Testimony of Johanna Miller[1]

Senate Education Committee
Hearing on Mayoral Control of NYC Public Schools

Introduction

The NYCLU, the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, is a not-for-profit, non-partisan organization with nine offices across New York state and more than 210,000 members and supporters. The NYCLU’s mission is to defend and promote the fundamental principles, rights, and constitutional values embodied in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the State of New York.

In 2019, we launched the Education Policy Center to advance civil liberties in schools and other institutions that serve young people. We work to ensure that public schools live up to their promise as incubators of democratic ideals—equity, plurality, transparency, dignity, and accessibility.

In 2009, the NYCLU issued a report critiquing mayoral control in the Bloomberg years called The Price of Power. In that report we made eight recommendations for improving mayoral control to bring more transparency and accountability to the system. Sadly, many of our recommendations are still relevant 10 years later, even under the leadership of a mayor with a very different political point of view. This underscores the fact that transparency and accountability are not partisan issues, and that we must constantly be on guard to advance those values, no matter who comes to office.

Today, due to time constraints, I want to focus my remarks on two of our recommendations from 2009 that are as relevant today as they were when we wrote them. First, we hope that as the Senate considers renewal of mayoral control that you will consider the impact that the NYPD has had on our students, and the fact that neither Mayor Bloomberg nor Mayor de Blasio were able to reign in the harms of police in schools.

Second, we hope you will consider the importance of data transparency to a healthy school system, and will help us bring more sunshine to school data, in particular data about school safety and discipline.

  1. School Safety

As you probably know, New York City has more than 5,000 armed police in schools and fewer than 4,000 guidance counselors. The choice to bring police officers into hallways and classrooms shortened the distance between school and prison for many children. In New York City, it occurred simultaneously to an era of “zero tolerance” discipline, where children were suspended from school and kicked out of classrooms for minor misbehavior at record rates.

NYPD officers in DOE schools can perform duties that include metal detector screening of students, interrogations and searches, arrests and handcuffing, and even enforcement of routine school discipline, depending on the culture of the school where they are assigned. The City lacks transparent policies that make it clear which matters should be addressed by police (such as situations where there is an immediate risk of serious physical injury) and which should be addressed by educators.

This lack of clarity leads to demonstrable harm by disrupting the educational environment and introducing young people into the criminal justice system at ever-younger ages. In addition, NYPD officers who are not members of the school safety division make the majority of arrests in schools, often for allegations which have nothing to do with the school environment.

Also generally lacking is an effective mechanism for students, parents or educators to hold school safety officers accountable for their actions, as the CCRB will not exercise jurisdiction over school safety complaints. Parents and students filed 137 complaints against school safety officers last year (the bulk alleging inappropriate use of force) with the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau. We believe that with a more user-friendly forum available, such as the CCRB, those formal complaints would be higher.

At the same time, crime in schools is at its lowest level ever. Yet, we have not seen a reinvestment of school safety resources into programs that would build and maintain a healthy school climate. Teachers and principals lack adequate funding and support to create successful alternatives to suspension and arrest.

Programs like Restorative Practices and Social and Emotional Learning can improve school climate and hold students accountable while still promoting their success. But these programs are underfunded, and there are too few mental health and support professionals in the system. In 2017-18, almost 300 kids in emotional distress were handcuffed by police in NYC schools.

Racial disparities in suspensions and arrests persist, and even worsen, as the overall numbers go down. In the most recent school year, nearly 90% of students arrested in school were Black or Latinx. Of the children in crisis who were handcuffed by police, 92% were Black or Latinx. These numbers should be interpreted as a dire emergency.

A. Recommendation

As you consider renewing mayoral control, we hope you will also call on the mayor to reduce and regulate the role of police in schools. We are seeking a new Memorandum of Understanding between the NYPD and DOE that restricts the NYPD from making arrests or handcuffing children for violating school rules.

The City must update its 20-year-old MOU.  The document needs to delineate clearly the roles of school staff, SSOs, and NYPD precinct officers when responding to incidents in the school—both minor and more serious.[2] Educators should be responsible for enforcing all other matters including violations of school rules, as defined in the Citywide Standards of Discipline and Intervention, the Discipline Code.

Law enforcement intervention should always be the last resort, not the default. It should incorporate the specific recommendations presented in Appendix 7 of the Mayor’s Leadership Team on School Climate and Discipline’s “Maintaining Momentum” report, including the following:

First, the MOU should prohibit police intervention in instances of student misbehavior. Broken windows tactics have been discredited on the streets; there is no place for them in schools either. Where there is no immediate threat of serious physical injury, police should never get involved in disciplining students or maintaining classroom decorum. The DOE should adopt clear prohibitions on police intervening in issues such as dress code violations, tardiness and cutting class, insubordination, and non-serious fights.

