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Column: NYCLU to City: Let Educators Handle School Discpline (New York Times School Book Blog)

By Udi Ofer

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s Young Men’s Initiative, which was announced in August, identifies problems afflicting too many young men of color: high suspension and arrest rates, and low graduation and employment rates. But the mayor’s proposed reforms ignore the fact that many of the challenges City Hall seeks to address are exacerbated — if not caused — by some of his own administration’s policing and education policies.

All too often in New York City schools, black and Latino children from low-income families are stopped, searched, ticketed, handcuffed or arrested for minor misbehavior that should be handled by educators, not the New York City Police Department. (This is in addition to the hundreds of thousands of stop-and-frisks that take place each year on city streets, which are aimed disproportionately at black and Latino New Yorkers, many of whom are school-aged.)

These incidents reflect the Bloomberg administration’s decision to rely heavily on police personnel, not only to maintain safety but also to enforce school discipline.

Under Mayor Bloomberg, the police force in the schools has increased by 35 percent to more than 5,240 people, representing the fifth-largest police force in the nation. (City schools employ approximately 3,000 guidance counselors.)

This happened with little regulation — for example, there are no rules defining when the police should intervene in a disciplinary matter that may also be a minor violation of the law, such as disorderly conduct, and without adequately training police personnel. (School safety officers receive 14 weeks of training, compared with six months for police officers.)

As a result, incidents of children being wrongfully arrested and mistreated by police personnel in the city’s schools are disturbingly common.

For example, take what happened to 16-year-old L.W., one of the plaintiffs in the New York Civil Liberty Union‘s class-action lawsuit against the New York Police Department for its practices in schools.

As the suit says, on Oct. 28, 2008, L.W. was physically beaten and unlawfully arrested by school safety officers at Hillcrest High School. During gym class, L.W. passed a cellphone to another classmate. (Possession of a cellphone is a violation of school rules and not a crime.)

In response, L.W. was summoned to the dean’s office, where three school safety officers informed him that he had to be searched.

L.W. said that he did not have a cellphone, and school safety officers responded by pushing L.W. into a storage room, throwing him to the ground and punching him more than five times. L.W.’s face was swollen and bleeding as a result. He was handcuffed and charged with disorderly conduct. Those charges were dismissed.

In another example, on April 13, school safety officers handcuffed 7-year-old Joseph Anderson, a black student from Queens, after he threw a tantrum during Easter egg decorating. He was taken in handcuffs to a hospital for mental evaluation without his family’s permission.

Unchecked policing in schools also harms young women of color. On Feb. 1, 2010, school safety officers arrested 12-year-old Alexa Gonzalez in front of her classmates and teachers for doodling on her desk with an erasable marker, “I love my friends Abby and Faith. Lex was here. 2/1/10.”

Policing in the schools isn’t the only problem. The number of suspensions has skyrocketed under Mayor Bloomberg. According to a 2011 NYCLU and Student Safety Coalition report, in the 2002-3 school year students served 31,879 suspensions. By the 2008-9 school year, students served 73,943 suspensions, an increase of 132 percent.

Black children bear the brunt of this phenomenon. While they represented 33 percent of the student population during the decade analyzed in the NYCLU report, black children represented 53 percent of all suspensions and 58 percent of long-term suspensions.

Moreover, black students represented 55 percent of all suspensions for subjective offenses, such as engaging in disruptive or disrespectful behavior.

Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott can replace these destructive policies with evidence-based solutions that would improve safety without additional spending. Here’s how:

First, police personnel should not enforce school discipline. They should only respond to incidents that involve serious criminal offenses. Children should not be arrested for disorderly conduct, writing on a desk and other minor infractions, even if technically illegal.

Second, the city’s school discipline code must be revamped to lay the foundation for creating a positive climate in our schools. Before suspending a child, schools should be required to employ proven alternative interventions, such as counseling, parent-teacher conferences, conflict resolution or peer mediation.

These alternatives can be funded with money saved from decreasing suspensions and arrests. The number of suspendable infractions, which have increased dramatically under Mr. Bloomberg, must also be reduced significantly.

Finally, professional educators, not police, must have final authority over school discipline and safety.

We all want safe classrooms, but crime was declining in schools before the Police Department intervened, and we can make our schools safer without resorting to over-policing and suspensions.

If Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Walcott are serious about reducing the arrest and suspension rates of young men of color, and we believe that they are, then they should abandon policies that needlessly push children from schools and adopt these common-sense approaches.

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

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