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Over-policing In Schools On Students’ Education And Privacy Rights

Testimony Of Donna Lieberman On Behalf Of The New York Civil Liberties Union before The New York City Council Committees On Education And Public Safety Regarding The Impact Of Over-policing In Schools On Students’ Education And Privacy Rights

My name is Donna Lieberman. I am the Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). Since 1951, the NYCLU has been the state’s leading advocate on behalf of New Yorkers’ civil rights and civil liberties. We are a non-partisan organization with six chapters and 48,000 members statewide.

The stated topic of today’s hearing, cellular phones in schools, provokes consideration of a much more serious and systemic problem: The problem of the over-policing of our schools.

It is, of course, the case that children are entitled to attend schools that are safe and that provide them and their parents with an important sense of security. City officials, therefore, have an obligation to foster a safe learning environment within the schools. But, in doing so, school officials cannot lose sight of their primary mission. That mission involves creating an environment where children will be encouraged to learn and to acquire the fundamental literacy and reasoning competencies as well as the basic social skills necessary to function effectively within our society. In this regard, it is well recognized that such social and academic skills are most successfully encouraged by creating schools where children are respected and where they, therefore, feel good about themselves and, accordingly, have positive attitudes toward their classmates and teachers and to their educational and social experiences within the schools.

An excessive police presence in the schools disserves these affirmative and nurturing goals. Too often, inadequately trained police officers and schools safety agents engage in adversarial relationships with the students and convey attitudes of disrespect toward children and teachers and administrators. And such behavior is not merely episodic but occurs with sufficient frequency as to be regarded as systemic. But the problem of police in schools may not lie exclusively in the inadequacy of training. Rather, it may inhere in the essential differences between the roles of law enforcement officers and the roles of teachers within the schools. It may also rest upon natural impulses that distinguish cops from teachers. Even well-trained and well-intentioned police officers are likely to approach their responsibilities with a heightened suspicion of those with whom they interact and with an inclination to restrain any behavior that is even remotely unorthodox. Good educators, on the other hand, tend to be nurturing and inclusive and respecting of even the unorthodox.

The danger, then, in over-policing our schools is that such practices reinforce school environments that are not conducive to educational and social growth. They foster environments where children perceive that they are being treated as criminals; where they are diminished by such perceptions; and where they, consequentially, cultivate negative attitudes toward their schools.

Such over-policing in schools takes the form of several practices and processes that are of concern to the NYCLU. It involves, in part, the increasing use of magnetometers, which serve, all too often, as a flashpoint for conflict and abuse that compromises student dignity. It also involves school safety officers extending their jurisdictional authority beyond the enforcement of the criminal law to the enforcement of school rules—a province that should remain within responsibilities of educators. It involves the failure to set forth clear lines of authority within the schools, so that principals remain uncertain as to whether and when they can direct the behavior of school safety agents, and school safety agents feel comfortable ignoring or disrespecting educators, students and parents alike. Finally, it involves the daily adversarial interactions between school safety agents and children which reinforce a negative environment and undermine education. Each of these matters will be addressed, in turn.

Growing presence of police in schools

In 1998, the Board of Education entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”) with the New York City Police Department to transfer control of school security personnel to the NYPD. Students, parents, lawmakers and members of the Board of Education raised concerns regarding the level of police intrusion into the administration of our public school system by virtue of the MOU’s handing over school safety responsibilities to the Police Department. In 2004, Mayor Bloomberg continued the policies initiated by Mayor Giuliani and, in fact, increased police presence in the schools with the implementation of the Impact Schools Initiative, which increased the number of police personnel in those schools with the highest level of crime or violence.

The most recent elevation in police activity in the schools came again under the direction of Mayor Bloomberg. In April 2006 the Mayor announced a new initiative to deploy roving scanning units each school day at different high schools or junior high schools. While the primary purpose behind the use of the roving metal detectors appears to have been to keep weapons out of the schools, a collateral effect has been the confiscation of all cellular phones—and other personal items such as portable music players—by the police.

