights. It’s a “class action” lawsuit, meaning it’s been filed by a group of people affected by school policing, and it’s been filed on behalf of all New York City public school students.

I always thought the law was on the side of the SSAs. But after talking to Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, I’m glad to know that maybe the law is on my side. Below is NYC’s interview with Lieberman:

NYC: When did our schools start being policed by SSAs (unarmed peace officers employed by the NYPD)?

Donna Lieberman: The Department of Education gave the police department authority over school safety in 1998 and it happened in an interesting way. Crime statistics for the schools are reported annually and were delayed that year. Meanwhile, the Board of Education (which no longer exists) was told by the police department that there was a serious problem with crime in the schools. So the board voted to transfer the authority for enforcing school safety to the police department. However, when the school safety stats were released after the board had its vote, it turned out that school crime was down.

The police department takes credit for declines in school crime since then, yet there was a decline already happening.

NYC: What power do school safety agents have over students?

image by Daniela Castillo

Lieberman: Unfortunately, there is no clear statement of the responsibilities of school safety agents. School safety agents are answerable only to the police department. We believe they ought to be answerable to the principal, and that they ought to be prohibited from interfering with students except when there is an immediate danger to a student’s or teacher’s life or health.

NYC: What are school safety agents doing that you believe violates students’ rights?

Lieberman: Not everything they do is unconstitutional, but when school safety officers subject kids to searches of their backpacks or pat downs when there’s no suspicion of wrongdoing, we believe that’s a violation of their rights. When school safety officers handcuff kids for misbehaving but not in a way that breaks any law, it’s a violation of their rights. When they beat kids up and threaten them, it’s a violation of the kids’ rights.

NYC: Why does the NYCLU say that the schools are being “over-policed”?

Lieberman: Just to put this in perspective, there are 5,200 school safety agents, and that doesn’t include a couple hundred uniformed police, in the schools. If those 5,200 were their own police force, they would be the 5th largest police department in the entire country—larger than the police departments in Baltimore, Detroit, Newark, New Haven, or Boston. It’s a pretty astounding number. There are only about 3,000 guidance counselors. So if you need a cop, you can find a cop—or a cop will find you. But you need a guidance counselor? Fuggedabout it!

NYC: What do teachers and principals think of SSAs?

Lieberman: Many teachers and principals are very unhappy that the police are intruding, because it undermines the educational atmosphere. But there are some teachers and principals who love not to have to worry about discipline, who call in the cops at the drop of a hat.

One incident we know about involved a junior high student who was absent from school one day and when she came back, she heard that the principal was concerned about graffiti and kids having written on desks. She admitted that she’d written on her desk—and the principal called the cops! So, the principal should have her head examined for calling the cops in this situation, and the cops should have their heads examined for responding when a kid writes the word “OK” on a desk.

image by Froylan Garcia

But sometimes the SSAs intrude when the teacher doesn’t want them to. Another girl was on her way back from the bathroom, where she had been sent to get paper towels to clean off something she wrote on her desk in erasable marker. She was talking to her co-conspirator about it when an SSA overheard her and said, “Come with me.” So, acting in direct contradiction to what the teacher had said—“You write on the desk, you clean it up”—they took the kids to the precinct, where the girl said the cops threatened to throw them in jail with murderers and rapists.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are cases that we’ve been involved in where the teachers and principals have been arrested when they tried to protect their kids from the police.

NYC: What do you hope to gain from the lawsuit against the NYPD?

Lieberman: We want a change in policy. We believe that, as a routine matter, police don’t belong in the schools. Now there are exceptions, but they cannot be allowed to transform the school atmosphere into a prison atmosphere. That really fuels this phenomenon we call “the school to prison pipeline.”

NYC: Tell us more about what you mean when you say there’s a “school to prison pipeline.”

Lieberman: Schools are treating students’ disciplinary infractions as major offenses and arresting them. Studies show that once a kid has been arrested, the likelihood of that kid not graduating and the likelihood of that kid being arrested again goes up. The same is true of suspensions. Once a kid is suspended once, the likelihood of being suspended again, of not graduating, and of ending up in jail are significantly higher.

High-stakes testing is another part of it that’s not so obvious. Tests are useful in helping teachers diagnose problems and in helping kids see their strengths and weaknesses, but we all know there are lots of smart people who don’t test well. Requiring high stakes tests like the Regents is essentially encouraging schools, which are graded on what percentage of their kids graduate, to push out kids who they don’t think will pass the Regents.

Anything that helps kids fail in school, or encourages them to drop out, helps kids get into prison.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Asked for comment on the NYCLU’s lawsuit, NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne said in an e-mail that many SSAs are mothers with children of their own in the city’s public schools. SSAs “help keep schools safe and help reduce violence and serious crime in the schools,” he wrote. “Regrettably crime still happens…But it happens far less frequently than in did in the past because of the good work of school safety officers.”

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