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Op-Ed: Schoolhouse to Courthouse (New York Times)

By Donna Lieberman

Kenneth screwed up. The 11th grader made a crude joke about the police officers in his Bronx high school — and an officer overheard.

“What did you say?” the officer demanded. “Say it again and I’m going to punch you in the [expletive] mouth.”

“You can’t [expletive] touch me,” said Kenneth, who has Asperger syndrome.

And so it began …

The officer pulled out his nightstick, with one hand, grabbed Kenneth (whose name I’ve changed) by the throat with the other, and pushed him against the wall. Then he pinned the boy’s arms behind his back and pulled him, by the neck of his hoodie, down the fourth-floor hallway.

The officer, who said Kenneth pushed him, arrested Kenneth and drove him to the local precinct, where officers took his photo and his fingerprints, and detained him overnight in a locked cell.

Kenneth says he was not permitted to call his mother — or a lawyer — until much later in the day and it wasn’t until the next morning, when he was taken to court and charged with resisting arrest, that he was read his rights. On the advice of court-appointed counsel, Kenneth pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and emerged from the incident with an arrest record.

The story is disturbing, but not unusual.

Kenneth’s was one of 882 arrests in New York City public schools during the 2011-12 school year. (The police issued another 1,666 summonses for illegal conduct.) The incidents involved ranged from resisting arrest to possessing marijuana to drawing graffiti. Serious felony arrests were rare.

Public outcry over the arrest of 5-year-old Dennis Rivera in 2008 helped lead to a policy change: the New York City Police Department now primarily uses Velcro handcuffs on elementary school children. But the new, soft cuffs don’t address what my organization, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and others say is a high incidence of excessive police force, unlawful arrest and routine civil rights violations in New York City public schools.

In a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of all New York City public middle and high school students, the NYCLU has asked the court to make school discipline the responsibility of educators — not the police.

The New York City Police Department says a large police presence — and, in some institutions, metal detectors — is necessary to prevent violence in schools. The Police Department says the drop in school crime rates — which are lower now than they were 14 years ago — is a measure of their success in keeping schools safe. But crime rates in schools began to drop before school safety was turned over to the Police Department, in 1998.

And too often police involvement has the effect — as it arguably did in Kenneth’s case — of escalating minor disciplinary problems into criminal activity. Kenneth’s case, and many others like it, raises the question: do the police create more problems in city schools than they solve?

It’s a question of national, not just local, consequence. In 2009, according to the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 68 percent of American students reported the presence of security guards or police officers, or both, in their schools, as compared with 54 percent in 1999. Questions about excessive police force and possible rights violations have risen along with increased police presence in the country’s schools — so much so that Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois will hold hearings this week on how to end “the school-to-prison pipeline.”

In New York City, the Police Department has a special unit to protect students in public schools. With some 5,000 agents, the School Safety Division is larger than all but a handful of the country’s big-city police departments: there are nearly twice as many safety officers in city schools as guidance counselors and nearly four times as many safety officers as social workers.

Not surprisingly, black and Latino children are disproportionately affected by this police presence. More than 90 percent of arrests by police school safety personnel during the 2011-12 school year involved black and Latino students. Nearly one in five involved a child aged 12 to 14.

These demographics are generally consistent with national patterns. The United States Department of Education reports that more than 70 percent of students arrested at school during the 2009-10 school year were black or Latino.

Aggressive policing has traditionally been coupled with zero-tolerance discipline policies that authorize suspension for a variety of infractions. New York City’s Department of Education reports that more than 50 percent of the 69,643 students suspended during the 2011-12 school year were black — though blacks make up just 28 percent of enrollment. And special needs students, who constitute 12 percent of those enrolled in city schools, represented more than 30 percent of suspensions. (Commendably, the city has recently loosened its suspension policy.)

Largely unregulated, the police presence undermines the authority of school officials: New York City public school officials have essentially no authority over on-site police officers.

Students who enter the juvenile justice system are less likely to graduate than their peers and may be denied employment opportunities and services like public housing because of their criminal records. This spectacle — of children with squandered chances — ought to provide extra incentive to address school discipline problems.

Several schools have found ways to keep students safe without handcuffs or nightsticks. The Julia Richman Education Complex on Manhattan’s East Side is a good example. The school was so full of violence in the 1980s and ’90s (when the school had one of the lowest graduation rates in the city) that administrators maintained a lockup cage for students who were thought to be out of control. Then, in 1995, new school leaders removed the cage and significantly reduced the number of security officers in the school. The few guards who remained were made active collaborators with the school’s leaders, regularly convening to discuss ways to help troubled students. Today, the school has almost no violent crime, suspensions are rare, and it boasts a high graduation rate.

The school system in Clayton County, Georgia, had similar success when it imposed strict limits on police authority in 2004. Under the new rules, officers are prohibited from arresting students for most misdemeanor offenses at school unless the student has previously been charged with two misdemeanor violations. If a student chronically commits misdemeanors — consistently gets in schoolhouse fights, for example — the student is entitled to counseling, which is designed to address underlying problems such as trouble at home. Since these rules were implemented, juvenile court referrals and serious weapon charges have each decreased by roughly 70 percent, while the countywide graduation rate has jumped by 24 percent.

The success enjoyed at the Julia Richman Education Complex and in Clayton County suggests it is possible to keep students safe and to limit police involvement so as to avoid the issues — and damage — that often accompanies police officers in public schools. Officers assigned to schools must be comprehensively trained to work in educational environments and be fully accountable to school administrators. At the very least, we should create clear, Clayton County-type limits on police conduct in schools.

Students like Kenneth face many obstacles during their school years. The adults paid to protect them shouldn’t be one of these problems.

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

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