Perps or pupils? Safety policy creates friction in New York City schools

Police agents say they're making dangerous schools safer; parents, students, civil liberties lawsuit say tactics go too far

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A New York City school safety vehicle.

Robert Stolarik

When Minerva Dickson first saw her high school she thought it looked like a prison. After her first week, she says, she realized how right her initial impressions were.

Every day when she arrived at the Thomas Jefferson Campus in Brownsville, Brooklyn, she waited in a line that snaked out onto Pennsylvania Avenue. She would shuffle up two steps passing beneath words from Abraham Lincoln inscribed on the neo-classical pediment: “Let Reverence for the Laws Become the Political Religion of the Nation.”

Next, she reached into her pocket for her identification card and slid it through a machine. When it recognized her, it blurted an approving beep and a green light would flash. When it didn’t, the machine made an abrasive buzzing noise and lit up red.

Clear of the reader, she headed to the metal detectors. There, at least a half dozen school safety agents waited. School safety agents, who answer to the New York City Police Department, wear a police uniform and a shield. A pair of handcuffs dangles from their belts.

Under their gaze, Dickson would remove her jewelry, hairpins, and shoes. She would place her purse and her backpack on the conveyor belt and wait for an agent to nod her through. Another would run a security wand around her diminutive frame while she stood arms out, legs spread.

She’d collect her belongings, slip on her shoes and hurry to first period.

“They never said anything to us,” she said, standing outside her school one recent evening. “There was no relationship at all. They just stared at the monitors. They treated us like criminals. It made me hate school. When you cage up students like that it doesn’t make us safe, it makes things worse.”

More than the arrests, the summonses, and the substitution of detention halls with jail cells, critics of the burgeoning police presence in public schools point to the corrosive daily experiences of students like Dickson to explain why the system needs to change. Students have grown to see school as a joyless place where they are treated like perps instead of pupils, critics say. 

Police officials says it's a matter of safety, and cite statistics showing a substantial drop in crime in the schools. But a growing number of parents and educators disagree. With the growth of the police presence in New York City in the last decade, students say their confidence has eroded not only in school, but in other civic institutions as well. Critics worry that poor and minority students more and more see education as extension of a burgeoning police state, one that seems to disproportionately target them. Whether with stop-and-frisks in the streets or in “the Riker’s Island treatment” on their way to class, students say they feel like the government’s push to make them secure in school has left them feeling like inmates instead. And with authority for school safety lodged in the most powerful police department in the world, educators feel like they are helpless to change it.

On its own, the 5200 school safety agents in the NYPD’s School Safety Division, and the additional 190 armed officers -- stationed in the halls of some of the city’s 1700 schools make up a force bigger than the police departments of Boston, Las Vegas, Detroit or Washington, D.C. If removed from the NYPD, the division would be the fifth biggest police force in the country. And like members in the NYPD, the agents have full arresting power on and off school grounds, both in the city and the state.

Prospective agents are trained for 14 weeks in the police academy, only a fraction of the six months of training police officers receive. They leave as peace officers, who have the power to use handcuffs and, when necessary, deadly force.

The New York Civil Liberties Union has a federal lawsuit against the city alleging the agents make wrongful arrests, use excessive force, and detain and handcuff students in violation of their Fourth Amendment rights. Johanna Miller, the Assistant Advocacy Director, hopes the courts will limit the School Safety Division’s authority and give educators control over discipline.

She said recent data reveals a system that targets poor and minority students. There were 2,548 students arrested or cited for a summons for the 216 high school and 209 middle school days from July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012 -- 11 students a day. Of those, 95 percent were either black or Latino.

She said agents often arrest a child instead of trying to de-escalate a tense situation, contributing to what she calls a school-to-prison pipeline. Poor, minority students often get arrested for behavior that would be treated as a school matter in a wealthier school.

“The students that are more likely to get in trouble with the police at younger ages are more likely to drop out,” she said. “And the dropouts are much more likely to end up in jail once they leave school.”

Miller concedes there needs to be security at schools. But it needs to be supervised by the schools, not the police. Now, she notes, there are more cops in the schools than guidance counselors and social workers combined.

“It shouldn’t be a permanent occupation,” she said. "What’s the point of putting kids through this nightmare?"

In December 2010, after languishing in various committees, the City Council unanimously passed the School Safety Act. The act mandates that the NYPD release reports on police activity in the schools. For the first time in the country, disciplinary activity of students would be made public as a matter of law. Advocates hope the act serves as a model for reform.

