By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
With all the news about Stalin's rebirth in Georgia and how many homes John McCain has, little attention was paid to an August rally at City Hall where, to quote the Associated Press, "Hundreds of public school students, some holding signs, 'Education Not Incarceration,' resoundingly supported a bill introduced by the Council's education chairman, Robert Jackson."
Titled the Student Safety Act, the bill is meant to protect the city's public-school students and some teachers and principals from one particular feature of Rudy Giuliani's legacy that has been continued by his successor: the 5,000 School Safety Agents who are empowered by the police commissioner to make arrests as well as haul students down to the local precinct. These SSAs and some 200 cops make the NYPD's School Safety Division the fifth-largest police force in the country.
At the August rally, 17-year-old Jaritza Geigel, a student at the Bushwick School for Social Justice, told the people assembled: "Students have the right to go to school each day free from harassment. With 5,000 School Safety Agents patrolling our schools, there needs to be a meaningful way to hold them accountable. Passing the Student Safety Act is the first necessary step in creating safe and respectful schools."
Predictably, on the day of the City Hall rally, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was defending the NYPD's tactics on WCBS radio: "The school-safety officers do a terrific job. Many are women, and the majority are minorities." (In other words, it's an equal-opportunity bullying of students.) And the next day, in The New York Times, Mayor Bloomberg harmonized with Kelly: "We have every reason to be proud of the protections we're giving everyone." Oddly, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has been silent on the issue.
The Voice has provided many specific examples of excess committed by the School Safety Agents, both in my columns and in the works of other reporters. (See especially "NYPD's Schoolyard Bullies" by Sean Gardiner in the July 16, 2008, issue.) And the New York Civil Liberties Union has long been at the forefront of trying to arouse public awareness on the issue of School Safety Agents and their contempt for students' basic constitutional rights.
In the NYCLU's files, among many other stories about these heavies, is this account: "This last school year alone, School Safety Agents handcuffed Denis Rivera, a 5-year-old special education student, for throwing a temper tantrum in his kindergarten class. Mark Federman, a principal at East Side Community High School, was arrested for trying to prevent the police from humiliating his student. And last school year, 13-year-old Chelsea Fraser was handcuffed and arrested for scribbling 'okay' on her desk." These are not isolated incidents.
When it comes to civil liberties, I expect little—if anything—from Bloomberg and Kelly, even when the victims are kids under their charge. But I do expect more from Chancellor Klein, especially since I have considerable respect for much that he is trying to do to make the schools work for every student. Why the hell doesn't he say something—anything—about this situation, let alone start taking the initiative in an area that is clearly his responsibility? Simply put, Joel Klein should take back from Ray Kelly the Department of Education's supervision of discipline. Chancellor Klein should be protecting his students!
When the New York State Legislature begins to seriously debate whether mayoral control of this city's public schools should continue after the law sunsets in 2009, both Democrats and Republicans should take note that, as the NYCLU emphasizes in its well-documented "Criminalizing the Classroom" report, "New York is alone [among America's largest school districts] in placing in schools personnel [i.e., the NYPD and its overly aggressive SSAs] who are neither responsible to the educational bureaucracy nor specifically trained to educate, counsel and protect our school communities."
The state legislators deciding whether or not to continue mayoral control of this city's schools should also read—as should Chancellor Klein—this section of Councilman Robert Jackson's Student Safety Act: "The City Council is also concerned about school safety policies having a disproportionate impact on students of color. Police personnel are far more likely to be involved in non-criminal incidents at high schools with permanent metal detectors; such schools are populated with students who are disproportionately poor, black and Latino. According to NYPD data, in schools with metal detectors, the vast majority of incidents in which the NYPD is involved in are classified as non-criminal" (emphasis added).
To assure that Ray Kelly's agents in the public schools are accountable, the Student Safety Act seeks to provide council members with the means to "learn more about police practices in the schools, and to provide parents, students and educators with an accessible way to seek redress." Therefore, despite the mayor's and the police commissioner's shared aversion to accountability, "this legislation will expand the jurisdiction of the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) to accept complaints against abusive School Safety Agents. The public currently has the right to file a complaint with CCRB regarding abusive police conduct on the street. This legislation will allow the public to file similar complaints with the CCRB against abusive police behavior in the schools."
Udi Ofer of the NYCLU adds: "Today more than ever, children are much more likely to be arrested for a minor disciplinary problem that a generation ago would never have been treated as a criminal offense. What used to be a trip to the principal's office is now a trip to the local police precinct."
I went to a very tough public high school—Boston Latin—that wasn't only academically tough: There so many ways to violate its code of conduct that each entering class saw a few of its members expelled through the years. But in all my time there, I never once saw a cop in the school, or the equivalent of a School Safety Agent. If the Boston police commissioner had sent one in, the intruder would have been ejected by the principal.
Next week, as a public service, I will reprint selected sections from the NYCLU's pocket-sized guide, "Know Your Rights With Police in Schools." In the fall of last year, 20,000 copies of this students' Bill of Rights were distributed by volunteers and snapped up by students. More will be distributed this fall.
But a good many students haven't yet seen this booklet, with detailed questions and answers such as "What to Do After a Conflict With a School Safety Agent" and "Can School Safety Agents Legally Search Me?" One question I would add: "Is There a Copy of the Constitution Somewhere in the School?"