Will Christine Quinn Stand Up to Commissioner Kelly?


In her State of the City speech on February 12, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn—an undeclared but highly likely contender as our next mayor—warned the incumbent, Michael Bloomberg, that she wouldn’t stand for his proposed cuts in school funds, “because we cannot sacrifice educational quality in the face of fiscal responsibility.” But she didn’t say a word about what her likely main opponent in the next election, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, is doing to destroy the quality of life for students in those schools, with the NYPD’s School Safety Agents and regular police rampaging through corridors and classrooms, handcuffs at the ready.

Kelly will be hard for Quinn to beat: Maurice Carroll, the director of the Quinnipiac University Poll and a Kelly booster, reports in “Ray of Hope” (Daily News, October 14) that the police commissioner “is the star of the Bloomberg team every time [I ask] New Yorkers to rate their officials.”

Unless she ends her chronic silence about how the Kelly gang is teaching students to fear the NYPD, Quinn may find it hard to counter the commissioner’s image as Bloomberg’s “star.”

And Quinn certainly knows what’s going on. When the New York Civil Liberties Union’s executive director, Donna Lieberman, testified before the City Council last October 10, she quoted from a letter that Kelly wrote to Robert Jackson, head of the council’s committee on education: “There are more than 5,000 School Safety Agents [with the power to arrest] in the schools. There are approximately 200 armed police officers in the schools.”

And the NYCLU has also noted, in its determined effort to bring these official vigilantes under control, that “this massive presence would make the NYPD’s school safety division the fifth largest police force in the country—larger than [those of] Washington D.C., Detroit, Boston, or Las Vegas.”

Back in October, Lieberman told the City Council and Speaker Quinn that ever since the NYPD had taken over control of school safety in 1998, the “police officers and SSAs brought into the schools the thuggishness and aggressiveness of the street corner. In this respect, the police presence in the schools . . . undermined the very sense of security and the safe learning environment that they were brought into the schools to protect.”

And in this world-renowned center of democracy in action, the great city of New York, there is, the NYCLU emphasizes, “no effective mechanism to hold School Safety Agents accountable for this misconduct” (emphasis added)—to say nothing of the uniformed police.

“Misconduct”? The NYCLU is being too kind. In this largely segregated school system, as I’ve documented in previous columns, the brunt of this criminal police behavior falls mainly on what used to be called “minorities.”

The NYCLU hasn’t just been leading the efforts to expose this shame of New York City; it has also proposed the Student Safety Act, a piece of legislation designed to compel Mayor Bloomberg, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, and the star himself, Police Commissioner Kelly, not only to ensure school safety but to stay on the right side of the law themselves.

Last month, in addition to the NYCLU, a coalition of organizations—including Advocates for Children, the Correctional Association, Teachers United, the Urban Youth Collaborative, and the Children’s Defense Fund–New York—all urged the City Council to enact the law.

This same City Council hearing also dealt with an issue directly related to the overpolicing of our schools: a student-suspension rate that has increased by 76 percent from 2000 to 2005 (the most recent year for statistics). In a later column, I’ll delve further into the consequences of these extensive suspensions, which involve more students here in those five years than the entire student population of New Haven or Camden, New Jersey.

As Lieberman testified, students who have been suspended are three times more likely to drop out of school, which also makes them more likely to be pulled into the school-to-prison pipeline. Years ago, reporting inside a high-security juvenile prison, I found that the overwhelming percentage of inmates had been school dropouts.

As for the Student Safety Act, it gives students the right to file complaints against School Safety Agents (who are hired and “trained” by the NYPD) with the Civilian Complaint Review Board. These complaints can be made for “excessive use of force, abuse of authority, discourtesy, or use of offensive language.”

Moreover, this legislation encourages prosecution by the state of those SSAs who retaliate against students for filing complaints against them.

The act also requires that the NYPD and the Department of Education report to the City Council four times a year about the number of criminal-incident reports (including handcuffing, arrests, etc.) by the SSAs in each school. The act also mandates reports “on the race/ethnicity, age, sex and special education status of students involved in any of these incidents—and against whom any police action is taken.” And more specifically: “The type of police action taken in each incident (arrest or summons)—and the class of each crime (felony, misdemeanor or violation).”

The Department of Education, which has scandalously and wholly abdicated its responsibility for school safety to Commissioner Kelly, will have to report four times a year to the City Council on “the number, length and cause of every suspension in the city.” Until now, the DOE hasn’t had to provide specific information on which students are barred from school and why. Now, the DOE will also have to report four times a year on “the race/ethnicity, age, sex and special education status of all students who are suspended, expelled, or removed from a classroom by a teacher.”

Which means that if this legislation is actually introduced in the City Council—are you listening, Speaker Quinn?—there may finally be transparency regarding what the NYPD and its School Safety Agents are doing in this city’s schools.

The next step should be to hold the mayor, the police commissioner, and the schools chancellor specifically accountable for their nonfeasance in making this legislation so necessary. That would provide the students in this proud city with a valuable lesson: that no one—however high in status—is above the law.