Sunday, October 14

At City Council hearing on safety, kids describe schools' least pleasant lessons

I've been meaning to share notes from last week's City Council hearing on school safety for days. The press did a pretty good job sharing the central issue of the hearing: it's unclear whether DOE employees or NYPD employees have the final say on school safety and discipline decisions, and the lack of clarity creates flammable conditions in schools that give rise to incidents like the one at East Side Community High School last week.

But the issue is more than one of confusion. Community leaders and students took to the stand in the late afternoon to describe the ways that aggressive policing detracts from a learning environment. Kids described being arrested and hauled out of school by safety agents after breaking minor rules, such as by writing on a desk or cutting class. They also described harassment by school safety agents that didn't result in arrest. Every student mentioned missing class time as one outcome of his or her interaction with police in school.

Kids described psychic losses as well. Jonathan Clark, a senior at Aviation High School, where he is president of the honor society, described the day last spring when radnom scanners came to his school. The scene was one of confusion and screaming, Clark said, with agents unclear about what to confiscate; they took some students' school equipment and birthday cupcakes, while allowing others to choose whether their cell phone or iPod was taken. Students missed hours of class waiting in line, and the day was ruined. Clark said, "Every other day there is such morale and happiness, and on that day it was the exact opposite." Another student echoed Clark's concern when he saw random scanning at Bryant High School: "I thought that something had happened and I was scared."

As the Legal Aid Society's Nancy Ginsberg noted, "You could probably find probable cause for arrest every 20 minutes" in schools. That doesn't mean that having police in schools — and there are nearly 5,000 school safety agents in New York City's schools — is necessary or wise. Representatives of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which released a report earlier this year decrying "aggressive" policing in the schools, spoke about alternative discipline strategies, such as Positive Behavior Intervention System, that have been successful elsewhere. Those strategies are more flexible and less punitive than giving control to school safety agents, and they are administered by those charged with carrying out schools' educational missions.

Kids from the Urban Youth Collaborative, who said they didn't want to identify their schools out of fear of retaliation, repeatedly said that incidents in their schools "can be solved" if school safety agents were simply more respectful toward them. The student from Bryant said, "I don't think the NYPD knows how to deal with young people." Keeping kids out of class and teaching them that the police are their enemies? With such terrible teachers on staff, NYPD really shouldn't get involved in schools.

One final note: Council members were interested in what happened to a 1998 Memorandum of Understanding between the DOE and NYPD effectively transferring authority over school safety to the NYPD. That memorandum was supposed to be revisited in 2002, but by that time Mayor Bloomberg had been elected and given control of the schools, and no joint committee met to extend the arrangement. Kathleen Grimm, deputy chancellor for finance and operations, argued that mayoral control made such memorandums unnecessary because the mayor oversees both NYPD and the DOE. So we can attribute some of the reason behind the lack of explicit guidelines for making school safety decisions to mayoral control, touted (at least by mayors) as a panacea for educational problems.

Thanks to Leah Gogel, Insideschools' Zankel Fellow from Columbia University's Teachers College, for her help covering the hearing.

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