Schoolyard Bullies

A policy of cops searching students is in need of a mental detector

In a recent Daily News op-ed, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly defended the NYPD's increasingly active presence in the city's public schools:

"Frustrated, perhaps, by an era of post-9/11 goodwill toward the police, some of the usual critics have come back with a vengeance recently to smear the NYPD with unfounded charges of racism and unconstitutional overreaching" (emphasis added).

"The New York Civil Liberties Union," Kelly continues, "is perhaps the worse offender, using uncorroborated student accounts to publish a specious March report, 'Criminalizing the Classroom,' about police in public schools."

I've reported on many of this city's schools and classrooms for more than 40 years, and I have never been more outraged at a systemic abuse of students and teachers than the one that the subtitle of this report understatedly describes as "The Over-Policing of New York City's Schools." I know that Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has seen this report, and although we've had a number of long interviews since he took office, his refusal now to respond to my calls about this report is uncharacteristic. What is he afraid of?

One of the report's editors is NYU legal director Arthur Eisenberg, one of the country's leading constitutional litigators, known for his accuracy and tenacity. In his answer to Commissioner Kelly, Eisenberg notes that the initial research for this report shaming the city was "provoked by a number of incidents called to our attention in which police personnel engaged in abusive behavior directed at students, teachers, and school administrators."

In response, there was a nine-month survey of more than 1,000 students, along with "observation of police practices at the schools by NYCLU and ACLU staff and volunteers; as well as interviews with students, parents, teachers, school administrators. . . as well as with officials from the United Federation of Teachers."

Commissioner Kelly, in charging that the NYPD has been smeared, omits the plain fact that in the report's 35 large-size pages, there are three densely packed, single-spaced pages with scores of clearly documented sources, including citations of press stories. (There are also 144 footnotes, many with further information.)

You can judge who's smearing whom by reading the full "Criminalizing the Classroom" report on the NYCLU website at www.nyclu.org.

One of the many stories in the report concerns Wadleigh, a Manhattan public high school, where "every student, in order to enter the building [as at other schools], was required to walk through the metal detectors [and be searched]."

Over an eight-month period last year, police confiscated more than 17,000 items at numerous schools, but only a tiny number could be considered weapons, and none were firearms. The vast majority "were cell phones, iPods, food, school supplies." A young girl with a pacemaker at Wadleigh said that she needed her cell phone in case of a medical emergency, but the phone was seized nonetheless.

The NYCLU interviewed students and school staff members who said that when some of the cursing officers ("Get the fuck back in line!") were asked by a school counselor not to speak to students like that, an officer answered: "I can do and say whatever I want." Then the officer, along with her colleagues, continued screaming at the students.

Similar professional behavior by Ray Kelly's searchers reportedly took place at other schools and was committed not only by police, but also by a much larger contingent of School Safety Agents. These SSAs are employed and trained (using the term loosely) by the NYPD's School Safety Division. The swashbuckling SSAs are unarmed, but they have the power of arrest. Since they are not employees of the Department of Education, the SSAs often cannot be controlled by school administrators.

During a search at the Community School for Social Justice in the Bronx, "in a clear violation of the Chancellor's Regulations, female students were searched by male officers. . . . After forcing one child to squat, a male officer repeatedly traced his hand-held metal detector up her inner thigh until it beeped on the button of her jeans."

Leah Wiseman Fink, an English teacher at CSSJ, is quoted in the report as having been told by NYPD officers, as she was taking photographs at the metal-detectors scene, that she was banned from doing so and, she adds, a Department of Education official, Harmon Unger, also confiscated her film.

"If I were treating kids like criminals," said the teacher, "then I would do it in secret as well."

At Wadleigh High School, Carlos Rodriguez, an eleventh-grader and president of the School Government Association, was among several students hauled into the 28th Police Precinct. Carlos works 30 to 40 hours a week after school and needs a cell phone to tell his mother where he is. Seeing cell phones being confiscated, he stood outside the school to call his mother to come and take the cell phone, and she agreed.

While waiting, Carlos was asked for identification by a police officer, who was told by Carlos that his mother was just up the block, coming for his cell phone. The report describes the police response:

"Officers handcuffed Carlos, seized his cell phone, forced him into a police vehicle, and took him to the precinct without informing school officials or his mother. At the precinct, Carlos was ordered to remove his belt and shoelaces and was forced into a cell."

His mother, frantically searching for her child, finally arrived at the precinct. "Carlos was released only after his mother had finally left the precinct. Upon his release, officers issued him a summons, threatening that if he did not appear in court, a warrant would be issued for his arrest."

The charges were ultimately dropped.

"The burden [of this over-policing]," says the report, "falls primarily on schools with permanent metal detectors, which are. . . attended by disproportionately poor, Black and Latino students [who] are more often confronted by police personnel in school for 'non-criminal' incidents than their peers city-wide."

Says Carlos: "I've never had problems with the cops until they put me in handcuffs. Now I hate them."

To be continued, with instructions to Klein, Kelly and presidential aspirant Michael Bloomberg on how to combine school safety with elementary justice under the Bill of Rights, which these high-level corrections officers seem not to have read recently.

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