Police at Curtis High School on Staten Island
For students who attend one of New York City's 86 public schools with permanent metal detectors, simply getting through the door can pose one of the day's biggest challenges. The metal detectors are just the beginning. In its increased efforts to make its schools safe, the Department of Education also uses bag checks, hand-held wands, ID scanners and the watchful eyes of school safety agents, uniformed civilian members of the New York City Police Department.
Since a series of well publicized crimes in schools in 2003, the Bloomberg administration has ratcheted up security in middle schools and high school across the city. While statistics say the programs have reduced violence, and some student reports feeling safer, critics charge that the presence of security devices and uniformed guards unfairly stigmatizes many of the city's more than 1 million public school students.
METAL DETECTORS, AGENTS AND POLICE
Conflicts and Resolutions
Police in the Schools:
Hanging Out and Hurting Business:
Breaking the Cycle of Violence:
Taking A.C.T.I.O.N. at The Point:
Cutbacks After School:
The Bloomberg administration has shown that it will pull no punches when it comes to school safety in New York City's 1,200 public high schools. In 2004, the mayor launched his Impact Schools Initiative, which greatly increased the police presence in schools. Since then, good news and rosy numbers have flowed out of City Hall.
"We launched the Impact School initiative in order to put a stop to the culture of crime and disorder that was ruining the educational opportunities for our students, and the results have been promising," said Bloomberg in a 2005 press conference. The following year, Bloomberg reported violent crime in New York schools was down 11 percent from the previous year, and according to the city's numbers, the rate has continued to fall -- except for a rise in the number of thefts of electronic items, like pricey laptop computers, it would seem that the mayor's plan is working.
While everyone wants safe schools, some see the security as having a cost. Many students, teachers and others are deeply troubled by the increased police presence in the city's schools. Some 4,625 school safety agents patrol the city's approximately 1,100 schools, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, along with at least 200 New York City police officers, who, unlike the safety agents, carry firearms. More than a fifth of the city's public middle and high schools now have permanent metal detectors, and any public school can receive a surprise visit from the police department's "roving" metal detector program. The Department of Education did not return repeated phone calls to confirm these numbers.
Students, teachers, administrators and civil liberties groups express concerns that some of the tactics used to police the schools are overzealous and even abusive. A report released in March by the New York American Civil Liberties Union entitled, "Criminalizing the Classroom: The Over-policing of New York City's Public Schools," suggests that misconduct by the police and especially safety agents -- from verbal assault to the unjustified arrest of students, teachers and principals -- is not uncommon. In once case a police officer said he arrested a student for a "smart-aleck." The student had been waiting outside the school for his mother, who had agreed to pick up his cell phone for him, since it would otherwise be confiscated.
CHANGING ATTITUDES AT MARTIN LUTHER KING
While students understandably chafe at such treatment, the city clearly has had a school safety problem. At Martin Luther King Jr. High School on Manhattan's Upper West Side, for example, the security measures are more than precautionary. In 2002, two students were shot at King on the civil rights leader's birthday. Five years later, after the restructuring of the King campus into a cluster of smaller high schools and the addition of school safety agents to the already permanent fixture of metal detectors, many students say they feel safe at their school.
The school safety agents on the King campus seem to have developed some semblance of a working relationship with students and faculty. On a warm day in June, the students huddled in small groups on and around school grounds talking among themselves and hanging out. "Keep it moving," one agent says to a group of teenage girls on the street corner outside the school. "You can hang out across the street, but not here."
"They're pretty nice. I don't have any problems with them, really," said Staring Jones, a 15-year-old first-year student.
"Everyone gets treated the same," said Fancellys Alvarado, a first-year student. Fourteen-year-old Veronica Taylor agreed. "There's not a problem here. They're nice," she said of the agents.
CREATING A CULTURE OF RESPECT
The kind of working relationship between school safety and the students and faculty found at King, however, is not a given, but a constant work in progress. Jamaal Bowman, dean of Martin Luther King, Jr. High School of the Arts and Technology on the King campus, said he personally watches all his students enter school every morning to make sure everything goes smoothly and no students are mistreated by safety agents. Bowman said that outrageous behavior by school safety teams is rare at schools where the administration is vigilant about protecting its students' civil liberties as well as their safety.
"We have a different sergeant this year," said Bowman, referring to the NYPD sergeants that are in charge of school safety agents at every school. Last year, he said, the sergeant insulted students, using sexual and racial epitaphs, and, according to Bowman, "even got into a couple of fights with students," he said. "This year [the agents are] more nurturing than in past years. They'll let us deal with infractions because we know [the kids] and their families."
Some King students, particularly black male students, still have problems with the agents. One, 17-year-old Aaron Flournoy, said the agents have an attitude. "They curse, they yell. And they get violent for no reason," he said as a uniformed agent walked outside the high school and encouraged students to "get going" and move away from the school grounds.
Despite the police presence, Deron Gates, also 17, said he does not feel safe at the school. "It's MLK for God's sake," said Gates. "My 10th grade year people got jumped for no reason. If someone wants to hurt you they're going to hurt you," he said.
In general, the civil liberties union and Bowman say, the city's minority students, who comprise two-thirds of all public school children, are more likely than their white or more affluent counterparts to be humiliated and treated like criminals. "I think black males feel disenfranchised already," said Bowman, who starting a support group for black males on the King campus.
Bowman sees discrepancies between the treatment given his students and those at LaGuardia High School, a prestigious public arts high school across the street from King. "Being right next door to LaGuardia, it's like a slap in the face," he said, shaking his head. "When our kids go over there for summer school they put up the metal detectors. It's blatant discrimination. And blatant racism."
LaGuardia has no metal detectors to speak of and, according to John H. Lewis, a teacher there, school safety agents there are not an overbearing presence. "The kids are much more savvy [at LaGuardia]. They have a clear idea of what their rights are," he said. Asia Fisher, a 17-year-old LaGuardia senior from Brooklyn, said that at LaGuardia "security guards can be your friends."
In contrast, at the poorer school in Brooklyn where he used to teach, Lewis said, "The kids were treated like criminals and humiliated. At LaGuardia kids get treated better in every respect. It's sort of like the gloves are on."
David Bloomfield, the president of the Citywide Council on High Schools, said there was a "consensus" among educators speaking at a recent council hearing on school safety that the school safety agents are disrespectful. But he also said it was possible -- and vital - to foster a closer relationship between the agents and school administrators.
STUDENTS, NOT CRIMINALS
Special police officers outside Martin Luther King Jr. High School following a shooting there in 2002
Even courteous careful safety agent and police can pose a problem simply by being in the school building, according to some critics. Udi Ofer, field director for the civil liberties union's legislative council, says the Department of Education relies too much on police to deal with issues that could be handled by school administrators. "This is not just about metal detectors. This is about the extraordinary presence of the NYPD in public schools. New York City now has more school safety agents per student than most cities do per citizen," said Ofer.
"The police department has no business in the schools. They're used to dealing with criminals," said Lewis
When students believe a school safety agent or police officer has treated them unjustly, there is very little they, their parents or their teachers can do to press a complaint. Deputized by the police department, school safety agents are not accountable to the administrators, principals, parents, or communities of the schools they are commissioned to protect.
If there is a mechanism in city government to report misconduct, "the city hasn't made anyone aware of it," said Bowman. He said a city official suggested he call the city's all-purpose 311 non-emergency help line to lodge a complaint. In general, he said, if faculty and parents want a problem to be taken seriously, they should call the civil liberties union.