Increase in complaints against police

As a result of these policies, the NYCLU has received an increasing number of complaints suggesting a pattern of over-policing by the NYPD with consequential damage to the educational environment in schools. Thus, the NYCLU has received complaints about school safety agents directing abusive and using derogatory language at students; safety agents threatening students with criminal summonses for being in the hallway; agents handcuffing students who fail to present their school ID in a timely manner; school safety agents unilaterally prohibiting students who arrive 10 minutes late to school from attending school altogether for that day; female students being required to lift up their shirts for school safety agents because their underwire bras set off the metal detectors; male students routinely walking through metal detectors and clutching at their pants to prevent them from falling down because they have been required to remove their belts as they enter schools; and students waiting in line for upwards of an hour to be able to pass through the metal detectors to go to class.

Magnetometers as a flashpoint

The metal detectors thus serve as a flashpoint. They require regular interaction between school safety officers and students which, all too often, turn confrontational and abusive. And the process of walking through the detectors also provokes further police searches of bags and clothing where the privacy and dignitary interests of students are compromised.

In order to fully gauge the impact of the roving scanners initiative and other policing measures on students, the NYCLU began a survey of middle school and high school students. The preliminary results have been troubling. Fifty-six percent of the 114 students already surveyed have had to remove or lift up their shirt or piece of clothing in order to enter a school building to attend class. Forty percent have been late to class five or more times in the past month because of metal detectors. Twenty-five percent have been late more than 10 times in the past month. Ninety-nine percent of students have had to remove belts or shoes to enter the building. And 40% feel that the police act inappropriately in their schools.

School governance

The growing presence of police in our school and the use of scanners to confiscate cellular phones undermine school governance by extending police authority beyond safety issues and allowing them to enforce general rules of student conduct and dress. School safety agents are not trained in educational or child development. School administrators, who are trained in such areas, are increasingly removed from decisions impacting their students’ welfare.

There have been several cases over the past two years highlighting the absence of clear protocols on school governance and the challenges to school governance posed by the increased presence of police in our schools. In March 2005, NYPD officers arrested teachers Quinn Kronen and Cara Wolfson at the New School for Arts and Sciences, where they teach. Ms. Wolfson, a social studies teacher, had called 911 for medical assistance for a student who had been injured during a fight in a school bathroom. The police arrived in Mr. Kronen’s classroom after school personnel had already broken up the fight and separated the students, and Mr. Kronen, an English teacher, questioned the officers’ decision to handcuff some of the students who had been fighting.

In response, the officers yelled at Mr. Kronen and ordered him to be quiet. When Ms. Wolfson objected, they cursed her handcuffed her and arrested her, made her wait handcuffed in the hall in front of her students, and then forced her to stand without a coat outside in sub-freezing temperature temperatures. The police then arrested Mr. Kronen as well, and both teachers were held at the 41st precinct in the Bronx for nearly two hours before being released with summonses for disorderly conduct. The charges against both teachers were dismissed at arraignment for facial insufficiency.

In another case a popular principal and aide were arrested and removed from their positions at the Bronx Guild High School for over two months after objecting to the police barging into a classroom at the school to arrest a student for cursing a school safety agent. There was simply no justification for the officer to enter and disrupt the classroom without the permission of school administrators.

The above examples highlight the consequences of failing to develop adequate protocols governing the role of police officers in schools. The NYCLU has tried to work with the City to address our concerns regarding school governance, yet we’ve been stonewalled at every turn. The NYCLU made two requests last year for information from the Department of Education and the NYPD regarding guidelines regulating school safety agents and police officers present in NYC public schools. No documents have been received to date. We again wrote to Chancellor Klein and Commissioner Kelly and made several inquiries regarding guidelines governing the actions of police officers and school safety agents in schools and any procedure in place to file a complaint against a police officer or school safety agent. We received no response to the inquiries. In 2006 we sent another letter to Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein regarding policing techniques in public schools. To date, we have not received the information we requested.

