Preppin’ for Prison

Cops in Schools Teach a Generation to Live in Jail

Three years into a four-year pilot program giving the New York Police Department control of safety in the public schools, sexual assaults have increased so dramatically that the City Council is now arguing for the addition of 200 more cops plus surveillance cameras in stairwells.

Many in the community—parents, kids, teachers, and some elected officials—say the council is ignoring what's really going on. New York's black and Hispanic families worry that the NYPD's historic use of discriminatory and aggressive tactics against minorities has resulted not in protection for their kids, but in criminalization. They say we've turned our schools into training grounds for prisons, complete with metal detectors, frisking, and holding cells.

It cannot be denied that when the cops first took control in 1998, the public school system and its students were out of control. Innocent teachers and students were beaten up, slashed, and even killed. Rightly, Mayor Giuliani, who has suggested the Board of Education be "blown up," argued that not only were students uneducated, but they were also allowed to commit violent crimes without schools reporting them to the police.

His answer to the "crisis"? The NYPD. In a speech on education, the mayor claimed the city's finest could provide the screening, training, and supervision to "remake the Division of School Safety into a professional, disciplined force, sensitive to the needs of students, teachers, and staff." He dismissed the idea of police misconduct and declared the NYPD "the most restrained" officers in the country. With that, the cops took over school safety for the first time in the city's history.

Board of Education member Irving Hamer now regrets his role in the decision, which in the last two years has led to the citywide doubling of court summonses for kids 16 and up, all while sexual assault has grown—by nearly 13 percent this year—and slashings and robberies continue. "I just hate that I was even in on it," says Hamer, who joined the unanimous vote but now believes the arrangement has "criminalized school buildings." The increasing police presence "has an undertone that is not good, and is not something we should do to children, who are so vulnerable to images"—especially, he says, "in light of the history of the police department in communities of color."

As the kids see it, Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to about 5 p.m., they are eyeballed, stopped, and often bullied by officers who are trained to track and punish criminals.

Take the scene outside Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Manhattan, where each morning a couple thousand kids, still half asleep, line up around the building. On a freezing Tuesday this year, the line is backed up because one of the two metal detectors is broken; the wait could be another hour or two. The teens seem accustomed to the line, killing time and cold by nestling together and talking about everything from the latest clothes to J.Lo and Puffy, and even the cops staked out across the street in paddy wagons "clockin' " them.

Aside from a few sighs and rolling eyes, they ignore the suspicious glares from Five-O, opting instead to focus on the tight security check ahead.

In white suburban America, where the most brutal acts of student violence have taken place, parents and community leaders resist metal detectors and police, arguing that criminalizing schools is too high a price. But in New York City, where 85 percent of the students are kids of color, these procedures have silently become daily routine. As of June 2000, there were 191 baggage X-ray machines and 305 walk-through metal detectors in use in 72 schools, with more to come.

At Martin Luther King Jr., each child swipes a photo ID card through a computer, knowing that a forgotten card means having to manually enter an ID number, and a forgotten number means access could be denied for the day. These cards are linked to a database that includes the student's class schedule as well as records of lateness, absence, cutting, truancy, fighting, and other offenses.

Any card branded with an infraction will trigger a buzz and a red bulb alerting officers to remove the student from the line for questioning and possible disciplinary action. If all is well with the card, a green bulb clears the student for the next checkpoint. Here, they send their bags through an X-ray machine, then shuffle through a metal detector, where a harmless belt buckle, ruler, or piece of jewelry could set off the alarm, subjecting any student to a body scan and pat down. The kids are more preoccupied with the ringing of the first-period bell than with civil rights violations, since anyone who hasn't cleared security by then will be marked for cutting and have to wait on line until second period.

This prison-like system sometimes causes more problems than it prevents.

Last October, Raymone, a 14-year-old who's being raised by his mother, ran into trouble when he tried to enter Prospect Heights High School without his ID. An unarmed safety agent told him that without a card, he'd have to leave.

What happened next isn't clear. An assistant principal says the safety agent reported that Raymone started pushing him. Raymone claims an officer shoved him toward the door. "He just kept pushing me and saying, 'You gotta leave,' even though he knew I belonged there. I walked through those doors every day, but he didn't care. So I got mad and I pulled away from him.

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