2 Weeks After Class Action Lawsuit Filed Over Police in NYC Schools, Another Child Arrested for Desk Doodling

February 5, 2010 —  The New York Civil Liberties Union today expressed outrage over the treatment of a 12-year-old girl who was handcuffed and hauled to the local police precinct where she was detained by the NYPD for hours for doodling her name on her desk in erasable marker. News of the arrest comes on the heels of a federal class action lawsuit the NYCLU filed challenging the NYPD’s practice of wrongfully arresting and using excessive force against children in New York City schools. Among the plaintiffs in that lawsuit is a girl who was also arrested and held for hours by police for writing on her desk when she was only 11.

“This should be a wake-up call to the mayor, the City Council and the Department of Education: There is a crisis in our schools because they put the police in charge of routine discipline that ought to be handled by educators,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU. “We all want safe schools, but that means that our children must be kept safe by those assigned to protect them. There is systemic misconduct by police personnel in the schools and our children are paying the price. We must overhaul the way New York City handles school discipline.”

Alexa Gonzalez, a 12-year-old with an impeccable school attendance record, was arrested and hauled out of Junior High School 190 in Forest Hills by police for writing on her desk in lime green erasable marker, according to reports in the Daily News. She was detained for hours in a local police precinct where she said she “started crying, like, a lot.” Her mother told the Daily News her daughter has been throwing up since the traumatic arrest.

Since the NYPD took control of public school safety in New York City in 1998, more than 5,000 School Safety Officers, NYPD employees assigned to the schools, and nearly 200 armed police officers have been assigned to the city’s public schools. This massive presence makes the NYPD’s School Safety Division the nation’s fifth largest police force – larger than the police forces in Washington D.C., Detroit, Boston, Baltimore, Dallas, Phoenix, San Francisco, San Diego or Las Vegas. The number of police personnel assigned to patrol New York City public schools has grown by 73 percent since the transfer of school safety to the NYPD, even though school crime was declining prior to the 1998 transfer and even though student enrollment is at its lowest point in more than a decade.

In August 2008, the City Council introduced the Student Safety Act (former Intro 816-A) with a majority of the City Council signed on as co-sponsors. The act would require quarterly reporting by the Department of Education (DOE) and NYPD to the City Council and the public on a wide range of school safety issues, including incidents involving the arrest, expulsion or suspension of students, and a breakdown of information by students’ race, sex and disability status. This information could be used to craft more effective student safety policies and procedures.

But since its introduction and despite many high profile examples of excessive policing in the schools, the bill has been allowed to languish without a vote.

“How unfortunate that a mayor who prides himself on making data driven decisions withholds information necessary for oversight,” Lieberman said. “Speaker Christine Quinn and the City Council must right this wrong and finally pass the Student Safety Act.”

SSOs wear NYPD uniforms and possess the authority to stop, frisk, question, search and arrest students. While NYPD police officers must complete a six-month training course before being deployed, SSOs receive only 14 weeks of training before being assigned to schools. School administrators have no supervisory authority over the SSOs who patrol their schools.

“Routine school discipline has been ripped from the hands of professional educators trained to work with children and handed over to police personnel trained to work in the streets,” Lieberman said. “When I was a kid, writing on the desk or being in the hallway during class used to get you sent to the principal’s office. Now our kids are thrown in a paddy wagon and taken to jail, with youth of color and youth with special needs bearing the brunt of these policies.”

From 2002 to June 2007, the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau received 2,670 complaints against members of NYPD’s School Safety Division – about 500 complaints annually – even though no effective or publicized mechanism exists for lodging complaints against school safety officers. Families that have lodged complaints against SSOs have reported that, in response, the NYPD simply transfers those SSOs to different public schools. Additionally, according to testimony by James Secreto, then head of the NYPD’s School Safety Division, the Civilian Complaint Review Board has received about 1,200 complaints a year about SSOs.