In the summer of 2020, there was a growing movement to reform the way New York City’s public schools were policed; it became one of the most heated issues in the battle over the city’s budget: should the NYPD continue to control school safety agents?
During the summer, Councilman Ben Kallos criticized a lack of real reform.
“They’re just talking about moving the budget line for the school safety agents to the DOE,” he said. “That’s not transformative that’s an accounting trick.”
Over 5,000 school safety agents protect the city’s students
If it were a standalone police department, the school safety division would be the 6th largest police force in the country, with more officers than Boston, Atlanta or Washington, DC.
Gregory Floyd is president of Local 237 Teamsters, the union for school safety officers.
“It’s a difficult job when you are dealing with youth,” Floyd pointed out. “It’s a difficult job when you’re dealing with safety. It’s a job that’s always open for criticism.”
One of the most vocal critics has been Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. She’s sounded the alarm in public and in court “working to disrupt the school to prison pipeline for a good 15 years. We started out, exposing it for what it was. Nobody knew.”
The school to prison pipeline is a trend where students are pushed out of schools, their learning environments, and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems, “criminalizing school discipline, bringing cops into the schools to arrest kids for violating school rules.”
In 1998, there was another intense, emotional and public debate about the role of police officers in our schools
“There was a whole year of violent incidents in the New York City school system,” Floyd explained.
“There’s no question but that the Board of Education needed help,” Lieberman said.
Then Mayor Rudy Guiliani led the effort to bring school security away from the Department of Education and over to the New York Police Department.
“In the 20 years since then,” Lieberman said, “thousands of children have been arrested for things that should have been a trip to the principal’s office.”
After 1998, the number of school safety officers increased by 60% and by the 2011 to 2012 academic year, school suspensions reached more than 69,000 a year.
“So we have stop and frisk going berserk on the streets,” Lieberman said, “and we have the equivalent going berserk in our schools, much to the detriment of thousands of young people, particularly young men of color.”
A 2018 report from The New York Equity Coalition found the city’s Black children are suspended at more than five times the rate of white children.
The coalition also found the city’s schools impose the most disproportionate discipline on Black girls. At the elementary and middle school level, Black girls were 10 times more likely to be suspended than white girls.
“Once you’ve got a record, whether it’s in school or in the criminal justice system, it’s really hard to get out of the system,” Lieberman said.
In high school, Antonio Hendrickson found himself in the school to prison pipeline, graduating from expulsions to arrests. By the age of 25, Hendrickson was behind bars serving 20 years for drug dealing. In prison he turned his life around and now leads a nonprofit helping the city’s teens.
“We give them tools, we teach them how to communicate, how to actively listen how to work on a emotions, how to mediate between themselves,” Hendrickson said.
Since Mayor Bill de Blasio entered City Hall, both suspensions and arrests have dropped significantly and in June of 2019, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced NYPD officers would no longer arrest students for low level offenses like marijuana and graffiti.
“Police should enforce the laws, they should not enforce the law in schools as a matter of course,” Carranza said at the time.
After the summer’s protests, the city began to explore the idea of moving school security back to the Department of Education: an idea the school safety officers union is warning against.
“There’s a reason why school safety is in the Police Department and not in the Department of Education,” Floyd said. “The Department of Education is ill equipped to handle school safety and education. They have the hands full with education.”