Young Men's Initiative: The White Mayor's Burden

Bloomberg aims to help the young black and Latino men he has been throwing in jail for a decade

But the weed they carry (at a lower rate than whites) becomes "in public view" when they're stopped and frisked.

Sayegh gives Bloomberg credit for backing up Thomas Frieden (Bloomberg's former health commissioner and current head of the Centers for Disease Control) when there was a controversy over a city publication promoting safer needle practices. But when it comes to marijuana arrests, it disappoints Sayegh that the mayor can't see the discrepancies between neighborhoods and ethnicities.

Innocuous as a marijuana infraction might seem to white people—especially those who never fear reprimand for pot, even when they announce they've used it while running for public office—it is still, Sayegh says, "the single biggest point of contact" with the criminal justice system, a "process that leads to a criminal record in this city for young black and brown men."

Bloomberg’s annual average of low-level pot arrests is greater than all of Koch’s, Dinkins’s, and the first two years of Giuliani’s—combined.
Drug Policy Alliance and Harry Levine/
Bloomberg’s annual average of low-level pot arrests is greater than all of Koch’s, Dinkins’s, and the first two years of Giuliani’s—combined.
Drug Policy Alliance and Harry Levine/

'You're either a part of the problem or a part of the solution," says Lieberman. But when it comes to young men of color, she says, "Mayor Bloomberg wants to be a part of both."

From her office overlooking New York Harbor on a gray day, Lieberman says that she understands how stop-and-frisk "sets up so many young black and Latino men for failure." (Indeed, the NYCLU has sponsored much of the major research on this topic.)

But she's emphatic that, when describing how Bloomberg misses the chance to interrupt the "cradle-to-prison pipeline" for young men of color with his initiative, "You have to look at the schools."

School safety, as it is in New York City, moved from the control of the Board of Education to the NYPD in 1998. The Giuliani administration, Lieberman says, "withheld the numbers that year. As it turns out, violent crime was on the decline. As there has been a decline in violent school crime ever since then, paralleling the decline in crime rates all over the country."

And yet, Lieberman says, once Giuliani's NYPD took over school safety, it created a "kind of 'Broken Windows' policing for kids—'Broken Windows, Junior.'" But even with Giuliani's zeal for school discipline, Lieberman says, there have been "massive increases in suspensions during the Bloomberg years."

Looking at the first full year when the "Education Mayor" was in charge, Lieberman says there were 31,879 suspensions that year. In 2009, there were 73,943.

The rate more than doubled in eight years.

"And who gets suspended?" Lieberman asks.

Surprise, surprise: Fifty-three percent of kids are black, 35 percent are Latino, 8 percent are white, and 4 percent are Asian.

Now, surely, there must be some merit to "getting the few bad apples out of the class," right? In covering education for the Voice, it has become apparent that the bane of most teachers' experience is the few students who keep everyone from learning.

But Bloomberg's "zero tolerance" approach to discipline has led to an environment where School Safety Agents can (and do) haul a five-year-old in handcuffs off to a psych ward for having a temper tantrum.

This overreliance on police, metal detectors, and suspensions has not come without consequences. And it disproportionately affects the young men Bloomberg now wants to help.

Lieberman refers to a recent report from the American Psychological Association about "zero tolerance" safety policies at schools. It found that, "Although there have been increased calls for the use of school security technology and school resource officers in the wake of publicized incidents of school homicide in the late 1990s, there is as [of] yet virtually no empirical data examining the extent to which such programs result in safer schools or more satisfactory school climate."

Lieberman says the study shows a correlation between school suspensions and the criminal justice system, and that "kids suspended for disciplinary infractions are more likely to be arrested in the criminal justice system than kids who are not suspended for the same behavior."

At the same time, a recent report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center points out that "educational outcomes in schools that resort to suspensions were no better than schools that did not resort to suspensions," according to Lieberman.

"When I first heard [this]," Lieberman says, "I said, there's no educational improvement when you suspend kids. This means that it doesn't hurt. Then I thought, holy shit! The kids who are suspended are put at much greater risk." And, it makes nothing safer.

"So if Michael Bloomberg is 'Just the facts, ma'am,' he's got to grapple with that," Lieberman says.

Beyond suspensions, the general state of security in New York's schools creates an environment, Lieberman believes, where "the message to kids when they can't get to school without going through a metal detector or through some gauntlet of cops, is that 'We don't trust you.' It's the police approach; it's how the police treat people in Brownsville. 'You could be committing a crime . . . You'll never amount to anything.'"

In the schools, "there are over 5,000 cops," Lieberman says, far more than there are guidance counselors. Despite that "the number of students has gone down under the Bloomberg administration by about 100,000," she notes, "it's the only department which hasn't been cut in size and budget in the recent round of budget cuts."

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