But people in the system say even the most transparent reporting system misses the point. Dickson said there is no way to quantify what she went through attending a high school outfitted like a fortress. She said you can’t put a number on four years of being searched, and scanned, of turning a hallway corner to see a cop staring back.

Although it did not comment on this story, the NYPD’s position on school safety has been clear. In mid-August, in response to the first public release of school arrest data, the NYPD’s chief spokesman, Paul Browne, said in interviews with numerous publications that the NYCLU "persists in smearing school safety agents and police officers who do good work professionally and in an unbiased manner."

He said critics like the NYCLU and others dismiss the incidents that lead to arrests as typical horseplay among children, but he said that assumption is wrong.

“It can involve serious assaults, with weapons, and including sexual assaults and including serious crimes,” he said at the time.

He also said again and again that the high number of arrests of blacks and Latinos was not driven by bias but instead it was a result of the descriptions of suspects provided by victims.

He said school crime has plummeted under the current administration. In 2001 before the current administration took office, that there were 1,577 felonies compared to 801 felonies during the last school year under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly.

The student

One morning in her senior year Dickson was working on a school project. She snapped a picture with a digital camera of agents in the hallway. None of the agents’ faces were in the picture, just their backs. According to Dickson here’s what happened.

An agent shouted at Dickson: “Young lady, come here.” The flash, Dickson suspects, must have caught their attention.

Dickson complied.

The agent said: “Give me the camera.”

Dickson: “Why?”

Agent: “You can’t take pictures of agents that’s why.”

Dickson: "But there's no faces in it."

Agent: "Get out of my face young lady."

A dean snatched the camera away and escorted Dickson to the school's assistant principal of security. The dean, the agent and the principal proceeded to go through the pictures erasing any that included agents. They were going to confiscate the camera. It was the first time she had ever been in trouble.

"I started crying," she said. "Tears were pouring down my face. My eyes were all red."

It wasn't until a teacher saw her that anyone in the school tried to comfort her, she said. She later learned that the pictures were legal, but that they were not sanctioned. She was told she could use pictures approved by the Board of Education -- generic pictures of metal detectors and security stations pulled from a Google search-- but no pictures of agents.

The incident was never reported but it made an impression.

“It was the worst day of my life,” Dickson said. “It made me feel like a criminal for taking pictures. She made me feel like an inmate.”

In 1998 then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani signed off on a 15-page memorandum of understanding between the city’s Board of Education and police department transferring control of school safety from educators to officers.

With bland wording, the mayor revolutionized policing in the schools: “...it is therefore appropriate that the parties take all necessary steps to transfer the school security and ancillary functions performed by the Division of School Safety of the Board to the NYPD.”

At the time it was approved there were 3000 School Safety Agents. Now, there are 5200 agents (but 70,000 fewer students), up more than 60 percent from the 1998 staffing levels.

The mayor was responding in part to a notorious shooting that occurred at Dickson’s high school in Feburary, 1992 when Khalil Sumpter, 15, shot Ian Moore, 17, in the chest and Tyrone Sinkler, 16 in the head in second-floor hallway, killing them both. Although the shooting took place under Mayor David Dinkins watch, it cast a shadow into Giuliani’s administration.

The NYC Board of Education has not responded to requests for comment. The teachers' union declined to comment.

As years went by the Sumpter shootings became shorthand for safer schools. At the time, no one put up much of a fight. Even political opponents of Giuliani recognized that his consolidation of the housing and traffic cops in the NYPD was a smart and efficient move. When he did the same with school safety, Eugene O’Donnell, Professor of Police Studies at John Jay College, believed that nobody thought it would lead to this.

“It’s shocking that education got shunted aside in a large degree by scare-mongering,” O’Donnell said. “ You had the Thomas Jefferson shootings and other high profile incidents and they pounded on those incidents to expand the policing in the schools.”

O’Donnell said he is concerned that the “encampment approach” institutionalizes low expectations. It sets the bar at “no stabbings or shootings”, but does nothing to help children.

“The problem is that there’s a populist logic to a punitive approach,” he said. “Don’t give anyone a break, zero tolerance, don’t let anything slip by. After a while you lose your way.”

Critics can point to a list of high profile anecdotes over the years illustrating the agent overreach.

