Arrests Plummet in NYC Schools, but Most Still Involve Students of Color

The mayor gives a speech on schools in 2014.
The mayor gives a speech on schools in 2014.
Rob Bennett / Mayoral Photography Office

Arrests in city schools are down over 50 percent, and a whopping 80 percent fewer summonses were issued to students last school year, according to new data released today by the NYPD.

In conjunction with the release of the new data, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a second wave of school discipline reforms, including an end to suspensions for students in second grade and below, and a new review policy that will use NYPD school-level safety data to determine whether metal detectors are needed.

The reforms are part of an ongoing plan to rid the city of “zero-tolerance,” overly punitive disciplinary policies.

“Rather than mere punishment, proactive approaches to discipline can ensure safe schools and develop in students greater independence and ownership of behavior,” de Blasio wrote in a letter included in the report.

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According to the report, suspensions, arrests, and summonses handed out in schools are all on the decline. In the 2010–11 school year, 3,133 students were arrested by school safety or patrol officers, compared to 1,155 students last year.

Between January and March of this year, 436 students were arrested, putting the city on track to match last year’s rate. Eighty percent fewer summonses were issued by school safety officers last school year compared to 2010–11.

The report marked the first time the NYPD included data detailing how frequently students are handcuffed. Seven hundred students were handcuffed in the first quarter of 2016, including 83 emotionally disturbed children. While the majority of these students were subsequently arrested, 161 were not. It also expanded reporting to include school-based summonses issued by patrol officers, as opposed to school safety officers.

Despite these improvements, nearly all police interactions that happen in schools across the city involve students of color, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Mayor de Blasio has sought to reduce punitive discipline in the city’s schools over the past year, in favor of restorative practices that focus on understanding the reasons for and correcting bad behavior. Insubordination suspensions fell 81 percent in the first half of the 2015–16 school year, following the implementation of a review procedure that made it more difficult for principals to dole out suspensions for murkily defined disruptive behaviors; these low-level suspensions have for years reflected vast disparities in the treatment of students of color, and are largely considered to be discriminatory against black and Latino students (and students with disabilities) and a direct contributor to the school-to-prison pipeline.

Last year’s reforms were met with criticism from advocates and the teachers union, who support restorative justice methods but said that limiting administrators’ ability to suspend students impeded on their ability to keep schools safe. The Daily News reported that a survey issued by the teachers union in January found 62 percent of teachers polled believed their schools weren’t equipped to provide alternative intervention services in the absence of suspensions. Eighty percent said they lost learning time due to disruptive students.

Still, NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton says schools are some of the safest places in the city: Major felonies are down 35 percent over the past five years alone, adding credence to the mayor’s belief that policies aimed at limiting the use of punitive discipline do not make schools less safe. The new reforms include additional funding for training in restorative justice disciplinary practices, especially for superintendents, who now have more direct authority over school principals and will need help supporting the schools under their watch through the continued shift.

As part of the new school safety plan, schools will be required to document proof of positive supports and interventions attempted before they are allowed to suspend a student. The plan will provide $47 million annually to shore up school climate and mental health initiatives, including $15 million that will go to schools with the highest number of arrests, summonses, suspensions, and calls to emergency medical services. A pilot program in twenty schools in the South Bronx and central Brooklyn will assign four full-time behavioral health professionals between them, as well as establish hospital-based medical support and a call-in center that will help centralize mental health assessments. The ratio of students to counselors is 322 to 1, higher than the recommended ratio of 250 to 1, according to the NYCLU. The ratio of students to school safety officers is 192 to 1.

Johanna Miller, advocacy director at the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that one promising reform announced today is a more detailed Memorandum of Understanding, a document that spells out what role police and school safety officers play inside school halls. The previous iteration is vague and “deeply insufficient,” Miller says.

Without a more detailed understanding of police roles in schools, “that is when you end up with kids in handcuffs for things like writing on desks or even schoolyard fights. With no instructions [everything] becomes a police matter and often it happens to students of color,” Miller said. A new MOU will “restrict school safety officer [involvement] to instances where someone’s safety is at risk and not where a kid is misbehaving,” she said.

Read Mayor de Blasio’s full proposal here.


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