Preppin’ for Prison


Three years into a four-year pilot program giving the New York Police Department control of safety in the public schools, sexual assaults have increased so dramatically that the City Council is now arguing for the addition of 200 more cops plus surveillance cameras in stairwells.

Many in the community—parents, kids, teachers, and some elected officials—say the council is ignoring what’s really going on. New York’s black and Hispanic families worry that the NYPD’s historic use of discriminatory and aggressive tactics against minorities has resulted not in protection for their kids, but in criminalization. They say we’ve turned our schools into training grounds for prisons, complete with metal detectors, frisking, and holding cells.

It cannot be denied that when the cops first took control in 1998, the public school system and its students were out of control. Innocent teachers and students were beaten up, slashed, and even killed. Rightly, Mayor Giuliani, who has suggested the Board of Education be “blown up,” argued that not only were students uneducated, but they were also allowed to commit violent crimes without schools reporting them to the police.

His answer to the “crisis”? The NYPD. In a speech on education, the mayor claimed the city’s finest could provide the screening, training, and supervision to “remake the Division of School Safety into a professional, disciplined force, sensitive to the needs of students, teachers, and staff.” He dismissed the idea of police misconduct and declared the NYPD “the most restrained” officers in the country. With that, the cops took over school safety for the first time in the city’s history.

Board of Education member Irving Hamer now regrets his role in the decision, which in the last two years has led to the citywide doubling of court summonses for kids 16 and up, all while sexual assault has grown—by nearly 13 percent this year—and slashings and robberies continue. “I just hate that I was even in on it,” says Hamer, who joined the unanimous vote but now believes the arrangement has “criminalized school buildings.” The increasing police presence “has an undertone that is not good, and is not something we should do to children, who are so vulnerable to images”—especially, he says, “in light of the history of the police department in communities of color.”

As the kids see it, Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to about 5 p.m., they are eyeballed, stopped, and often bullied by officers who are trained to track and punish criminals.

Take the scene outside Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Manhattan, where each morning a couple thousand kids, still half asleep, line up around the building. On a freezing Tuesday this year, the line is backed up because one of the two metal detectors is broken; the wait could be another hour or two. The teens seem accustomed to the line, killing time and cold by nestling together and talking about everything from the latest clothes to J.Lo and Puffy, and even the cops staked out across the street in paddy wagons “clockin’ ” them.

Aside from a few sighs and rolling eyes, they ignore the suspicious glares from Five-O, opting instead to focus on the tight security check ahead.

In white suburban America, where the most brutal acts of student violence have taken place, parents and community leaders resist metal detectors and police, arguing that criminalizing schools is too high a price. But in New York City, where 85 percent of the students are kids of color, these procedures have silently become daily routine. As of June 2000, there were 191 baggage X-ray machines and 305 walk-through metal detectors in use in 72 schools, with more to come.

At Martin Luther King Jr., each child swipes a photo ID card through a computer, knowing that a forgotten card means having to manually enter an ID number, and a forgotten number means access could be denied for the day. These cards are linked to a database that includes the student’s class schedule as well as records of lateness, absence, cutting, truancy, fighting, and other offenses.

Any card branded with an infraction will trigger a buzz and a red bulb alerting officers to remove the student from the line for questioning and possible disciplinary action. If all is well with the card, a green bulb clears the student for the next checkpoint. Here, they send their bags through an X-ray machine, then shuffle through a metal detector, where a harmless belt buckle, ruler, or piece of jewelry could set off the alarm, subjecting any student to a body scan and pat down. The kids are more preoccupied with the ringing of the first-period bell than with civil rights violations, since anyone who hasn’t cleared security by then will be marked for cutting and have to wait on line until second period.

This prison-like system sometimes causes more problems than it prevents.

Last October, Raymone, a 14-year-old who’s being raised by his mother, ran into trouble when he tried to enter Prospect Heights High School without his ID. An unarmed safety agent told him that without a card, he’d have to leave.

What happened next isn’t clear. An assistant principal says the safety agent reported that Raymone started pushing him. Raymone claims an officer shoved him toward the door. “He just kept pushing me and saying, ‘You gotta leave,’ even though he knew I belonged there. I walked through those doors every day, but he didn’t care. So I got mad and I pulled away from him.

“Next thing I know we’re stumbling, and nine other guards are all over me, and glass from a window nearby is crashing everywhere. I was scared and mad, but I couldn’t do anything. The guard said I punched him, so they cuffed me and took me to the precinct.”

When his mother arrived at her job in the U.S. Treasury Department, a coworker handed her a message saying that her son was being held at the 71st Precinct. “My heart dropped when I got to the precinct,” she says. “My child’s neck, wrists, and back were bruised. Buttons were torn off his shirt. I wasn’t able to protect him, and it was the worst pain I’ve ever felt. And for what? Just because he didn’t have an ID?”

