Gotham Gazette

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Cops In High Schools

My school dean and a stern male security guard escorted my friend and me to an empty classroom near the dean's office, then ordered us to put our bags against the wall and stand in the middle of the room. The dean checked our bags, opening every pocket, looking through my folders, checking my wallet and cell phone. The guard asked us to turn out our pockets. Then he frisked us. That was the first time I was ever frisked. It felt like I was under arrest and they were about to read me my rights.

But the dean said they would let us go, since they didn't find anything, but they would still tell our parents what we had done. What we had done was retrieve my schoolbag bag from my friend's car, a block from the school, immediately after gym class -- returning to school on time, but a few moments after everybody else.

After that experience, I was not surprised to learn that some people are questioning the so-called security measures being used in what are known as Impact high schools around the city -- schools singled out for their high levels of violence, disorderly behavior or crime. I do not even go to an Impact school, and yet I was made to feel like a criminal.

Things are reportedly even worse in the Impact schools. The Impact schools safety initiative was created in 2004 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Department of Education and the New York City Police Department, to make schools safer. The program brought surveillance cameras, metal detectors and large numbers of uniformed and armed police officers to those schools. They started a zero tolerance policy where even minor incidents like disorderly behavior could be punished severely. The idea was that small crimes can lead to big crimes if they are not addressed quickly. Schools that improved would be taken off the list and have the security measures reduced. So far, 24 schools have been put on the list and 15 have been removed.

According to the Department of Education, the program is working. In a press release from last April, the department said that overall crime has gone down 33 percent and major crime has gone down 59 percent at Impact schools.

But not everyone is happy with the program. New York University's Wagner School of Public Service recently released a study looking at whether the Impact schools initiative is an appropriate approach to creating safe school environments. During the 2005-2006 school year, a team of NYU graduate students researched the initiative and interviewed leaders in the education system and the community. They concluded that while the Impact approach is effective, it is not appropriate.

They found that though police officers in schools are effective in the short-term, they hurt schools in the long-run. The report suggests that the presence of cops dares some students to commit crime and makes the rest of students feel threatened, as I did. The report also points out that Impact schools tend to be underfunded and overcrowded, and that might be part of the reason there is so much crime in these schools. It recommended that city officials focus on reducing over-crowding and increasing funding instead of law enforcement and severe punishment. The report also recommended that the city government and the education department should focus on treatment rather than punishment by hiring psychologists and guidance counselors for schools instead of police officers.

So while the education department was congratulating itself for getting crime down in schools, the study from New York University's Wagner School of Public Service was warning that the way they were doing it was going to have unsavory consequences in the long run. So I decided to interview a couple of students who attend Impact schools to see what they thought.

Jescine Jarvis, 15, is a sophomore at Harry S. Truman HS, an Impact school in the Bronx. Her school has metal detectors, security cameras on every floor, and a police presence.

"I've thought about how I would feel without the police there, and I would be scared," said Jescine. "I feel safe whenever I see them as I walk down the hallway or outside the school."

Jescine said the cops have arrested a few students, but she is not afraid of the police. She said students often joke around with the cops as though they're friends. "It helps me to see uniformed officers in schools. It's like seeing a uniformed police officer at the carnival or at a parade." said Jescine. "[It] makes me feel as if nothing can go wrong, and that if something does go wrong, then they'll fix it." Jescine agreed with the Department of Education report that police presence in schools was working.

A student at an Impact school in Queens, who asked to remain anonymous, also felt the police at her school was preventing crime, but felt the means did not justify the end. Six cops were stationed on each floor of her school for a year and a half. They were supposed to spread out, but she said that they just stood together and stared at students who walked by. "You don't want to look at them because you don't want them to say anything to you," she said. "We felt like criminals. It made me uncomfortable."

There were a lot of fights before the school was named an Impact school, and that after the cops came, "basically all the fights stopped and there was a lot less theft," she said. She thinks the cops' presence at her school did help reduce crime, but not because of anything they did; she never saw them do anything in the school. She thinks the school became safer simply because being labeled an Impact school made everyone pull together to improve the school and get rid of that label.

Like the NYU report, she believes that prevention would probably have been a better solution to the school's safety problems.

This article by Ilya Arbit, 17, a writer for New Youth Connections, is adapted from the pages of our partner, Youth Communication.  

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