Second, the MOU should eliminate the use of criminal summonses in school. A criminal court summons is an inappropriate response to school misconduct and enforcing these low-level crimes in schools does not make students safer. As with an arrest, a summons requires a young person to miss school in order to attend a court hearing; but, unlike an arrest, a summons can be issued for minor misbehavior such as talking back to a teacher, running in the hallway, or doodling on a desk.

The consequences, however, are not trivial. Criminal court summonses can result in large fines and fees and even an arrest warrant if the young person misses their court date.  In the 2017-18 school year, the NYPD issued 885 summonses to students.

Third, the MOU should prohibit the use of handcuffs on students unless there is a threat to physical safety.  Handcuffs, zip ties, and other restraints should never be used on children, on students with disabilities (especially by untrained officers), or as a means of punishment or convenience. In 2017-18, 89% of arrests in schools, and 8% of child in crisis incidents involved the use of handcuffs.

Fourth, the MOU should have provisions that ensure effective accountability and oversight procedures.  Too often, school police are inadequately supervised, trained, and supported by both the school district and the police department. Educators, students and parents must have an effective and accessible path to submit a complaint about the conduct of an officer in school, and must be able to trust that the officer will be held accountable. Officers with serious substantiated complaints against them, especially for use of force or harassment or discrimination against students, should not be permitted to work in schools.

Advocates have been calling for this policy change since the Bloomberg years, and given that both the NYPD and DOE are under the control of the Mayor, it should follow that they mayor can reform the governance of school safety.

Yet, unfortunately, the NYPD can still arrest kids at will, they can issue a criminal court summons to a teenager for talking back, they can handcuff children of almost any age in almost any circumstance, they can walk into a classroom and arrest a student for an allegation that has nothing to do with the school environment. These are completely inappropriate responses to child misbehavior, and the impact of this discretion on kids of color is disgraceful.

  1. Data Transparency

As a founding member of the Student Safety Coalition, the NYCLU partnered with students, parents, and advocates across the City to urge the Council to enact the Student Safety Act—a first-of-its-kind reporting law on student safety and discipline in schools. Senator Liu, at the time Councilmember Liu, was an early and important supporter of that law.

In the ensuing years, the Student Safety Act has given the public a view into schools’ inner workings, revealing a disciplinary system that continues to be deeply biased against Black and Latinx students and students with disabilities. But the public still struggles to access foundational information about the school safety apparatus in our city.

We don’t know, for example, how many school safety officers are assigned to each school, or which students are required to pass through a metal detector screening multiple times a day just to attend class. The City Council has enacted laws requiring the NYPD to report on both items, but to our knowledge, the NYPD has refused to comply.

We estimate that more than 100,000 schoolchildren attend schools with permanent metal detectors, and more than 90% of them are kids of color. We believe this information is being deliberately withheld because it would lay bare the racial injustice of the system.

Finally, the DOE claims it has no obligation to count or report on arrests of children in its custody. The DOE has gone so far as to report to the US DOE that there are zero arrests in NYC public schools when we know there are more than 1,000 each year.

Our education system, the largest in the country, turns a deliberate blind eye to the more than 1,000 arrests of children happening in its buildings each year; this “out of sight, out of mind” approach to the NYPD’s activities in schools is also the reason we don’t have adequate restrictions on police activities in schools. We believe that if the DOE were to accurately collect and report this information, it would lead to more deliberate and creative policy and practice solutions to keep kids out of police custody.

A. Recommendation

Again, given the mayor’s control over both the DPE and NYPD, it stands to reason that he could unravel the bureaucratic confusion that allows both agencies to avoid transparency on these issues. Each points to the other as the reason this information isn’t reported or, in some cases, even collected. We hope that as you consider the successes and shortcomings of our mayoral control system, you will think about the ways the mayor can and should facilitate interagency cooperation when it comes to data about the health and safety of kids.

The relationship between the DOE and NYPD is poorly defined. As a result, students in different schools experience a very different school safety approach—some face schools with metal detectors, surveillance, and a culture of control, while others experience a healthy school climate, adults who are engaged with each child’s wellbeing, and a culture of positivity. Unfortunately, due to a failure of transparency, we have a limited understanding of which schools, and which students, are most in need of interventions.

  1. Conclusion

We thank the Senate Education Committee for considering this testimony. Matters of school climate are fundamental to the notion of a quality, safe, and supportive education. With the mayor at the helm of schools, we should demand more action to improve each school’s climate, to reduce and regulate the role of police in schools, and to ensure that measures of student wellbeing are transparent and accessible. We hope you will consider these issues and call on the mayor to take decisive action to end the School to Prison Pipeline in New York City.




[1] Johanna Miller is the Director of the Education Policy Center at the NYCLU, and a member of Mayor de Blasio’s School Climate Leadership Team.

[2] See Maintaining the Momentum: A Plan for Safety and Fairness in Schools, The Mayor’s Leadership Team on School Climate and Discipline, July 2016, available at http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/sclt/downloads/pdf/SCLT_Report_7-21-16.pdf.

 

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