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Students, Parents, Educators & Advocates Present a New Vision for School Safety in NYC Public Schools

The Student Safety Coalition, a diverse group of educators, parents, students, advocates and legal experts, today called on New York City’s next mayor to implement reforms to end overly aggressive policing in the city schools and restore authority over school discipline to professional educators.

The Student Safety Coalition, a diverse group of educators, parents, students, advocates and legal experts, today called on New York City’s next mayor to implement reforms to end overly aggressive policing in the city schools and restore authority over school discipline to professional educators.

The coalition presented “A New Vision for School Safety” – a set of nine guiding principles for overhauling the flawed Memorandum of Understanding between the New York City Department of Education and the NYPD that governs school safety operations. Implementation of these principles would clarify that educators, not police personnel, should address the vast majority of student misbehavior.

“The massive and largely unregulated police presence in New York City’s public schools undermines the ability of school officials to provide students the safe, nurturing educational environment they deserve,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Much too often, we’ve seen police personnel intervene in disciplinary matters, resulting in students being roughed up, handcuffed, and even taken to jail. We urge the next mayor to restore authority over school safety and discipline where it belongs – in the hands of educators, not the NYPD.”

“A New Vision for School Safety” is the Student Safety Coalition’s latest initiative aimed at ending the school-to-prison pipeline – a nationwide system of local, state, and federal education and public safety policies that pushes students out of school and into the criminal justice system. The over-policing of New York City schools, paired with zero tolerance discipline policies in schools, contributes heavily to the school-to-prison pipeline. These policies disproportionately target youth of color and youth with disabilities.

Extensive research shows that such zero tolerance disciplinary policies fail to differentiate between minor student misbehavior and more serious safety threats, in the process involving police officers in school disciplinary matters and dramatically escalating arrests, suspensions and referrals to juvenile and criminal court.

In 1998, the then-Board of Education entered into an agreement, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), with the mayor that transferred school safety responsibilities from the DOE to the NYPD. Currently, there are more than 5,200 police personnel in the city’s schools. On its own, the NYPD’s School Safety Division would be the nation’s fifth-largest police force – ahead of Boston, Detroit, Dallas, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C.

“In order to truly improve the education of New York City’s public school students, we need to address the way they are disciplined,” said Damon Hewitt, director of the education practice of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. “Students should feel nurtured and safe at school – not degraded, mistreated, and criminalized simply for being kids. By handing disciplinary responsibility back to educators, we can reduce the role of police in schools and create a better academic environment for our students.”

In 2011-2012, there were more than 2,500 arrests and summonses and more than 69,000 suspensions in New York City public schools. While overall suspension numbers have decreased slightly, the DOE continues to report dramatic racial disparities. Black students make up only 28 percent of the student population, yet they received 53 receive of the suspensions.

Students, some as young as 5 years old, have been handcuffed, taken to jail, and ordered to appear in court for infractions such as tardiness, talking back, writing on the desk, and refusing to turn over cell phones.

Students with an arrest are twice as likely to drop out of school and those with a court appearance are four times as likely to drop out.

“The next mayor has an opportunity to improve the climate in our schools and foster a more productive form of discipline,” said Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children of New York. “This can’t happen without a change in the relationship between the NYPD and the Department of Education.”

“Students, parents and teachers need to get a bigger role in deciding what happens in our schools and safety,” said Nilesh Viswashrao, a 20-year-old youth leader of Desis Rising Up and Moving. “NYPD officers and School Safety Officers are not teachers or counselors, they are going to be able to solve the problems that we as young people go through. Our peers and educators can do that. Having police and metal detectors in schools keep youth of color like us criminalized. The MOU will be one step closer to making sure our schools are kept as learning places.”

“Our front-line staff representing children in court in all five boroughs sees first-hand that we need to keep students safely in school and prevent students from being kept out of school by over-reliance on exclusionary, criminal responses to normative child and adolescent behavior which does not create safer schools,” said Steven Banks, the Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society, the oldest and largest legal services organization in the United States which annually handles more than 300,000 legal matters for low-income New Yorkers with civil, criminal or juvenile rights problems in addition to law reform representation that benefits all two million low-income children and adults in New York City.

The push to transform the relationship between educators and police follows the release earlier this summer of a special report by The New York City School-Justice Partnership Task Force, under the leadership of former New York Chief Judge Judith Kaye. The task force, which spent two years studying local and national school disciplinary practices, calls on the next mayor to lead, convene and implement an initiative that establishes a shared goal among city agencies, in collaboration with the courts, to keep students safely in school and use positive approaches to discipline while reducing suspensions and arrests.

“I sent my children to New York City Public School to learn the skills they needed to do so, but rather than be inspired they were confronted with metal detectors and NYPD officers every day at their school’s front door,” said Cassandra Whitney, whose two children attend city public schools. “As a parent, I am fed up. It’s time we put the power and trust back in the hands of our educators, and give the authority to determine how to provide our children safe and nurturing schools.”

The Student Safety Coalition works to end the New York City school-to-prison-pipeline and its disproportionate impact on youth of color and youth with special needs. Composed of New York City advocacy, academic and community based organizations, the coalition uses a coordinated set of legislative, public education and organizing strategies. In 2011, the coalition successfully advocated for enactment of the Student Safety Act, one of the country’s most comprehensive local reporting laws on student discipline and arrests.

The Student Safety Coalition includes: Dignity in Schools Campaign – New York, Center for Community Alternatives, Children’s Defense Fund – New York, DRUM – Desis Rising Up and Moving, The Legal Aid Society, Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, Make the Road New York, National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, New York Civil Liberties Union, Teachers Unite, Urban Youth Collaborative, Advocates for Children of New York.

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