Preppin’ for Prison

Cops in Schools Teach a Generation to Live in Jail

Ten or 20 safety agents roaming the halls of a zone school is standard. They scatter, sweeping the stairwells looking for kids cutting class. In some schools, like Harry S. Truman in the Bronx, they're backed by armed cops who also patrol the premises. During one tour of Truman High, all was quiet until seven kids—four boys and three girls—were picked up by regular police for loitering outside the school. One boy protested that he'd left school because he was sick and asked a police officer to call his mother. "I'm your mother right now," the officer said.

In that incident, police called parents and wrote up summonses from inside Truman's school-safety command center. But often kids who get arrested are automatically taken to the precinct, advocates say. Many kids who get summonses for lesser offenses wind up at the police station—with all the other alleged criminals.

"Students aren't getting written up in schools," says Elisa Hyman, deputy director of Advocates for Children. "They're getting handcuffed and then taken to the station."

Police don't have a firm breakdown of kids who receive summonses at school and those who are taken to the precinct on the spot, and in any case, statistics don't paint the whole picture. Police and school safety agents are adults dealing with kids and teens, and they may do things that never show up on the books. Kids say they are often frisked, handcuffed, and questioned, then sent on their way.

Ginsburg, the juvenile attorney, says students who are handcuffed and therefore "not free to go" often feel as if they've been under arrest, even if the police never record a bust. These kids are getting lessons in how it feels to be a criminal, even if they haven't been charged.

"It's really sad," Milford says. "We can't seem to teach them how to read and write, but we allow the police to educate them about fingerprints, holding cells, and plea bargaining. We seem to be choosing handcuffs over textbooks."

Each generation has raised its share of rebellious teenagers, from the rollers of the '50s to the stoners of the '60s. In the suburbs, white parents resist bringing in high security to deal with their rebellious teens. In this city, public school adolescents risk paying an exceptionally high price for what could be ordinary acting out. Black and Hispanic parents have long been stripped of the right to have their children properly educated in this city; now they are forced to watch as schools—supported by their tax dollars and administered by people they elect—become a vessel for introducing their children to the criminal justice system.

Given current rates of incarceration, three out of every 10 black males can expect to do time. Some 64 percent of the people behind bars in the U.S. are African American or Hispanic, a proportion nearly equal to that of the city's 1.1 million public school students. The question becomes: Which classrooms are those future inmates sitting in now?

Additional reporting: Alana Forbes

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