NEW YORK - There are more than 5,200 police officers currently acting as safety agents in the New York City public school system, and half as many guidance counselors. Activists in the Student Safety Coalition, an umbrella organization that includes students, say this staffing imbalance contributes to the harsh discipline some students face. Those injustices compelled about 100 members of the Student Safety Coalition to gather Tuesday afternoon outside the Tweed Courthouse to rally behind a city bill. The Student Safety Act is designed to increase the transparency and accountability of the disciplinary practices of the NYPD and the New York City Department of Education.
"Sadly, right now, in schools across the city, heavy handed policing and trigger happy suspension practices create a hostile environment that doesn't protect our kids, doesn't make them any safer, doesn't make our schools any more secure, but does get in the way of education," said Donna Lieberman, New York Civil Liberties Union executive director, and a member of the coalition, at the rally. The NYCLU and other member organizations of the Student Safety Coalition, including the Urban Youth Collaborative, Desis Rising Up and Moving, and the NAACP say that the schools with the harshest disciplinary practices and the most student-police altercations are predominantly African American and Latino.
DOE issued the following statement about the bill: "We are working collaboratively with the City Council on this legislation. Our principals, working with the Department of Education and NYPD, are getting the job done – crime continues to go down in our schools. This year, we also made changes to the Discipline Code that put a renewed focus on intervention, conflict resolution and peer mediation to help ensure a safe and orderly learning environment for all our children, teachers and staff."
Angie Hernandez, a 15-year-old who goes to school in the West Bronx told the crowd that an NYPD agent at her school reacted hostilely to her when the bobby pins she was wearing in her hair set off a metal detector. She said those metal detectors now dictate her morning routine. "I wake up in a hurry to get to school before 8:00, because everyone knows after 8:00 the lines to go through metal detectors are ridiculous," she said. "I'm talking about single file, against the gate, around the corner lines."
Thirteen-year-old Alexa Gonzalez told the crowd an even more dramatic story. In February, she was arrested for doodling "Lexie was here" on her desk in her junior high school in Queens. She was taken away from school after being called into the dean's office, handcuffed, and brought to a police station, where she was handcuffed to a pole for two hours. At the rally, she said that the sight of police officers now causes flashbacks to the incident.
Heloise Rathbone, who retired from teaching at Grace Church School on 4th Ave. and 11th Street in Manhattan three years ago, said she thinks problems with students should be handled by officials in the schools, not in the police department. "If there are teachers who are having trouble managing their classrooms because some kid has gotten really upset, there should be an assistant principal or somebody who can work with them. But taking [the student] to jail is absurd," she insisted.
Praz Barua, 19, said he dropped out of A. Philip Randolph Campus High School in Harlem when he was seventeen because of the school's unfair disciplinary procedures. "My first couple of years there were all right, until I started getting suspended for minor things like latenesses, and also getting detentions for them," he said. "I couldn't stay after school for the detentions, so those detentions would add up to suspensions. Because of that I started falling back on my classes, and when I turned to my guidance counselor for guidance she told me I should drop out and get my GED."
If passed, the Student Safety Act would require the NYPD and the DOE to make public information on the kinds of infractions students are being suspended and arrested for, whether black and Latino students are disproportionately subject to suspensions and arrests, whether some schools are suspending and arresting more students than others for the same types of offenses, and how many and what types of complaints are being filed against NYPD safety agents.
Advocates for the bill say that requiring the NYPD and the DOE to regularly report this data would provide the information necessary to understand the impact of the current practices on students' success and graduation.
"It's time that those who run our schools to commit to doing the hard work it takes to create an environment in every single school that is conducive to learning, where students are treated with respect, where misbehavior is addressed forcefully but constructively, where conflicts are resolved peacefully, and where arrests and suspensions are the exception, not the rule," Lieberman said at the rally.