The Strip-Search Room


When our mayor and schools chancellor accept awards from national education organizations for regenerating New York City’s schools, they somehow neglect to mention a certain school safety issue: There is a room, located in the dean’s office at Hillcrest High School in Queens, that students call “the strip-search room,” which is where School Safety Agents have manhandled students.

Attorney Victoria Renta Irwin, who is representing one of these students, 16-year-old Rohan Morgan, has filed a personal injury claim against the City of New York, saying that Morgan was handcuffed, dragged into that dreaded room on June 24 by School Safety Agents, and beaten. His crime: He brought his cell phone to summer school.

During previous sessions in the strip-search room, Irwin says, her client “suffered various injuries, including bruises, a lacerated finger, and a knee injury requiring surgery. . . . The mental, emotional, and physical trauma endured by Rohan is all the more troubling because it was inflicted by adults assigned to protect him. These incidents have robbed him of his dignity and have made going to school a terrifying experience for him.”

That’s true not just for Morgan, says 17-year-old Hillcrest senior, Deidra Jones: “They take you in the back room, and they strip-search you just to get your phone.”

As other battered Hillcrest students come to court, much of the evidence on which the lawsuits are based will come from the investigations and student interviews conducted by Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) in Jackson Heights, which describes itself as “a community-based social-justice organization of low-income South Asian immigrants, and immigrants facing deportation.”

For the past year, DRUM parents, students, and youth leaders have been organizing at Hillcrest while also calling again and again for the City Council to pass the Student Safety Act, which, as I’ve often reported, will finally bring accountability to these official SSA bullies; their ultimate boss (Ray Kelly); supine Schools Chancellor Joel Klein; and, of course, the schools’ Commander in Chief Michael Bloomberg, who has not said a single word on how the students’ fear of the police—not only at Hillcrest High—has been instilled under his watch.

I’d sure like to see Kelly, Klein, and Bloomberg in the dock as witness Kumar Heeralall, a member of DRUM Youth Power, confronts them, repeating his testimony for DRUM on what happened to him on May 24, 2007: “I was 19 at the time and accidentally brought my phone in to school that day in my pocket. . . . When I walked through the metal detector, it beeped. The SSA agent Gregory Robinson . . . told me to take it out of my pocket or ‘I’ll slam your face against the desk’. . . . I took out my phone and threw it on the table, but it fell to the floor. I bent down to pick up the phone, and that’s when Officer Robinson grabbed my arm very aggressively and started pulling it and me. . . . I kept yelling at him to let go of my arm and he wouldn’t, so I tried to push him away, but my hand accidentally touched his face. . . . Robinson starts hitting me back, and all the other guards come on top of me to restrain me. They take me to the strip-search room. . . . They handcuff me to a desk, and a guard held my hands to my back, and Robinson starts hitting and kicking me. . . . I end up being taken to central booking and spent the whole day in a cell. I was suspended for a week and had to go to Queens Criminal Court, where I was charged with assault and resistance to arrest. My lawyers told me to go to anger-management classes for 12 weeks. I went to those classes, got a certificate, and brought it to court—where my case was dropped.”

Heeralall wanted to complain, but “I thought it’s my words against the School Safety Agent and school staff, so nobody will take me seriously. Now that I know that more students have been beaten like me, I have to stand up.”

Why doesn’t teachers’ union President Randi Weingarten stand up? As I’ve reported, UFT teachers trying to intervene have been scorned by School Safety Agents. If she came out for the Student Safety Act, Heeralall and other students abused by School Safety Agents would realize that she could help them pass the act.

The Student Safety Act has not even had a hearing before the City Council. Although a majority of the Council supports the Act, one man stands with the School Safety Agents—who, by the way, are trying to get civil service status from the City Council. As I reported last week, Queens Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., chairman of the Public Safety Committee, is blocking a hearing. A member of his staff told Vladic Ravich—who has been covering this vital story for the Queens Chronicle far better than any of the city’s one-shot dailies or radio and television stations—that there aren’t enough funds for what the bill would cost. (The Student Safety Act would allow parents and students to complain to the Civilian Complaint Review Board.)

On December 12, the New York Civil Liberties Union—which broke this story and has kept it insistently alive—submitted the bill to the city’s Independent Budget Office. That nonpartisan committee will find out the actual costs for the CCRB to handle complaints about the roughhouse School Safety Agents—thereby calling Vallone’s bluff.

Ravich tells me that when the CCRB previously testified before Vallone’s Public Safety Committee, it said the cost would be about $1.5 million ($1.2 million plus the funds for hiring additional personnel).

Consider this: New York City spends about $200 million a year on school safety. Is this small percentage of that sum too much to prevent more students from undergoing—and long remembering—the effects of what Rohan Morgan and other students are experiencing?

It’s also significant that the NYCLU has disclosed that the NYPD has, from 2002 to 2007, received more than 2,700 complaints about police misconduct in schools. Whatever happened to these complaints, Commissioner Kelly?

Meanwhile, Rani Chetty, a DRUM youth leader, asks the question that pierces to the disgraceful irresponsibility of Klein, Kelly, and Bloomberg: “Who has authority over what happens? The principal cannot control security, and the guards (including the menacing School Safety Agents) protect each other. So we don’t know what to do when something happens.”

As the New York state legislature decides whether Bloomberg will continue to run this city’s schools, it damn well should call as witnesses Morgan and other students around the city with the bitter firsthand knowledge of what the NYCLU has fully documented in its “Criminalizing the Classroom” report. There is a need for thoroughly trained police presence in the schools, but not for ruffians with the power to manacle and arrest.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 7, 2009

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