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Column: To Help Close the Achievement Gap, Address Stop-and-Frisk (New York Times School Book Blog)

By Udi Ofer

Eighteen-year-old Angel Ortiz feels lucky when a stop-and-frisk encounter doesn’t also lead to a wrongful arrest.

In February last year, when Angel was in the 10th grade, he was decidedly unlucky. After he left a friend’s home in Far Rockaway, Queens, two police officers stopped, handcuffed and arrested him for trespassing in the friend’s building, even though Angel had done nothing wrong.

Angel spent several hours in jail and missed school to appear in Queens Criminal Court. All charges against him were eventually dropped, but his anger over how the police treated him lingers.

Unfortunately, Angel’s experience is not unique. These sorts of encounters with the police have become rites of passage for many black and Latino young men who attend New York City public schools.

First you learn to read and write, you study math and science, and if you’re lucky, you get to go to gym class. But soon after, you also learn how to put your hands up against the wall to be frisked, walk through metal detectors to go to school, and to remain calm when police officers rifle through your backpack without your permission.

Stop-and-frisk has received lots of attention recently, with growing recognition that young people, and in particular young people of color who attend our public schools, bear a significant brunt of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk regime.

Anyone interested in increasing student achievement, and particularly in closing the achievement gap, should pay close attention to the impact of stop-and-frisk practices on the lives of black and Latino students, including on their view of authority and ability to succeed academically.

According to an analysis conducted by the New York Civil Liberties Union, 21 percent of all NYPD street stops last year — 145,652 — were of young people ages 8 to 18. Black and Latino youth comprise 89 percent of these stops, while white young people made up only 7 percent of the stops.

Sixty-one percent of all stops of young people resulted in a frisk, a humiliating experience where a police officer pats you down, often forcefully, in public — a step that a police officer can take only if he or she believes that the young person has a weapon that poses a threat to the officer’s safety. And the data make clear that the N.Y.P.D. gets it wrong the vast majority of the time: Only 1.4 percent of frisks of young people in 2011 recovered a weapon.

Force was used by the police on young people in 22 percent of the stops. Force can range from the pointing of a gun to an officer placing his or her hands on the young person. Force was disproportionately used against black or Latino youth (23 percent) compared to their white peers (15 percent).

Most shocking is that 90 percent of all stops of young people did not result in an arrest or a ticket — meaning that in 131,087 of the stops, the young person being stopped was innocent of any action that would constitute a crime or an infraction.

This experience on the street is only compounded by the experience that many young people face in school. The N.Y.P.D. arrested or ticketed more than 15 students each day in public schools during the first three months of 2012. More than 96 percent of the arrests were of black or Latino students. About 18 percent of the arrests were of students between the ages of 11 and 14. Disorderly conduct, a catchall category that could encompass all kinds of typical misbehavior, accounted for 71 percent of all summonses.

While we have plenty of data on the number of young people subjected to NYPD street stops, and on the number of young people stopped and frisked who engaged in no wrongdoing, the data do not capture how being wrongfully stopped and frisked affects the lives of young people. Yet the effects must be significant, and they surely make their way past the schoolhouse gate.

The Police Department’s stop-and-frisk program requires thousands of innocent young people of color to suffer repeatedly the indignities associated with routine police stops and searches on public sidewalks. These stops breed distrust, disaffection and anger, and these feelings subsequently must enter into the classroom, affecting not only the individual student but the entire school community.

The stop-and-frisk regime directly feeds the problems Mayor Michael Bloomberg seeks to counter with his Young Men’s Initiative, which I’ve written about in the past. The initiative has done a stellar job in identifying the problems that afflict young men of color: high arrest rates, and low graduation and employment rates.

The initiative recognizes that “[w]e must completely reform the pipeline that incarcerates young men of color.” Yet the initiative has failed to identify the policies coming out of City Hall that most promote the needless entanglement of black and Latino young men with the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

The current stop-and-frisk practices should be at the top of any list of ineffective and misguided policies.

Angel Ortiz couldn’t wait for others to speak up, so he took matters into his own hands and joined a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union, Bronx Defenders, and LatinoJustice PRLDEF to challenge stop-and-frisk practices in private apartment buildings.

The City Council has also introduced legislation to rein in stop-and-frisk abuses, including by protecting New Yorkers against racial profiling by the NYPD and creating an NYPD Inspector General’s Office. These reforms will not only lead to better policing, but will also help close the achievement gap.

Addendum: In April I criticized the Board of Regents for exempting charter schools from parts of an anti-bullying law known as the Dignity Act. I recommended that the board overturn its decision, and I’m happy to report that it did on May 21. All schools will now have to comply with this important civil rights protection.

Udi Ofer is the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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