By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
For the first time in its history, New York City is being sued in federal court on behalf of all its public-school students. ¶ In a lawsuit charging systemic police abuse, the defendants in the case filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union last month are Mayor Mike Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly. The NYCLU has never given up on this national scandal.
Bloomberg has continually insisted that his mayoralty will be judged on what he has done for the schools. Kelly, meanwhile, has deployed 5,200 police personnel in the School Safety Division, which would constitute the fifth largest police department in the country.
The plaintiffs are three student victims "and all others in similar situations" concerning "the unconstitutional policies and practices" of the School Safety Agents (SSAs), who have the power to arrest and are purportedly trained by Commissioner Kelly. A regular member of the NYPD tells me—he understandably prefers not to be named—that this "training" is farcical.
The ignorance that the SSAs have for the constitutional rights of public-school students is evident in the case histories of the lawsuit as well as in the many Voice columns I've written about this national stain on the extended tenure of Michael Bloomberg. The only wonder is how Schools Chancellor Joel Klein missed being listed as a defendant. Klein has relinquished all responsibility for these official actions to Commissioner Kelly.
When the parent of a student who has learned to fear the police complains, a principal will routinely respond by saying there's nothing he or she can do—and directs the parent to a nearby police precinct.
The NYCLU's lawsuit has only been sketchily reported in the local press, but it's gathering national attention in such influential publications as Education Week. Its complaint describes "the official municipal policy of the defendants": "The seizures of students—by means of handcuffing, seclusion, and/or formal arrest—for minor misbehavior that falls short of probable cause of criminal activity." Moreover, "the unlawful . . . excessive use of physical force against schoolchildren constitutes municipal policy [by our Education Mayor] because they occur with such frequency as to amount to a custom and usage of the City-Defendants."
As for Kelly's supposed training and supervising of the SSAs, their "use of excessive force amounts to deliberate indifference [by Kelly], thus constituting official municipal policy," adds the complaint.
Obviously, police are sometimes necessary in schools to assure student safety. But Bloomberg, Kelly, and Klein have allowed the SSAs to become a permanent occupying force—much too often indifferent, to say the least, to the fundamental civil liberties of the school system's students whose safety they are assigned to protect. The Constitution is the core of their safety.
What initial effect has this class-action federal lawsuit had on Bloomberg, Kelly, and Klein? The February 5 Daily News reported: "A 12-year-old Queens girl, Alexa Gonzalez . . . at Junior High School 190 in Forest Hills . . . was hauled out of school in handcuffs for an artless offense—doodling her name on her desk in erasable marker . . . and walked to the precinct across the street, where she was detained for several hours."
Startled by the Daily News' attention, "city officials acknowledged Alexa's arrest was a mistake. . . ." Alexa [in the same February 5 story], who has been "throwing up," according to her mother, "is still suspended from her school."
The suspension was ultimately lifted, so Alexa won't have to fulfill the original mandated eight hours of community service. But her principal, Marilyn Grant, told Alexa's mother, Moraima Tomacho (Daily News, February 6), that the handcuffing and arrest of the sobbing child wasn't the school's fault. She told the mother that "it was something they had to do."
Not a mumbling word from Chancellor Joel Klein. But an allegedly humane action has since been taken under the direction of the police commissioner: "The NYPD," the Daily News reports, "is expected this month to start using Velcro handcuffs to subdue unruly kids following a pilot program in 22 schools in northern Queens." Those desk doodles by handcuffed, unruly Alexa Gonzalez included a smiley face.
An acutely valuable but underpublicized current book, Schools Under Surveillance: Cultures of Control in Public Education, edited by Torin Monahan and Rodolfo Torres (Rutgers University Press), asks: "What are the long-term effects upon students of routine scrutiny, social sorting, and unequal treatment?" This publication does not neglect this city's School Safety Agents, quoting an NYCLU report: "Fighting in the hallway is classified as assault; swiping a classmate's pencil case can be classified as a property crime; and talking back to an SSA or being late to class is disorderly conduct."
Or, from the NYCLU class-action suit, meet M.M. (initials used because of her age), who, at 16, was in sixth grade at Hunts Point School. She was drawing on paper during class when "her friend reached over to her desk and drew on her paper. Playfully, she drew on his, and then they both drew a line on each other's desk with erasable markers."
As soon as their teacher saw the marks, in came School Safety Officers who took her to the security office where "without the presence of M.M.'s mother, and without informing M.M. of her right to remain silent, an armed NYPD officer interrogated her." She told him she had planned to erase the marks, but didn't have time as the SSAs marched in.