The NYCLU today adopted new policy on scanners and policing in New York schools. The policy will stay in place until February 2007 or until the Board meets again to analyze the issues in full.

Background

The increased use of metal detectors in schools has a profound impact on the education and privacy rights of children.

When we talk about scanners, typically, we refer to all or part of the array of equipment used at airports:

  • machines backpacks and other packages pass through,
  • arches through which students are required to walk;
  • hand held wands that are passed near the person's body to detect the presence of metal objects.

In schools that have been designated "high crime" or "impact" schools in New York City, all students must pass through a scanner in order to enter the building. Parents and other visitors may also be required to pass through the scanner. Impact schools include some of the largest and most notoriously dysfunctional high schools. They also include smaller, alternative schools that are housed within school buildings that previously housed the large high schools.

The Mayor of NYC has launched a new plan that subjects all NYC junior high and high school students to a scan in order to enter the school building. Roving scanning units are deployed each school day at different high schools or junior high schools. Though schools are now required to post a warning that students can be scanned at any given time, the appearance of the roving scanners is designed to take students by surprise. The articulated rationale is that the threat of a scan on any given day will deter students from bringing weapons to school every day.

The primary purpose of the new program is purportedly to keep weapons out of the schools. A collateral result is that the scanners pick up cell phones and ipods, which are confiscated and, we believe, typically returned to students at the end of the day.

Some Civil liberties comments/interim policy on the use of scanners and police in schools:

Students have a right to go to school in a safe educational environment where they are protected from violence and from intrusions into their bodily space and belongings.

The introduction into the schools of scanners administered by police officers implicates student safety, privacy and education. A full assessment of whether it is appropriate to use scanners administered by law enforcement officials in the schools requires balancing the harms the benefits.

The introduction into the schools of scanners administered by police officers raises a number of concerns. It:

  • creates a flashpoint for student interaction with the police as a regular part of the school day;
  • creates an increased likelihood that students who are not engaged in criminal activity will be subjected to a full blown search by the police in order to go to school, even when they've done nothing illegal;
  • reinforces the problem of police enforcing not only the ban on weapons, but enforcing school disciplinary policies that do not implicate student safety or health, like the ban on cellphones, iPods, hats and cursing;
  • reinforces the lack of clarity regarding who runs the schools and increases the likelihood that police will ignore and disrespect the authority of school officials to enforce school rules;
  • subjects students in school to the authority of police officers who are not trained in educational or child development or the special needs and strategies for dealing with students in an educational environments;
  • creates a prison-like atmosphere that relies on criminal justice approaches rather than educational methods and increases the likelihood that students will feel like they are under suspicion just for attending school;
  • causes delays in getting into school and results in lost class time, missed tests, etc.

A byproduct of the scanning program is that we are creating a generation of young people who are growing up with a diminished expectation of privacy. At many schools where scanning is the order of the day, students become accustomed to taking off their belts and shoes, and putting their backpacks through a machine as soon as they walk through the schoolhouse door. This is not a healthy state of affairs for a society that is predicated on the notion that the government cannot rifle through our personal belongings without suspicion that we've done something illegal.
Because a requirement that students submit to scanners in order to go to school is an invasion of student privacy,

  • Scanners should not be introduced into schools without a review of alternative safety mechanisms, and a fact based determination that less intrusive mechanisms are unavailable to ensure student safety in the face of a credible danger.
  • Scanners should not be utilized as a long term or permanent fixture in any school. Whenever introduced, the need, efficacy and alternatives should be reviewed regularly.

When police are assigned to administer scanners in schools,

  • there must be a meaningful, confidential process for filing complaints, adjudicating them expeditiously and protecting students from retaliation. Student and parents must be notified of the process.
  • there should be an independent evaluation of the impact of police and the use of metal detectors in schools, including the impact on dropout rates, lost class time, etc.

NYC's surprise scanning program puts every junior high and high school student at risk of being scanned and having to interact with the police in order to attend school on any given day. Students should not be treated as suspects for simply going to a public school.

Cell phones ban in NYC public schools

The NYC DOE has the right to prohibit students from using cellphones in school. The current policy, which creates a near blanket ban on bringing cellphones to school and enforces it through the use of metal detectors and police fails to accommodate the legitimate purpose for which families might want children to carry cell phones, undermines the authority of educators to enforce school discipline, and contributes to a prison-like atmosphere in schools that undermines education. Consequently students are compelled to interact with the police in the schools and are subject to discipline by police officers for engaging in behavior that does not disrupt class or education.

The NYC DOE should adopt a policy that reflects the widespread use and reliance on cellphones for valid and important purposes and allows schools to protect against their use to interfere with education.