Chelsea Fraser, the 13-year old arrested and handcuffed in front of her classmates in April, 2007 at Dyker Heights Intermediate School for writing “okay” in her desk. Dennis Rivera, 5, a kindergartener, who had his tiny hands cuffed behind his back in January 2008 by an agent for throwing a temper tantrum at P.S. 81. Principal Mark Federman, a decorated educator and veteran of the city’s public school system, who was arrested for trying to stop one of his students from getting arrested.

The problem with emphasizing the extreme cases, critics say, is that it fails to show the toll a massive police presence has on students, educators and the learning environment.

The teacher

One teacher, who spoke on a condition of anonymity because she was worried about ramifications from her superiors, said in her school, there is no question of who is in charge.

“The educators defer to the police,” she said. “Absolutely. If the schools were in charge the agents would get to know the students and the techniques and the theories and the new ideas behind education and positive re-enforcement -- right now the agents are not part of any of that.”

It’s not just the gruff demeanor or the arguments they instigate with parents. She said the agents play into destructive stereotypes.

She said she has a number of students enrolled in her school who are poor and Latino and live in nearby city housing projects. She says the agents -- as many as 8 stationed in the halls at one time over the years -- constantly say behave or else. Agents say that dealing with them -- the police -- is a preparation for real life.

“The agents are acting like, ‘this is how it is in the hood’ or ‘this what these kids need’ and ‘this is what these kids are used to’ is something I’ve heard a lot over the years,” she said. “But If we’re going to break this dreary cycle were going to need to give the student an opportunity to get out of that environment, that mentality. These agents are adding to the cycle; they’re not giving the kid a chance to get out.”

She said her lowest moment as a teacher came when she didn’t stop an aggressive agent. When she first started as an elementary school teacher in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, she once saw an agent telling a poor Latina how if she kept misbehaving she would be taken to jail. The mother of the child had brought the student into school to orchestrate an intervention. She was pantomiming concern, the teacher said, pleading with the agent not to take her daughter. At the time she refused to participate. Now, with seven years experience, she would’ve stopped it.

“You can’t arrest a child for misbehaving in school,” she said. “What kind of relationship does that tell the kid to form with authority at the age of eight? It just tells them all the rumors they hear in the street are true. You should hate the cops. They are out to get you. Not only is it ridiculous, but how is it helpful? ”

The student’s behavior deteriorated, she said. Later in the school year the student was singled out for searches. She said agents made an “embarrassing show” of them.

“It affected her,” said the teacher who watched the student become more withdrawn over the year. “It was part of her experience. That’s the standard she was held to as an 8-year old.”

The teacher said the students’ exposure to an intrusive police presence undermines the school’s sense of community.

“School should be a safe place for children,” she said. “Safe doesn’t mean there’s some big, bad ass cop at the door. It means that students can relax and express themselves freely and be open to learning. This is elementary school, this is where these ideas need to start changing.”

The agent

On a recent overcast afternoon at the Grand Street Campus, a sprawling complex home to several high schools in the heavily Latino neighborhood of Bushwick, hundreds of school safety agents gathered after saying goodbye to one of their own. The sidewalks surrounding Grand Campus, normally a staging area for agents, had been converted into an impromptu parking lot. The agents stowed their cars while they attended a colleague’s funeral. Among them was an agent who agreed to talk about the job, on condition that he do so anonymously, for fear that speaking would get him in trouble.

"We’re out here busting our chops," he said. "Fatigue sets in. After awhile they come in for the money, the check. They don't come in for the heart."

The agent, who is 42, was in his uniform but his shirt was unbuttoned and untucked since he was off duty. One problem is that agents don't get the same respect that cops do. He pointed to the haggard looking agents climbing into their economy cars as an example. If a cop died, he said, there would be bagpipes and helicopters flying overhead.

"When you're a cop all you have to do is put your hand on your gun, you don't even have to pull it out, you just need to put your hand on it and all the sudden you get some attention," he said. “We're babysitting."

Unlike babysitters, he said he has to deal with riots, assaults and gang initiations. The agent said he used to be assigned to the Belmont Academy —  a shuttered suspension center —where students knew how to counterfeit money, smuggle weapons and make bombs.

“Unfortunately, we have students who don’t want to abide by the rules and regulations,” he said. “Take one of those civil liberties lawyers and put them in schools and see what we see and see why they get arrested it would change their minds. These kids these days, they’re off the chain.”

In his more than seven years working as an agent, he said he has made numerous arrests. He works with the Brooklyn Patrol, one of the city's ten task forces that assist agents who need back up.  When he gets called, he said, someone is getting arrested.