Mayor Bloomberg recently announced plans to expand principals’ control over such decisions as hiring, teacher training, and curriculum development and to hold them responsible for the decision they make. Principals should similarly be provided with the authority to direct the conduct of school safety agents and other police officials in the schools except in circumstances where imminent safety concerns require police intervention.

No meaningful way to hold school agents accountable.

No effective mechanism exists to hold school safety agents accountable for abusive behavior towards students in the schools.

Chancellor’s Regulation A-443 states that students must be held accountable for their behavior. With respect to holding school safety agents accountable for their behavior, the regulations are silent.

Chancellor’s Regulation A-432 permits school safety agents to search students under certain circumstances when authorized to do so by the school principal. With respect to holding school safety agents accountable for searching students without authorization or for abusing students in the course of a search, the regulations are silent.

Chancellor’s Regulation A-412 establishes reporting and notification requirements when students are suspected of crimes and violations of school rules. With respect to reporting misconduct by school safety agents, the regulations are silent.

Section 3 of the Student Bill of Rights establishes the right to “know the procedures for appealing the actions and decisions of school officials.” With respect to complaints about the actions of school safety agents, the regulations are silent.

This silence speaks volumes. And, the City Council must speak out.

City Council must address police conduct in schools

The challenge for the City Council is to use the current debate over one aspect of over-policing in our schools—the use of metal detectors to enforce a ban on cellular phones—to address a larger problem that continues to grow.

Specifically, we ask the City Council to:

Conduct oversight hearings on the issue of police in schools. The City Council should evaluate the impact of police activity and the use of metal detectors in schools on students’ rights to an education and to be treated with dignity. The City Council should use its oversight powers to obtain copies of all written regulations governing the actions of police officers and school safety agents in schools, and guidelines on the handling of complaints concerning school safety agents or other members of the NYPD present in public schools. Moreover, the City Council should ensure compliance with the original 1998 MOU commitment to train school security personnel in the unique challenges and responsibilities of working in a school environment. The City Council should also obtain information on the number and nature of complaints received by the Department of Education and NYPD against school safety agents, and a breakdown of such complaints by year, school, type of allegation, and any other pertinent information that will allow the public to make an informed evaluation of school safety agents’ performance. The City Council should require City officials to testify before Council Members and the public to address concerns surrounding policing in schools.

Demand an Educational Impact Statement. Before approving renewed funding for school safety agents or magnetometers in schools, the City Council should, on a pro bono basis, an independent consulting firm to prepare an Educational Impact Statement consisting of an evaluation of the need for metal detectors and their impact on the schools, students, teachers, and parents. The Educational Impact Statement must evaluate the degree to which policing techniques in our schools adversely affect the educational environment. It should create a mechanism to review on an ongoing basis the impact of policing techniques on students, teachers, administrators, and parents. It should also evaluate, independent of the NYPD, their impact on school safety.

Establish a Meaningful Complaint and Oversight Process. The City Council should enact legislation creating a clear, meaningful, confidential process for filing complaints against school safety agents, adjudicating them expeditiously and protecting students from retaliation. Students and parents must be notified of this confidential process, and safeguards must be instituted to protect students from retaliation. Moreover, the City Council should create a mechanism to evaluate the performance of school safety agents.

In sum, the City Council should promote a sound educational environment within our schools by ensuring that there are clear rules governing police behavior in schools, and effective oversight to hold police accountable for abusive behavior towards students. The Department of Education’s silence on this issue begs for the City Council’s response.

Finally, on the narrow issue that brings us here today, we offer the following views on the issue of cell phones. The Department of Education has the right to prohibit students from using cell phones in school. But the current policy, which creates a near blanket ban on bringing cell phones to school and enforces it through the use of school safety agents and metal detectors fails to accommodate the legitimate purpose for which families might want children to carry cell phones. Surely procedures could be developed on a school-by-school basis to permit children to carry cell phones to school but that would limit use in the school. Consistent with the notion of providing greater authority and greater responsibilities to school principals, the Department of Education should authorize each principal to fashion rules on cell phones us that are tailored to the needs of each school.

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