Agents of Safety or Agents of Harm

October 11, 2007metal-detector.jpg

The hope was to “get the most bang for our buck” by moving school safety agents out of desk jobs and into the schools, announced Assistant Chief James Lawrence in 1998 on the very first day the safety of the schools was handed over from the Department of Education to the New York Police Department. “Unless it’s an extreme incident or an emergency, an arrest won’t be made without consulting the principal. If we stick to that basic plan, things will go well.”

Two days ago, Mark Federman, the Principal of East Side Community High School in Manhattan, was arrested on charges of obstructing government activity and resisting arrest for intervening with school safety agents arresting a female 17-year-old senior. The student had been trying to get into school early and became engaged in an altercation with the officers when denied entry. Both student and principal were led out of the school at 9 am in handcuffs.

“Unfortunately it is not a unique situation. It is entirely predictable,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of New York Civil Liberties Union at yesterday’s press conference during the City Council hearing into the conduct and training of the school security agents. By NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s account, there are more than 5000 SSAs and 200 armed police officers in the schools.

“Instead of giving us safety, they were harming us,” said Adolfo Peralta, a junior high school student who transferred from Roland Hayes School after he was allegedly struck in the chest and face by an officer when he was cutting class. Peralta spent the weekend in juvenile detention and served a month suspension after an assault charge was leveled by the same officer. His father, of the same name, said the officer was near 300 pounds, big enough to be a wrestler, “The officers should be there to protect and serve them.”

The transfer of the school’s security to the NYPD occurred after years of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s urging to bring his “broken windows” philosophy of policing, no crime too petty to ignore, to public schools. According to the 2006 financial plan for the city, Mayor Bloomberg requested $11,272,000 for SSAs within the education allotment from 2007 until 2010. Since 2002, the NYPD has received 2670 complaints about SSAs.

According to the report released earlier this year by NYCLU detailing “The Over-Policing of New York City Schools,” 82 percent of children attending high schools with permanent metal detectors were Black or Latino. “What are our jails filled with? They are filled with the same demographic,” said Jamaal Bowman, Dean of Martin Luther King Jr. High School. A 2006 report by the American Psychological Association Study found “under zero tolerance policies, African American students may be disciplined more severely for less serious or subjective reasons.”

Gregory Floyd, President of Teamsters Union Local 237, which represents the SSAs, said the NYCLU report was created without the SSA input and “lends itself to distortion and sensationalism.” Floyd agreed with the NYCLU on the divide of authority between the DOE and the NYPD. “Our members are sometimes caught up in a confusing division of authority between their NYPD superiors and school principals.”

Uni Ofer, the Senior Legislative Counsel of NYCLU said, “Many prinicipals told us in confidence they feel like they will be retaliated against if they push this issue too hard,” and therefore did not seek attention for models that were working without punitive, disciplinary methods.

By the time Felice Lepore, principal of Urban Assembly in South Bronx, testified on the methods working in his school, such as using SSAs as mediators and not using metal detectors: The chambers had cleared out. It was, after all, a school night.

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