If anyone from the school had called to tell her about Raymone’s lack of an ID, his mother says, she would have picked him up. Instead, she ended up spending four hours in the police station, waiting for an officer to file a complaint. She was left to deal with Raymone’s bruises, his subsequent expulsion, his legal fees, conviction for assault, and punishment of six months’ probation and court-mandated counseling.

His mother is convinced the scars will remain, even after the sentence is over. “There is no ending to this,” she says. “Once a child gets caught up in the system, it follows them for life. He’s branded now, and nothing I can do will erase that.”

Police presence has changed the coming-of-age experience for this generation of students. Last December, Martin Luther King Jr. High held its first school dance of the year. As the students partied and celebrated their freshman year, six safety agents and 10 armed police stood guard in the main entrance, overshadowing photos of Reverend King and a copy of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

These kids go to schools with metal grates on the windows, steel doors, and surveillance cameras. When suspected of breaking a rule, they’re held by officers, detained, and interrogated in rooms the students call “the cells.”

For all this, the schools don’t feel much safer. In November, the Joint Committee on School Safety, staffed equally by representatives from the mayor’s and the chancellor’s offices, produced the first official report since the takeover. The committee wrote that 67 percent of all principals polled said “there has been no change in their school’s climate of safety” since the transfer.

But parents, and many principals, say there’s been a big change—though not one they want. “You cannot have children this exposed to cops and not expect the kids to get the short end of the stick,” says Carrie Monroe, the mother of a 15-year-old at Prospect Heights. “Cops in the train station when they arrive for school, more cops parked outside the school, and then toy cops inside the school patting them down. How can they learn in that environment? My son is always coming home with some horror story about kids being unnecessarily stopped by police. It’s not right.”

The numbers tell a complicated story. The joint committee report indicates the total number of criminal incidents has dropped 17 percent. Burglary is way down. And arrests—when a student is taken to the precinct and ordered to appear in court—have dropped by 23 percent. But the total number of students having encounters with law enforcement has jumped—by 17 percent. The number of kids between seven and 16 getting “juvenile reports,” which go on file at the precinct, is up 12 percent. The number of kids 16 and up getting summonses—which can be issued either at school or at the precinct, and which also require an appearance in court—has gone up more than 100 percent.

Giuliani’s “quality of life” tactics have infiltrated the city schools. Cops have stepped up surveillance and enforcement in a way that is perceived as harassment. They’re writing hundreds of summonses—457 in one recent year alone—for what would otherwise be normal, adolescent acting out. In the first year of the pilot program, trespassing shot up 325 percent, loitering 230 percent—kids hanging out, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Everything that’s wrong [with Giuliani’s police tactics] on the streets is multiplied tenfold when you apply it to the schools,” says Nancy Ginsburg, a Legal Aid attorney who deals with juvenile offenders.

“How do you evaluate what’s disorderly conduct for a 15-year-old?” Ginsburg continues. “Kids by their nature are disorderly. They do wacky things! They run around the hallways and pick off people’s hats—that’s grand larceny!” If a beef between two kids ends in a fight, she says, “It could be because they don’t want to look like a wuss—that’s criminal intent for 15-year-olds!” With adolescents, she says, “There’s no end to what you can say is criminal behavior.”

The ordinary attitude of a high school kid can be the very thing that sets cops off. In a report on city policing released last July, mayoral candidate and public advocate Mark Green uncovered what black and Hispanic people have always known about police brutality. In “43 percent of the cases where officers were actually disciplined,” Green wrote, “acts of misconduct occurred when officers believed that victims were being disrespectful.”

The same complaints of racial profiling and excessive force on the streets are now being voiced by students and parents. “Every time the city claims that crime is down, black people start getting violated and there is always some excuse to brush it off,” says Carl Monroe, father of a Prospect Heights student. “I don’t want to be one of those fathers whose kid gets shot by mistake. It’s obvious that no one is watching how the cops treat our kids.”

Much of the daily enforcement is actually done by a largely black and Hispanic force of safety agents equipped with handcuffs. Since the pilot program began, the agents have been getting 120 additional hours of training from police academy instructors who teach them to think like cops. The law section, for example, has jumped from 28 to 51 hours, with additional emphasis on crime classification, probable cause and reasonable suspicion, and search and seizure.

“We were trained to keep track of repeat offenders for truancy, cutting, lateness, fighting, and any other negative behavior patterns,” says a former high school safety agent in Queens who didn’t want her name used, because she now works for another part of the department. “The job became more hardcore and criminal-oriented.”

She dismisses the idea that kids are harassed or coerced by safety agents and other officers. “It’s not that simple,” she says. Most problems, she believes, stem from inadequate training for a job that deals with adolescents in turmoil. When the NYPD first took over, agents underwent a onetime training period of nine weeks.

“What little child psychology and sensitivity training we got could never prepare anyone to deal with the range of emotions that 2000 kids come to school with every day,” she says. “Sometimes you really have to back off and realize what these kids go through when they are not in school. At the end of the day, they are still kids.”

