New York Law School

Students or Criminals?: The Effect of School Safety Officers on the Rights of New York City Public School Students

Many people are probably not aware that School Safety Officers (“SSOs”) are present in all New York City public schools. The presence of SSOs creates an environment of punishment and puts the discipline of students in the hands of police officers rather than in school administrators and teachers. Arrests on school grounds take children out of the classroom, contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline, particularly in schools with high numbers of black and Latino students. This system is setting up many children to fail, rather than providing a safe environment where students can learn and thrive.

The application of zero tolerance policies and the involvement of SSOs in minor discipline incidents increases the likelihood that New York City youth will become involved in the juvenile, and eventually the criminal, justice system. In addition, the application of the police department’s “broken windows” policing led to record levels of suspensions during Michael Bloomberg’s administration. Prison should not be the end of the road for young New Yorkers; children should be attending school so that they receive the education and tools that they need to become productive members of society.

Who are these SSOs? They are members of the NYPD’s School Safety Division. Over 5,200 SSOs are assigned to NYC public schools. There are also approximately 190 armed precinct-based police officers in the NYPD School Safety Division. SSOs do not carry firearms, but they do wear NYPD uniforms. They have full authority to stop, frisk, detain, question, search, and arrest schoolchildren both on and off school grounds while they are on duty.

To put the size of this police force into perspective, the School Safety Division would be the nation’s fifth largest police force if it was an independent entity. There are more officers in the School Safety Division than in the police departments of Washington, D.C., Detroit, Baltimore, Dallas, Phoenix, Boston, or Las Vegas. While there are 5,200 police personnel in our city’s public schools, there are only approximately 3,000 guidance counselors.

SSOs receive only 14 weeks of training before being sent to NYC public schools. By contrast, NYPD officers receive six months of training before working on city streets. SSOs are not employed by the Department of Education and no experience working with children is required. Principals and other school administrators have no supervisory control or authority over School Safety Officers. It is not surprising, then, that SSOs are inadequately trained and have little to no knowledge about juvenile psychology or how to deal with children.

The effect that the presence of SSOs has on schoolchildren is alarming. The presence of uniformed officers often leads to fear, distrust, and even increased violence within schools. Students often feel like criminals from the moment that they enter the school building. This atmosphere disrupts the educational climate of the school while simultaneously increasing alienation and distrust. Students, especially children of color, are afraid of being targeted by SSOs. For these children, school no longer feels like a welcome and safe place.

Students arrested in schools are often arrested for violations that would not be criminal if committed by an adult. Typical violations include bringing a cell phone or iPod to school, smoking cigarettes, skipping class, or hanging around in the hallways or on school grounds. In the 2012-2013 school year, there were 579 arrests on school grounds. An additional 788 criminal summonses were issued, which required students to make a court appearance. This means that in one school year, a total of 1,367 students were arrested or given a summons while in school.

When arrested on school grounds, students are often handcuffed in front of classmates and teachers, and led to a police car during school hours. SSOs engage in a policy and practice of using excessive force against schoolchildren. In addition to arresting students without probable cause of criminal activity, many SSOs interrogate students without the consent or presence of a parent or school official.

Thankfully, many judges often find these arrests to be groundless. Criminal cases are usually diverted or charges are dismissed. But, ultimately, children are being removed from school in order to appear in court and are being exposed to the criminal justice system from a very early age. These practices clearly fuel and contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.

The school-to-prison pipeline is a serious issue throughout the country. The presence of SSOs in New York City schools exacerbates the problem. Students in our city, especially black and Latino students, are exposed to the juvenile and criminal justice systems at an early age because of the harsh policies and practices of the School Safety Division. There should be increased communication and collaboration between SSOs and school staff when there are incidents in the school, especially if the incidents are non-violent.

The presence of SSOs in New York City public schools has a disproportionate impact on children of color and children with disabilities. Black and Latino students account for more than 93% of arrests in New York City schools. In addition to the presence of SSOs, many schools have metal detectors. SSOs pat-down and frisk students on a regular basis. At least 99,000 students pass through permanent metal detectors every single day; 82% of students in schools with metal detectors are black or Latino. In addition, about 60% of students in those schools are living in poverty. It is clear that children of color significantly feel the impact of these policies. The presence of officers, as well as the use of metal detectors, often creates an atmosphere of distrust and decreases the likelihood that students actually feel safe and welcome in their own school.

There is hope that things will change, however. In a September 29, 2014 article, the New York Times reported that Mayor De Blasio is striving to revise the Discipline Code used in the New York City public school system. Revising the Discipline Code will hopefully decrease the amount of suspensions and arrests occurring in the city’s schools. With any luck, new policies, such as the implementation of restorative justice and conflict resolution, will lead to a school system where students feel safe and included.

Over-policing of our city’s schools is not the solution; our children should not be treated like criminals. The harsh disciplinary policies currently in place in New York City public schools have a disproportionate impact on children of color and children with special education needs. School discipline for nonviolent offenses should be returned to professional educators rather than left in the hands of the NYPD. School should be a safe environment where children can learn in order to become productive members of our society.

The Central Park 5 and the Price of Racial Injustice

Recent news of the $40 million settlement in the Civil Rights Lawsuit for the wrongful conviction of five men in the Central Park Jogger rape case forces me as a law student and social justice advocate to confront the institutional failures of our legal system. The incarceration of these young men did not happen absent powerful social forces influenced by deep-rooted racial biases. Sadly, many of these conventions and fears are as alive today as they were then, and people of color continue to be treated differently by our courts.

