Column: Unchecked Policing at Our Schools (New York Metro)

September 10, 2008 —  By Donna Lieberman — New York City students returned to their classrooms this month, and once again, more than 93,000 of them had to pass through a gauntlet of metal detectors, pat downs and bag searches to get there.

Hallways are again patrolled by thousands of school safety agents who are trained to bring police tactics to school discipline and are not instructed to follow principals’ leadership.

Predictably, the media soon will report incidents of students arrested for minor disciplinary infractions or another principal arrested for trying to protect a student from abuse by those assigned to protect them.

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has sometimes expressed “regret” after heavy-handed police tactics were splashed on the front pages, yet he has done nothing to remedy the excessive aggressive policing that disrupts learning. He seems untroubled by a system that turns being late to class into a crime.

Since school safety was transferred to the NYPD in 1998, more than 5,000 school safety agents and 200 armed police officers have been assigned to the schools – making the NYPD’s school division larger than all but four of the nation’s police forces.

School safety agents can frisk, search and arrest students and teachers. Yet they are not subject to the same oversight as police officers and are not specifically trained to work in schools.

Agents are caught in a broken system because they do not receive proper guidance on what their role should be: Do they enforce school discipline or criminal laws? And how can principals exercise leadership and enforce school rules when safety agents are instructed to ignore them?

The chancellor touts statistics showing a drop in major felonies in school as proof that unchecked policing is good for education regardless of how many children are needlessly arrested or mistreated. One wonders about the data the DOE withholds:

How many students have been arrested – instead of disciplined by a teacher – for cursing or writing on a desk?

How many teachers and principals have been ignored by police personnel in disciplinary matters?

How many hours of class time have been lost to metal detector lines?

And do children of color, who compose more than 80 percent of students in schools with permanent metal detectors, face more punitive measures than other students?

The City Council needs to find the answers. The Student Safety Act, introduced by Councilman Robert Jackson and 25 co-sponsors, is a common-sense measure and an important first step that will bring greater transparency and accountability to police practices in our schools. The council should pass it quickly.

Chancellor Klein should embrace accountability and transparency, and endorse the Student Safety Act. New York’s children deserve schools where they can learn, not live in fear of an unchecked police presence.

Donna Lieberman is the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.