The Mayor and His Shock Troops


Just as the principal of a school is ultimately responsible for the students’ success and failure, so Michael Bloomberg is accountable for what the New York Civil Liberties Union, in its “Criminalizing the Classroom” report, calls “the brutish and belligerent” environment in our schools caused by police as they needlessly trample the civil liberties of students and teachers while attempting to cut down on crime.

The strategically unaffiliated Bloomberg will eventually announce a presidential run long planned by his staff. And when he does, he’ll campaign, in part, on his achievements in the schools, including rising math scores and ridding the schools of weapons and student felons. Bloomberg—who insisted on assuming control of the school system when he took office—often claims that his record as mayor will primarily be judged by how well students achieve the knowledge to be productive citizens.

But there’s another side of his record, and I’ve suggested to the producers of the PBS series Frontline—by far the best television documentary unit since Edward R. Murrow’s—that they do their own investigative report on how Bloomberg and his police commissioner, Ray Kelly, are teaching civics to future voters. Such a film would instruct other school systems thinking of emulating the Bloomberg-Kelly model, as well as inform voters in the presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, what can be done to secure the safety of students without handcuffing them for alleged minor violations, and without arresting teachers at the scene who oppose treating students as if they were in some “tough love” boot camp?

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has stayed on the sidelines, although in August 2006, more than 100 students—protesting at Department of Education headquarters about police practices that make them feel like criminals (“City Limits,” August 7, 2006)—delivered their concerns to him.

The chancellor must break his strange silence and firmly instruct the mayor and the police commissioner that school administrators must regain authority over school safety—including over the Police Department’s School Safety Division and its many School Safety Agents (SSAs).

Clearly, the Police Department’s training of uniformed police and the SSAs has been astoundingly inadequate. The recruitment, training, and management of SSAs has to be transferred to the Department of Education so that they—as well as the uniformed police—will learn, as the NYCLU puts it, “the differences between street and school environments.”

Also, in view of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s highly selective “stop-and-frisk” policies on the city streets, Commissioner Kelly needs to refresh his officers’ knowledge of the Fourth Amendment. Black and Hispanic students and adults still report that they are stopped and searched on our streets much more frequently than whites—and in our schools, “minorities” make up the overwhelming majority. (In light of this, the NYCLU is also working on an investigation of the NYPD’s current stop-and -frisk activities in the city.)

As for policing in the schools, in “Criminalizing the Classroom,” the NYCLU and the ACLU state that “New York City is alone among the largest districts [in the country] in placing schools personnel who are neither responsible to the educational bureaucracy nor specifically trained to ‘educate, counsel and protect our school communities.’ ”

In contrast to New York City, the report adds, many of the country’s largest school districts “have their own school police departments under the supervision of a high-level education administrator. . . . In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Miami-Dade Public Schools, and the Clark County School District in Nevada—respectively, the second, fourth and sixth largest school districts in the country—the school police departments report to and are supervised by educators.”

The next mayor and schools chancellor must start moving in that direction, and they should be prodded by parents and educators, as well as the City Council (the fiery Charles Barron ought to be in the forefront of that contribution to civil rights and civil liberties).

Klein, who used to be a civil libertarian, can make a first move by insisting publicly on amending the NYPD Patrol Guide on “Handcuffing Students Arrested Within School Facilities,” which states: “Whether probable cause to arrest exists will be determined by the Police Department. While the desires of school personnel (principals, teachers, school safety officers, etc.) may be considered by the uniformed member of the service in determining whether an arrest is warranted, the views of school personnel are NOT controlling
.” (Emphasis in the original.)

It’s worth noting that the far more numerous School Safety Agents are not in uniform, but they do have the power of arrest, and they are employed and “trained” by the School Safety Division of the NYPD.

As for reporting abuses, students, their families, and educators cannot expect much help from Klein’s Department of Education until the chancellor decides otherwise. The NYCLU recommends adding “meaningful mechanisms for complaints, including access to the Civilian Complaint Review Board.”

Based on its record, I have little confidence in the CCRB, and would welcome suggestions from the New York City Bar Association (which is acutely attuned to civil liberties) and other organizations regarding how to create a safe learning environment in the schools that doesn’t resemble a police lockdown—by giving students, parents, and educators ways to register and monitor complaints.

Years ago, in his book How Children Fail, John Holt—a penetrating observer of the schools—wrote: “Even in the kindest and gentlest of schools, children are afraid, many of them a great deal of the time, some of them almost all the time. . . afraid of failing, afraid of being kept back, afraid of being called stupid, afraid of feeling themselves stupid.”

In Michael Bloomberg’s public schools, many students are also afraid of being bullied and handcuffed by his police personnel.