The day before school was scheduled to open last week, students, parents, lawmakers and advocates gathered in front of Tweed Hall to address the looming police presence awaiting children in the hallways of their schools.The large crowd gathered to rally support for the Student Safety Act, a bill which would begin to address the issue of the over-policing of city schools by requiring that the NYPD and the Department of Education make publicly available data concerning the types of infractions students are being punished for in schools, as well as information regarding the students’ race, social status and disabilities.“What we’ve found is that many students are subject to over-policing in their schools, there’s a higher rate of arrests in schools, there’s a higher rate of suspensions than there ever has been before. And it’s mostly targeting students of color and students with special needs and students from struggling communities,” said Angela Jones, coordinator of the NYCLU School-to-Prison Pipeline Project.In recent years, police presence inside of NYC public schools has grown at a startling rate. Starting with the multitudes of School Safety Officers, guards trained by the NYPD, patrolling the hallways, followed by the introduction of roving metal detectors, many of which became permanent placements inside schools in the poorest neighborhoods. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, there are 5,200 School Safety Officers in the NYPD’s School Safety Division, making it the fifth-largest police force in the United States. This is also almost twice the number of guidance counselors inside public schools.“Discipline has been taken away from the teachers, from the principals, and handed over to police who are trained in law enforcement, they are trained to arrest, not to engage in conflict resolution, or figure out what’s going on in terms of adolescent development,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, at the rally.The high-risk environment created by the presence of uniformed officers and metal detectors does little to foster an environment that encourages learning. Students like 15-year-old Angelica Hernandez of West Bronx Academy are unsettled by the long waits as they line up to go through the metal detectors every morning.In her impassioned speech at the rally, Hernandez recounted one winter morning when she was late to class because she had to go through the metal detector repeatedly only to find that she “had been wearing too many bobby pins in my hair that day.” “I think that me getting an education shouldn’t make me feel like I’m going to prison every single day,” said Ashley Desmairs, a junior at Cypress Hills Collegiate Prep School in East New York, Brooklyn. “I would be more ready to learn if I didn’t have to worry about having to take everything off so I don’t ring.”The demand for racial and ethnic statistics by the Student Safety Act is meant to address the issue that minority students in struggling communities are being harshly penalized by current school safety practices. Students face severe repercussions including suspension and arrest for minor infractions like being late to class or writing on the desk, according to the NYCLU.“What we’ve done is we’ve gotten too far away from remembering that we are teaching our youth and our children in the public schools. And our children of color are disproportionately affected by what goes on in the New York City public schools because of these safety agents,” said Councilman Daniel Dromm at the rally.Hernandez feels that her school is targeted because of the high population of minority students. “It’s exactly like the streets,” she said in an interview. “The cops stop the black and Latino students because they look suspicious or maybe they fit a certain type … the same exact things happen in school, the same exact stereotypes, the same racial profiling happens.”“Catholic schools don’t have metal detectors, private schools don’t have a bunch of cameras and safety agents and they get through their tests just fine, so why can’t we?” said Hernandez.Many students share similar experiences of being targeted by School Safety Officers and cite abuses of power and harsh treatments at the hands of the officers. “Safety agents think we are just criminals waiting to happen,” said Desmairs.The Student Safety Act also aims to simplify the process to file a complaint against a School Safety Officer. As of now, even though the complaint process is difficult to navigate, about 1,200 complaints have been filed, of which 27 percent are substantiated, according to the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau.The NYCLU sees the bill as a first step in creating a saferenvironment in NYC schools, according to Jones. Once there is raw data concerning the types of students who are being targeted, educators and advocates could use this information to create safer educational practices that would engage those students who are likely to attractpolice attention. The union is looking to get the legislation passed in the City Council by December of this year.“The NYCLU has been working very hard with the City Council and the Department of Education, even with the NYPD to pass a bill that everyone is happy with. The DOE is concerned about student privacy, and so are we. … Now we are working with the NYPD to make sure their concerns are put to rest and that we get a bill that’s as strong as possible,” said Jones.William McDonald, a representative from the NAACP who spoke at the rally, said that the organization was backing the bill. “One thing I can tell you for a fact—We will stop sending more students to Rikers Island than to college,” he said.
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