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.

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