Preppin’ for Prison

Cops in Schools Teach a Generation to Live in Jail

"Next thing I know we're stumbling, and nine other guards are all over me, and glass from a window nearby is crashing everywhere. I was scared and mad, but I couldn't do anything. The guard said I punched him, so they cuffed me and took me to the precinct."

When his mother arrived at her job in the U.S. Treasury Department, a coworker handed her a message saying that her son was being held at the 71st Precinct. "My heart dropped when I got to the precinct," she says. "My child's neck, wrists, and back were bruised. Buttons were torn off his shirt. I wasn't able to protect him, and it was the worst pain I've ever felt. And for what? Just because he didn't have an ID?"

If anyone from the school had called to tell her about Raymone's lack of an ID, his mother says, she would have picked him up. Instead, she ended up spending four hours in the police station, waiting for an officer to file a complaint. She was left to deal with Raymone's bruises, his subsequent expulsion, his legal fees, conviction for assault, and punishment of six months' probation and court-mandated counseling.

His mother is convinced the scars will remain, even after the sentence is over. "There is no ending to this," she says. "Once a child gets caught up in the system, it follows them for life. He's branded now, and nothing I can do will erase that."

Police presence has changed the coming-of-age experience for this generation of students. Last December, Martin Luther King Jr. High held its first school dance of the year. As the students partied and celebrated their freshman year, six safety agents and 10 armed police stood guard in the main entrance, overshadowing photos of Reverend King and a copy of his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

These kids go to schools with metal grates on the windows, steel doors, and surveillance cameras. When suspected of breaking a rule, they're held by officers, detained, and interrogated in rooms the students call "the cells."

For all this, the schools don't feel much safer. In November, the Joint Committee on School Safety, staffed equally by representatives from the mayor's and the chancellor's offices, produced the first official report since the takeover. The committee wrote that 67 percent of all principals polled said "there has been no change in their school's climate of safety" since the transfer.

But parents, and many principals, say there's been a big change—though not one they want. "You cannot have children this exposed to cops and not expect the kids to get the short end of the stick," says Carrie Monroe, the mother of a 15-year-old at Prospect Heights. "Cops in the train station when they arrive for school, more cops parked outside the school, and then toy cops inside the school patting them down. How can they learn in that environment? My son is always coming home with some horror story about kids being unnecessarily stopped by police. It's not right."

The numbers tell a complicated story. The joint committee report indicates the total number of criminal incidents has dropped 17 percent. Burglary is way down. And arrests—when a student is taken to the precinct and ordered to appear in court—have dropped by 23 percent. But the total number of students having encounters with law enforcement has jumped—by 17 percent. The number of kids between seven and 16 getting "juvenile reports," which go on file at the precinct, is up 12 percent. The number of kids 16 and up getting summonses—which can be issued either at school or at the precinct, and which also require an appearance in court—has gone up more than 100 percent.

Giuliani's "quality of life" tactics have infiltrated the city schools. Cops have stepped up surveillance and enforcement in a way that is perceived as harassment. They're writing hundreds of summonses—457 in one recent year alone—for what would otherwise be normal, adolescent acting out. In the first year of the pilot program, trespassing shot up 325 percent, loitering 230 percent—kids hanging out, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"Everything that's wrong [with Giuliani's police tactics] on the streets is multiplied tenfold when you apply it to the schools," says Nancy Ginsburg, a Legal Aid attorney who deals with juvenile offenders.

"How do you evaluate what's disorderly conduct for a 15-year-old?" Ginsburg continues. "Kids by their nature are disorderly. They do wacky things! They run around the hallways and pick off people's hats—that's grand larceny!" If a beef between two kids ends in a fight, she says, "It could be because they don't want to look like a wuss—that's criminal intent for 15-year-olds!" With adolescents, she says, "There's no end to what you can say is criminal behavior."

The ordinary attitude of a high school kid can be the very thing that sets cops off. In a report on city policing released last July, mayoral candidate and public advocate Mark Green uncovered what black and Hispanic people have always known about police brutality. In "43 percent of the cases where officers were actually disciplined," Green wrote, "acts of misconduct occurred when officers believed that victims were being disrespectful."

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