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Lawsuit, Internal Affairs Complaint Filed in Response to Abusive School Safety Agent

The New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a complaint with the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau on behalf of a Queens 11th grader who was abused by a school safety agent and left bleeding and distraught in a high school restroom. On Wednesday, a lawsuit was filed by the student’s attorney, Jeffrey A. Rothman in Federal Court for excessive and unnecessary force and related claims in violation of the student’s civil rights.

The New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a complaint with the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau on behalf of a Queens 11th grader who was abused by a school safety agent and left bleeding and distraught in a high school restroom. On Wednesday, a lawsuit was filed by the student’s attorney, Jeffrey A. Rothman in Federal Court for excessive and unnecessary force and related claims in violation of the student’s civil rights.

High school student Stephen Cruz

As alleged in the lawsuit, the student, 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. Another child who witnessed the incident helped Stephen, a member of the school’s baseball and bowling teams who has attended RFK since he was in fifth grade, clean his wound and escorted him to the principal’s office.

The incident illustrates the tension and lack of transparency and accountability that has existed in schools since school safety was transferred from the Department of Education to the NYPD in 1998. 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.

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O’Connell, who students call “Robocop” due to his overly aggressive nature, is still employed by the NYPD and was recently transferred to duty at a nearby middle school.

“It is appalling that the system is so broken that the only way for a parent to stand up for his son and to prevent the same thing from happening to other children is to file a lawsuit and Internal Affairs complaint,” said Jeffrey A. Rothman, the family’s attorney. “We shouldn’t need attorneys to hold this man accountable for his shocking misconduct.”

School safety agents are NYPD peace officers who patrol the schools and have the power to frisk, search and arrest students. Despite their daily close contact with students, they do not receive the rigorous training and adequate supervision necessary to work with children in an educational environment.

There are currently more than 5,000 school safety agents and at least 200 armed police officers in the city’s public schools. This makes the NYPD’s school safety division larger than all but four of the nation’s police forces – larger than Washington DC, Detroit, Boston or Las Vegas. That massive, unchecked presence creates a hostile atmosphere that makes it difficult to learn and often leads to the mistreatment of students and educators.

The lawsuit, filed by Rothman, claims that O’Connell’s reckless conduct violated Stephen’s constitutional rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments. It names NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly, School Chancellor Joel Klein and the supervisory officer at the 107th Precinct as codefendants for their roles in covering up the incident and for their failure to properly train, screen, discipline or supervise school safety agents. Additionally, the lawsuit names the City of New York as codefendant, citing policies and practices of the NYPD and DOE that contributed to the incident.

The Internal Affairs complaint identifies several potential violations of law and of DOE and NYPD regulations raised by the allegations contained in the lawsuit. Thus, as alleged, if O’Connell kicked open the bathroom stall door without reasonable suspicion that a crime was being committed, such conduct violated Stephen’s privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment and the Chancellor’s Regulation. If, as alleged, O’Connell refused to help Stephen seek medical attention for the injuries he caused, the agent violated Chancellor’s Regulation A-412 that requires school safety agents to immediately notify the principal upon witnessing a medical emergency at school. He also violated NYPD Patrol Guide section 216-01, which sets procedure for assisting injured persons.

“This outrageous incident underscores the glaring need to bring transparency and accountability to the NYPD’s presence in our city’s public schools. The school principal’s inability to address this matter highlights the inherent flaws in giving the NYPD, not educators, control over school safety,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director. “Agent O’Connell’s reckless, immature, inexplicable behavior is more characteristic of a school bully than a law enforcement professional assigned to protect students. He should immediately be removed from working in schools pending an Internal Affairs investigation and disciplined for his behavior.”

Stephen’s case is not unique. 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 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. These are just the cases that made headlines.

In August, the NYCLU and its partners in the Student Safety Coalition joined Councilman Robert Jackson in introducing the Student Safety Act in the City Council. Drafted by the Student Safety Coalition, the Student Safety Act would bring transparency and accountability to the massive police presence in the city’s public schools.

Currently, 26 council members – a majority of the New York City Council – have endorsed the Student Safety Act as cosponsors. The City Council is yet to schedule a hearing on this important civil rights bill.

“What happened to Stephen is a disturbing reminder of the deep flaws in our current school safety model,” said Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito, a co-sponsor of the Act. “The Student Safety Act is a common-sense solution that would bring transparency and accountability to police practices in our schools. Ensuring students’ safety is not a controversial matter. We all want safe schools, and this bill helps us meet that goal.”

The legislation would expand the jurisdiction of the Civilian Complaint Review Board to include complaints against school safety agents. It also would require quarterly reporting by the DOE 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.

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.

“Passing the Student Safety Act would be a good first step toward ensuring that the city’s schools are safe, nurturing learning environments,” said Udi Ofer, NYCLU advocacy director.

Hundreds of students, the Urban Youth Collaborative, and the Student Safety Coalition will rally at City Hall this Sunday, Nov. 23 to protest the City Council’s failure to address the problem of excessive policing in the public schools. Students will call on the City Council to schedule an immediate hearing on the Student Safety Act, Intro. 816.

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