Who is responsible for this tragedy? Although it may be easy to blame the police dept. or jury, vilifying any one person or institution to the exclusion of others diminishes the true scope of this injustice. The overly ambitious prosecutor and the hasty detective played their respective roles within a larger system that tolerated racial prejudice and perpetuated systematized discrimination. It is this system that needs to be addressed.

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Stand Your Ground Laws: The Enshrinement of Racism Under the Guise of Self-Defense

The highly publicized murder trials of George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn have brought Stand Your Ground (SYG) laws to the forefront of public debate. In 2005, Florida was the first state to pass a SYG statute,[1] and two dozen other states have since followed suit. But the black and white nature of these laws had been largely overlooked by the public until the Florida killings of two teenage boys. The killings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis are merely illustrative of how SYG laws have institutionally legitimized a fear rooted in racism.

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Recent Articles on R. Kelly Raise the Issue of Why Some Crimes Receive Less Publicity and Attention – Is it Because He is Famous, or Because his Alleged Victims are Young Girls from Poor Communities of Color?

We have all heard and may love the song, “Bump N Grind,” may have anticipated the release of R. Kelly’s most recent album, Black Panties, and may enjoy listening to his other albums, including Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number. What we may not have heard are the reports and outcries from the numerous young women whose lives have been allegedly ruined by R. Kelly’s sexual predation. In a recent issue of the Village Voice, Jim DeRogatis, former music journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times, offered his reason as to why no one has given attention to allegations around R. Kelly’s criminal behavior: “nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody.”

It has been 15 years since DeRogatis first reported about R. Kelly’s alleged violent sexual acts upon teenaged girls of color in Chicago, including reports about the videotapes purportedly showing the rapper with one teenaged girl; yet, R. Kelly continues to avoid criminal sanctions while headlining major music festivals. In April 2014, over 200 school-aged girls were kidnapped in Africa and likely forced into slavery, yet received almost no media attention until activists demanded it. The violated girls in Chicago and the missing girls in Africa have two things in common: one, their dark skin; and two, no one seemed to care. Disappointingly, neither R. Kelly’s victims nor the missing African girls have become household names like those of JonBenet Ramsey and Elizabeth Smart. DeRogitis’ candid statement, “nobody matters less to our society than young black women,” seems to ring true not only as a distinctly American problem, but as a global one.

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White Like Me

Did you ever see that 1984 Eddie Murphy sketch “White Like Me” from Saturday Night Live? Murphy disguises himself as a white person and sees just how many rules don’t apply if your skin is paler. No collateral for a bank loan. Free food in restaurants. Even a free newspaper. Since 1984, we have elected an African American president, but, as Ta-Nehisi Coates so brilliantly argued in “The Case for Reparations,” black people are still being plundered in America. Here’s another example of how racism creeps into ordinary life as observed by a 65 year old white woman, me!

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The Persistent Problem of False Confessions

“I was there.” These three words became the crux of prosecutors’ arguments in fifty-six cases now under review by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office in New York. The undeniable likeness of the confessions, all elicited during interrogations conducted by detective Louis Scarcella, lead to suspicion that these confessions were coerced. Following the recent exoneration and release of David Ranta, who was imprisoned for over two decades for a murder he did not commit,[1] several defendants currently serving lengthy prison sentences have come forward with damning information against Detective Scarcella. These defendants allege that their confessions were drafted for them and they were subsequently coerced to sign these statements using physical and mental tactics.[2]

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Pressure to Settle: The Mount Holly Settlement, Disparate Impact and the Fair Housing Act of 1968

 Parties rarely settle their dispute after the Supreme Court has agreed to hear their appeal and the case is scheduled for oral argument.  Yet the parties in Mount Holly v. Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action Inc. did.  Just weeks before their oral arguments would begin on December 4, 2013, Mount Holly Township settled its housing discrimination dispute with Mount Holly Gardens.  Both sides settled late November 13, 2013.  Why, after advocating at each level of appeal and finally receiving a highly sought after slot for oral argument in front of the Nation’s highest court, would these parties settle?

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Obama’s Plan To Reform The School To Prison Pipeline And Return Students to Classrooms

On January 24th, 2014 a fifteen-year old boy from Wake, North Carolina was handcuffed by a security guard for skipping the lunch line at his high school. While the innocent action likely could have been resolved with a verbal admonishment, the incident escalated when the security guard approached the teen, twisted his arm, pushed him against the wall and led him out of the cafeteria in handcuffs. In addition to the assault, the student was subsequently suspended for three days . Incidents like this are extreme examples of a growing, disturbing national trend called the school to prison pipeline. Many consider the school to prison pipeline an intentional and conscious attempt by school administrators to funnel “troublesome” students out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

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Video: Voting Rights Litigation Training

Friday, January 31, 2014 the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy held the Voting Rights Litigation Training at New York Law School. Featured speakers included: Gerry Hebert (Executive Director and Director of Litigation, Campaign Legal Center), Ezra Rosenberg (Partner at Dechert, LLP), Paul Smith (Partner at Jenner & Block), Juan Cartagena (President and General Counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF), Natasha Korgaonkar (NAACP Legal Defense Fund), and Myrna Perez (Deputy Director, Brennan Center for Justice). The video of this event is now available to stream. Read more

Fair Housing, Equal Opportunity

The upcoming Supreme Court docket promises to settle two salient issues relevant to racial justice. The first, Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, Inc. v. Township of Mt. Holly involves discrimination in the housing market. The second, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action continues the discussion of diversity in the college admission process, in the context of a Michigan amendment that prohibits the consideration of race on collegiate applications.

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