He suggested introducing a law course to the curriculum. If the children are taught the law, the logic goes, and they will understand their rights in the hybrid educational-criminal justice system.

"Then maybe they think twice," he said. "They learn that if you F up, your freedom will be taken from you."

But he said a bigger problem is a deep misunderstanding educators have of what his role is in the system. A common experience, he said, is when he goes on a call and subdues a student. When he begins cuffing him, a teacher will run up and start shouting.

"’What's going on? What are you doing?,’ they shout," he said. "I tell them, ‘I'm doing my job!’"

What people need to understand, he explains, is that school safety agents are not in the guidance counselor business. At the end of the day, he said, he and his fellow agents are there to enforce the law.

"If the agent is on the job and he sees a student disobey the law then he'll throw you up against the wall and that's that," he said.

The principal

Henry Leonardatos remembers walking through the Wise Towers with his mother and how she’d shoo him away from the blank-faced men swaying on the benches. The next day he would see syringes scattered on the ground. He lived in a public housing project known at the time as “Needle Park” for its concentration of heroin addicts. Now he is a principal at Clarkstown High School North, 25 miles from Time’s Square and decades removed from the towers.

“I lived in projects for seven years, we were one of the few white families there,” he said. “When I left I learned that that wasn’t the real world. What teachers and educators should be doing is getting these students to think outside of that world and prepare them to be productive instead of re-enforcing these patterns and norms out of them.”

Putting students through the rigamarole of pat downs and metal detectors and beefed up security ends up teaching students to not think for themselves.

“What do the kids do?” he said. “They play the role that is expected of them —  they will play the role of the criminal and victimizer because the cops will say, ‘don’t do this and don’t that.’ When you do that to a kid you’re telling the kid that this is how the world is supposed to be. You end putting the idea in the kid’s head that this is what he’s supposed to be doing.”

He said agents can’t police everyone in school -- they need to work together with the teachers, the administrators and the students.

“They can’t play out this version of policing that we see on the street where an agent sees someone do something and then shoves him against a wall, spreads him, searches then arrests him,” he said. “We can’t replicate that.”

Leonardatos has been the principal of 1500 poor, middle class, and rich students at the Rockland County school for eight years. There is one officer who sits at the entrance. He greets the students when they come in the morning.

“It’s two different worlds,” he said.

He said the agents in the city don’t know the students.

“They’re there to see who makes an infraction and make the arrest,” he said.

Leonardatos did his training in the Bronx, the borough with the most school arrests. He said the students in poor, minority communities can’t escape. They’re stopped and frisked in their neighborhoods, then they have agents at school. They end up seeing their school as another “appendage to the police state.”

As a principal he has overseen one arrest in his school in seven years. And that was done at the police station because of an “extreme situation.” If there’s a problem in his school the officer reports to him.

“It’s a safe environment to work in not because of the one officer at the door,” he said. “It’s because of trust. Communication. If there were arrests and pat downs and metal detectors the community wouldn’t stand for it. There’d be a rebellion.”

The yearbook 

Dickson estimates she wasted hours waiting in lines at school. Once at a conference shemet a student from Staten Island who, “blew her mind.” He told her that his school he didn’t have a garrison of agents greeting him.

“I thought all schools were like mine,” she said. “I couldn’t believe a student could just walk into their school without dealing with all that.”

Eventually after weeks and months of security checks and the ubiquitous presence of uniformed agents prowling the halls she internalized the “encampment mentality,” she said.

“We got used to it,” Dickson said. “We said to ourselves we can’t wait to grow up and get out of that school.”

Dickson, now a 19-year-old freshman psychology major at Ithaca College, does not dispute that students need to be safe. The legacy of the fatal killings of Sumpter and Moore still haunt her school. She said she knows that means taking some precautions. But she wonders whether having cops at school is the answer.

“I asked an agent once why she treated us like this,” she said. “She told me she didn’t have to answer me or any one of us. She told me she didn’t work for the school; she said she worked for the police department.”

Despite having a trying time at school, Dickson was eager to get her yearbook. Due to a printing error, the yearbook was available after Dickson’s class had already graduated. Earlier in the summer she went back to pick it up. She was greeted by school safety agents. They told her if she wanted to get it she’d have to go through security.

Dickson protested but the agents would not relent. She left without her yearbook, which housed a year’s worth of memories, but with a reminder, she said, of why she is so happy she never has to go back in that place.

This story was produced in partnership with the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange