The mayor, schools chancellor and police commissioner today held a press conference effectively celebrating overly aggressive NYPD tactics in New York City’s schools. This photo opportunity comes after years of resisting calls for transparency and just one week before legislation governing accountability over police in schools was to come before the City Council.
“School safety is everyone’s top priority,” said New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “Students deserve to learn in an environment that is nurturing and conducive to learning. Unfortunately, Mayor Bloomberg has continued a policy started under former Mayor Giuliani that relies on aggressive police tactics that interfere with learning and makes school a hostile place for students, particularly children of color who attend schools in low income neighborhoods.”
Since taking control of school safety in 1998, mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg assigned more than 5,000 school safety agents and at least 200 armed police officers to the city’s public schools. This massive presence would make the NYPD’s school safety division the fifth largest police force in the country – larger than Washington DC, Detroit, Boston or Las Vegas.
This last school year alone, 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 trying to prevent the police from humiliating his student. And last school year, 13-year-old Chelsea Fraser was arrested for writing the word “okay” on her desk.
These are not isolated incidents. These are just the few that have made headlines.
“Making schools feel like jails does not promote learning,” said Udi Ofer, NYCLU advocacy director. “When police personnel are not adequately trained and supported to work in schools, they too often end up treating minor disciplinary infractions as criminal violations. They become enforcers of cell phone prohibitions, dress codes and food bans. Being late to class or writing on your desk should never be a criminal act, but our kids are getting arrested for it.”
There are no effective mechanisms to learn about what is happening in our schools, and to hold police personnel accountable for misconduct. The public does not have access to information about who is getting arrested in our schools and for what. Few students, parents and educators know of how to file a complaint against police misconduct in our schools. Yet even without knowing of any process in place, Commissioner Ray Kelly has reported that the NYPD has received more than 2,700 complaints from 2002-2007 about police abuse in schools.
That’s why more than a dozen civil rights, education and legal advocacy organizations have formed the Student Safety Coalition and are working with City Council members to introduce the Student Safety Act next Thursday.
The Student Safety Act will require the NYPD and the Department of Education to report to the City Council basic information about its activity in the schools. It will allow students to file complaints against NYPD personnel to the Civilian Complaint Review Board. It will create more transparency and accountability in school safety.
“For years now, the NYCLU has requested records related to school safety and police practices in schools,” Lieberman said. “The City has repeatedly resisted those requests. City officials can bend statistics any way they want, but there is no substitute for genuine transparency. It is past time to pass the Student Safety Act.”
The Student Safety Act is supported by organizations such as Advocates for Children; 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; New York Civil Liberties Union; New York Lawyers for the Public Interest; Suspension Representation Project; Teachers Unite; and the Urban Youth Collaborative.