Uncomfortable with arresting and fingerprinting students, the woman transferred out of the schools.

Some of her peers have taken a different route. School-safety agents can now be promoted into better-paying jobs as New York City cops, which may mean they have more incentive to act tough. Every time there is an incident involving a student, they are required to phone it in to a 24-hour school-safety operations center. The offense is classified under the penal code, then entered into a central computer, so the police can keep track of crime patterns. The system is modeled on COMPSTAT, the police database used to target trouble spots.

Since the takeover, police have been working more closely with principals to develop safety plans that consider not just the school, but the entire neighborhood. Safety agents aren’t the only cops focused on kids. Mornings and afternoons, under the Safe Corridor program, uniformed police patrol 158 routes between bus and train stations and schools. Under Safe Passage, 98 transit police were assigned to cover the stations near schools.

Students have their own take on the police presence. “The po-po are like recruiters around here, only they don’t want us for the NBA or the NFL. They want us for jail,” says 16-year-old Tarell, who was recently kicked out of Prospect Heights High School for fighting and spent two days in jail.

“People don’t understand what we go through,” Tarell says. “You could be standing up chillin’ with your friends, and they will roll up on you and start questioning you for no reason. They don’t even do it in a nice way. It’s like, ‘Didn’t I see you here before? Get your ass up on the wall and spread ’em.’ Your first instinct is to run, but you know that will make it 10 times as bad.”

Nowhere is police scrutiny tighter than around the “zone” schools, for which the minimum requirement is to live in the neighborhood. The student bodies consist of those who either didn’t apply to or didn’t get accepted by a specialized high school. Some have been kicked out of other schools.

Most “zoners,” as the kids call them, are located in or close to ghettos. Children of immigrants, the poor, unemployed, crackheads, alcoholics, and ol’ school gangbangers are educated (or not) at schools like Wingate and Erasmus in Brooklyn, Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy in the Bronx, and Franklin K. Lane on the Brooklyn-Queens border. These schools, the melting pots of education, have been easy prey for Giuliani’s quality of life crackdown.

“Lord knows these schools and the kids live up to their reputations,” says Brooklyn high school teacher Yvonne Milford. “It’s easy for police to bait these kids. Many of them have turbulent lives. They are often abused, confused, and angry. They fight, curse, steal, and threaten, because they are not matured enough to deal with the hardships of life.

“Despite all of that, there hasn’t been one mass murder committed in any of these schools,” she adds. “It’s a double-edged sword. As teachers we try to encourage them to come to school, and when they get here, they are forced to share their space with cops who use their problems against them.”

Ten or 20 safety agents roaming the halls of a zone school is standard. They scatter, sweeping the stairwells looking for kids cutting class. In some schools, like Harry S. Truman in the Bronx, they’re backed by armed cops who also patrol the premises. During one tour of Truman High, all was quiet until seven kids—four boys and three girls—were picked up by regular police for loitering outside the school. One boy protested that he’d left school because he was sick and asked a police officer to call his mother. “I’m your mother right now,” the officer said.

In that incident, police called parents and wrote up summonses from inside Truman’s school-safety command center. But often kids who get arrested are automatically taken to the precinct, advocates say. Many kids who get summonses for lesser offenses wind up at the police station—with all the other alleged criminals.

“Students aren’t getting written up in schools,” says Elisa Hyman, deputy director of Advocates for Children. “They’re getting handcuffed and then taken to the station.”

Police don’t have a firm breakdown of kids who receive summonses at school and those who are taken to the precinct on the spot, and in any case, statistics don’t paint the whole picture. Police and school safety agents are adults dealing with kids and teens, and they may do things that never show up on the books. Kids say they are often frisked, handcuffed, and questioned, then sent on their way.

Ginsburg, the juvenile attorney, says students who are handcuffed and therefore “not free to go” often feel as if they’ve been under arrest, even if the police never record a bust. These kids are getting lessons in how it feels to be a criminal, even if they haven’t been charged.

“It’s really sad,” Milford says. “We can’t seem to teach them how to read and write, but we allow the police to educate them about fingerprints, holding cells, and plea bargaining. We seem to be choosing handcuffs over textbooks.”

Each generation has raised its share of rebellious teenagers, from the rollers of the ’50s to the stoners of the ’60s. In the suburbs, white parents resist bringing in high security to deal with their rebellious teens. In this city, public school adolescents risk paying an exceptionally high price for what could be ordinary acting out. Black and Hispanic parents have long been stripped of the right to have their children properly educated in this city; now they are forced to watch as schools—supported by their tax dollars and administered by people they elect—become a vessel for introducing their children to the criminal justice system.

Given current rates of incarceration, three out of every 10 black males can expect to do time. Some 64 percent of the people behind bars in the U.S. are African American or Hispanic, a proportion nearly equal to that of the city’s 1.1 million public school students. The question becomes: Which classrooms are those future inmates sitting in now?

Additional reporting: Alana Forbes