The Urban Youth Collaborative, students from across New York City, and the Student Safety Coalition today rallied on the steps of City Hall to protest the City Council's failure to address the problem of unchecked, excessive policing in the public schools.
Students called on the Council to schedule a hearing and pass the Student Safety Act (Intro. 816), legislation that would bring transparency and accountability to NYPD practices in the city's schools. They rallied just days after a lawsuit was filed on behalf of Stephen Cruz, a Queens 11th grader who was abused by a school safety agent and left bleeding and distraught in a high school restroom – an incident that demonstrates the deep flaws in the current NYPD-controlled school safety system.
The Student Safety Act would require quarterly reporting by the Department of Education and NYPD to the City Council on 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. It also would expand the jurisdiction of the Civilian Complaint Review Board to include complaints against school safety agents, NYPD employees who have not had the rigorous training required to work in a school environment, yet patrol the schools and have the power to frisk, search and arrest students.
Few students, parents and educators know of how to file a misconduct complaint against school safety agents. Yet even without a publicized mechanism for reporting abuse, Commissioner Ray Kelly has reported that the NYPD received more than 2,700 complaints from 2002-2007 about police misconduct in schools.
The Student Safety Act is sponsored by 26 council members. Though the bill was introduced three months ago into the Education and Public Safety Committees, and a majority of City Council members support it, no hearing date has been set and there has yet to be a vote on it. The Student Safety coalition called on Speaker Christine Quinn and Council Members Peter Vallone Jr. and Robert Jackson to schedule a hearing in early December on this important civil rights legislation.
Students, who contend everyday with the consequences of aggressive policing in their schools, say the situation is too urgent to allow further delay.
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“If we can file complaints to the CCRB about police officers in the street, why shouldn't we be able to do the same in schools?” said Shantel Peterkin, a student at Bronx Guild High School and a member of Youth on the Move. “School safety agents are trained and supervised by the NYPD. Their uniforms say NYPD, their cars say NYPD, everything about them says NYPD.”
Since school safety was transferred from the Department of Education to the NYPD in 1998, more than 5,000 school safety agents and at least 200 armed police officers have been assigned to the city's public schools. The excessive police presence coupled with the general prison-like environment – everyday, more than 93,000 New York City school children pass through a gauntlet of metal detectors, bag searches and pat downs – damages children's education. Minor disciplinary infractions often are treated like criminal behavior, which forces children from the classroom and into the criminal justice system. For example, police personnel routinely violate New York State law by arresting young children in public schools for minor violations that do not even rise to the level of misdemeanors or felonies.
“Even though school safety agents are in schools to keep students safe, the majority of their time is spent dealing with minor offenses like cell phones, iPods, being in the halls without a pass,” said Korrey Butler, a student at the Community School for Social Justice and a member of Sistas & Brothas United. “These are things that either a school administrator or teacher should address – not the police.”
Students are routinely mistreated by the poorly trained and supervised school safety agents.
Stephen Cruz suffered a lacerated forehead on Sept. 19 at Robert F. Kennedy High School in Flushing when School Safety Agent Daniel O'Connell, without provocation, kicked open a restroom stall that Stephen was using. The door violently struck Stephen's face, cutting him below his hairline. Agent O'Connell had no legitimate reason to kick open the stall, and the blow left Stephen dizzy, bleeding and with a swollen lump on his head. When he showed O'Connell his injury, the agent replied, “That's life, it will stop bleeding,” and walked away.
The incident illustrates the tension and lack of transparency and accountability that exists in the schools. The school's principal apparently indicated to the family that he had no authority to discipline O'Connell, who is an employee of the NYPD. The principal could not even investigate the incident beyond submitting an online report to the Department of Education. The principal scheduled a meeting at the precinct to discuss the incident, but the precinct's officer cancelled it with no explanation.
“This outrageous incident underscores the urgent need to reform the school safety system. The Student Safety Act is a good first step toward returning authority over school discipline to where it belongs – in the hands of professional educators,” said Udi Ofer, advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, a member of the Student Safety Coalition. “City Council members moved swiftly to extend their term limits, but they are dragging their heels on legislation to improve schools and protect children. They need to move forward with this common sense legislation.”
Other examples of recent school safety misconduct include:
- Last school year, school safety agents handcuffed Denis Rivera, a 5-year-old special education student, for throwing a temper tantrum in his kindergarten class.
- Mark Federman, a principal at East Side Community High School, was arrested for trying to prevent the police from humiliating his student.
- And last school year, 13-year-old Chelsea Fraser was handcuffed and arrested for scribbling “okay” on her desk.
The Student Safety Coalition is composed of the following organizations: Advocates for Children of New York, Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW 2325, Children's Defense Fund – New York, Class Size Matters, Correctional Association of New York, CUNY Graduate Center Participatory Action Research Collective, Make the Road New York, NAACP-Legal Defense and Education Fund, National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, National Lawyers Guild – New York City Chapter, NYCLU, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, Suspension Representation Project, Teachers Unite, and Urban Youth Collaborative.