By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
On March 6, after being dropped off at Middle School 88 in Park Slope by his father, a Manhattan court officer, Joshua Ramos was approached by another boy. Joshua, who was 13, says the other kid was upset because, the day before, Joshua had tackled him during a tag-football game. The boy challenged Joshua to a fight.
Joshua tells the Voice that he didn't want trouble, but when the kid hit him, he hit back. The other boy later claimed that Joshua started the tussle by calling him names, though he couldn't remember what the names were. Whatever. The incident was nothing more than a typical schoolyard dust-up.
It took place, however, in the view of a School Safety Agent, one of those NYPD employees who monitor New York City's schools and—often against the wishes of the principal—deal harshly with what is otherwise pretty normal school behavior.
SSA Bethzaida Santiago saw the boys fighting and moved in. "I grabbed the Respondent [Joshua] on the upper part of his arms and asked that he stop," she wrote in her report of the incident. "I observed that the Respondent continued to punch. I informed the Respondent that he was now hitting me in my face. I observed the Respondent look at me and he continued punching. The Respondent punched me in my face multiple times. I observed that the Respondent continued swinging and punching me until my supervisor was able to restrain him."
Joshua, who stands five feet, four inches tall and is a stout 170 pounds, says he doesn't know if he hit Agent Santiago or not. If he did, he says, it was accidental and only happened once.
The NYPD's report of the event appears to support his assertion: "13 yr old [defendant] was fighting with other student, safety agent attempted to separate children and defendant accidentally punched agent on her leftside [sic] of face, causing injuries and redness to occur." A Family Court judge also later described the offense as a single wayward blow.
Santiago and her supervisor, Sergeant Robert Perez (both of whom declined comment), hauled Joshua over to their office on the school grounds, telling him that the NYPD would be coming to arrest him.
Joshua's parents tell the Voice that the school's principal, Ailene Mitchell, and a guidance counselor tried to intervene, pointing out that Joshua was not a troublemaker and that the incident could be handled without the police.
"They were overruled," says Lucy Ramos, Joshua's mother, whose job is to conduct background checks for court officers. "They had to do what the School Safety officers said. How is that right?"
Principal Mitchell declined to comment on Joshua's arrest, and the guidance counselor couldn't be reached for comment. But critics, such as the Student Safety Coalition, an organization made up of academic, civil-rights, and community groups, say that these types of arrests have become increasingly common once the NYPD flooded the schools with 5,000 School Safety Agents—up from 3,200 in 1998, when the police took control of school safety from the Board of Education. This army of poorly paid agents receives minimal training on security issues and no specialized training on how to deal with children, the critics assert. What's more, there is currently no reporting requirement regarding actions taken by SSAs—arrests, expulsions, or suspensions—and thus no way for an independent body like the City Council to provide oversight. And there's no way for parents, teachers, or students to lodge complaints against the agents.
The result, these critics say, is that the NYPD is usurping the disciplinary power of principals.
A judge seemed to agree with that sentiment in the case of Mark Federman, the principal of the East Side Community High School on East 12th Street, who was arrested this past October as he attempted to stop School Safety Agents from taking one of his 17-year-old students out the front door of the school in handcuffs in full view of all the entering kids.
Federman's case was dismissed in February by Judge Tanya Kennedy in the "interest in justice."
Judge Kennedy wrote: "It's the court's hope that the Department of Education and the NYPD can reach a meeting of the minds regarding a principal's leadership role, as well as the principal's exercise of discretion regarding student disciplinary matters."
In Joshua's case, there was no "meeting of the minds": After the SSAs overruled the principal, he was arrested and automatically suspended from school for six days.
On May 13, after several appearances in Family Court, Joshua's assault case was dismissed on the condition that he stay out of trouble for the next 18 months and attend one session of a workshop called "What to Do When Stopped by Police." He graduated from M.S. 88 in June and will attend New Designs High School in Manhattan in the fall.
For his year-end project at the middle school in May, he described his arrest in a speech that he gave to fellow students: "It's an awful feeling to have the police cuff you and escort you to the patrol car; it's an awful feeling to have them put shackles on you; it's an awful feeling to be arrested."