Preppin’ for Prison

Cops in Schools Teach a Generation to Live in Jail

The same complaints of racial profiling and excessive force on the streets are now being voiced by students and parents. "Every time the city claims that crime is down, black people start getting violated and there is always some excuse to brush it off," says Carl Monroe, father of a Prospect Heights student. "I don't want to be one of those fathers whose kid gets shot by mistake. It's obvious that no one is watching how the cops treat our kids."

Much of the daily enforcement is actually done by a largely black and Hispanic force of safety agents equipped with handcuffs. Since the pilot program began, the agents have been getting 120 additional hours of training from police academy instructors who teach them to think like cops. The law section, for example, has jumped from 28 to 51 hours, with additional emphasis on crime classification, probable cause and reasonable suspicion, and search and seizure.

"We were trained to keep track of repeat offenders for truancy, cutting, lateness, fighting, and any other negative behavior patterns," says a former high school safety agent in Queens who didn't want her name used, because she now works for another part of the department. "The job became more hardcore and criminal-oriented."

She dismisses the idea that kids are harassed or coerced by safety agents and other officers. "It's not that simple," she says. Most problems, she believes, stem from inadequate training for a job that deals with adolescents in turmoil. When the NYPD first took over, agents underwent a onetime training period of nine weeks.

"What little child psychology and sensitivity training we got could never prepare anyone to deal with the range of emotions that 2000 kids come to school with every day," she says. "Sometimes you really have to back off and realize what these kids go through when they are not in school. At the end of the day, they are still kids."

Uncomfortable with arresting and fingerprinting students, the woman transferred out of the schools.

Some of her peers have taken a different route. School-safety agents can now be promoted into better-paying jobs as New York City cops, which may mean they have more incentive to act tough. Every time there is an incident involving a student, they are required to phone it in to a 24-hour school-safety operations center. The offense is classified under the penal code, then entered into a central computer, so the police can keep track of crime patterns. The system is modeled on COMPSTAT, the police database used to target trouble spots.

Since the takeover, police have been working more closely with principals to develop safety plans that consider not just the school, but the entire neighborhood. Safety agents aren't the only cops focused on kids. Mornings and afternoons, under the Safe Corridor program, uniformed police patrol 158 routes between bus and train stations and schools. Under Safe Passage, 98 transit police were assigned to cover the stations near schools.

Students have their own take on the police presence. "The po-po are like recruiters around here, only they don't want us for the NBA or the NFL. They want us for jail," says 16-year-old Tarell, who was recently kicked out of Prospect Heights High School for fighting and spent two days in jail.

"People don't understand what we go through," Tarell says. "You could be standing up chillin' with your friends, and they will roll up on you and start questioning you for no reason. They don't even do it in a nice way. It's like, 'Didn't I see you here before? Get your ass up on the wall and spread 'em.' Your first instinct is to run, but you know that will make it 10 times as bad."

Nowhere is police scrutiny tighter than around the "zone" schools, for which the minimum requirement is to live in the neighborhood. The student bodies consist of those who either didn't apply to or didn't get accepted by a specialized high school. Some have been kicked out of other schools.

Most "zoners," as the kids call them, are located in or close to ghettos. Children of immigrants, the poor, unemployed, crackheads, alcoholics, and ol' school gangbangers are educated (or not) at schools like Wingate and Erasmus in Brooklyn, Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy in the Bronx, and Franklin K. Lane on the Brooklyn-Queens border. These schools, the melting pots of education, have been easy prey for Giuliani's quality of life crackdown.

"Lord knows these schools and the kids live up to their reputations," says Brooklyn high school teacher Yvonne Milford. "It's easy for police to bait these kids. Many of them have turbulent lives. They are often abused, confused, and angry. They fight, curse, steal, and threaten, because they are not matured enough to deal with the hardships of life.

"Despite all of that, there hasn't been one mass murder committed in any of these schools," she adds. "It's a double-edged sword. As teachers we try to encourage them to come to school, and when they get here, they are forced to share their space with cops who use their problems against them."

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