New York City, which has the largest school system in the US, with almost 1.1 million students, chiefly from working-class families, is a case study in the failure of get-tough policies to bring order and safety. The city, faced with violence in schools, transferred responsibility for security from the Board of Education to the New York Police Department (NYPD) in 1998. This transformed the School Safety Agents (who now number 4,500) into police personnel, answerable not to teachers or principals but to the NYPD. The shift helped then-mayor Rudy Giuliani look tough, and current mayor Mike Bloomberg clearly likes the way it establishes his law-and-order credentials.
Since the NYPD takeover, the police and the Department of Education have annually boasted of the decrease in in-school crime. With metal detectors and a heavy police presence at 22 of the most dangerous IMPACT schools, the police claim a major drop in crime. Few believe these statistics. A 2007 report by the City Comptroller found pervasive underreporting of violent incidents throughout the school system. Though condemned by the police and Department of Education, the report was endorsed by the teachers’ union, principals’ union and Teamsters Local 237, the powerful chapter that includes the School Safety Agents. Although schools remain among the safest spaces for adolescents, the drop in crime is no more dramatic than in the city as a whole.
What the security has created is a new disciplinary system in which barely trained security guards are the highest authority at many schools, overruling teachers and principals on discipline. The result is often new violence and disorder. A security guard handcuffed two four-year-olds for refusing to take a nap on 17 November 2006. Another security guard handcuffed a misbehaving five-year-old and had him sent to a psychiatric hospital for a forced evaluation on 17 January 2008. State Senator Eric Adams, marking the liberal outer limit of governmental reaction, suggested metal handcuffs were too severe on a five-year-old when velcro handcuffs would do.
These are only the most sensational examples: NYPD statistics, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, show that between 2005 and 2007 some 309 students were arrested and booked for non-criminal offences like trespassing and loitering. Many more students are handcuffed for short periods without being brought to the police. Standard youthful bad behaviour, without a gun or a knife, which used to be punished by a detention or a trip to the principal’s office, has become a criminal offence.
Teachers’ and principals’ tentative efforts to prevent acts of arbitrarily severe punishment by security guards are often countered with the threat of arrest, or worse. An honors student at East Side Community High School in Manhattan was arrested on 9 October 2007 for trying to enter the school a few minutes early for a meeting with a teacher. When her principal tried to step in, guards handcuffed and arrested him too. The arrest of teachers and principals who try to shield students from police personnel is now a nearly annual occurrence. Veteran principals and teachers complain privately (for fear of career-destroying reprisals from the Department of Education) that they are now subject to the arbitrary authority of guards often not much older than the students. As Ernest Logan, head of the New York principals’ union, puts it, the sporadic arrests of educators are “just the tip of the iceberg”.
At issue is what ought to constitute a crime in the school. All agree that guns and knives merit severe punishment, even criminal sanctions. But should the same standards as for adults on a city street apply to 12-year-olds in the yard? “If Johnny hits Joey and Joey gets a bloody nose, should Johnny go to jail?” asks Logan. “I don’t think so.” But police personnel, even the guards in schools, see criminal incidents everywhere, and respond the only way they know how. Jeffrey Sprague, an expert in school disciplinary practices at the University of Oregon, sums up the counterintuitive results of this draconian security policy: “Once you put the police in a school, the crime rate triples.”
The flashpoint is the metal detector at the school entrance, a device that has become an emblematic image of America. (In fact, metal detectors are largely limited to working-class urban schools and are virtually unknown in middle-class suburban schools.) The official line of NYC Department of Education is that metal detectors are optional. But principals say they come under tremendous pressure to install them even if their school has low rates of violence. But as Giuliani and Bloomberg know, there is often political profit in theatrical gestures, regardless of the real-world consequences.
Model schools have achieved their results without metal detectors. “I think metal detectors bring a false sense of security,” said Felice Lepore, principal of Urban Assembly School in the South Bronx. “If somebody wants to get something inside a building, they’re going to find a way to do it. And then, what kind of message are you sending to kids to have to go through that process to get inside the school? You create tension right from the beginning”. (Lepore, unlike most of the proponents of heavy policing in schools, has actually done police work as a New Jersey State trooper.) The inadequacy of metal detectors was tragically demonstrated with the severe stabbing of a student at Paul Robeson High School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, on 28 March 2008, when the scanners were operational.
Columbine High School has not installed metal detectors even after the 1999 shootings that left 15 dead and 20 wounded. Littleton, Colorado is an affluent suburb that could afford scanners but the upper-middle class parents do not think that having their children treated like potential criminals creates an environment for learning or prevents violence. (Many families of students in New York would agree, but working-class blacks and Latinos do not have the political muscle wielded by affluent suburbanites.) The alternative disciplinary practices of six model schools highlighted in the report turn out not to be much different from the standard practices of middle-class suburban high schools. And yet New York’s Department of Education doesn’t seem to think these practices can work in majority black and Latino schools, despite excellent results when they are tried.
Other strategies have been tried. In a recent report, Safety with Dignity, published in July 2009 by a team of non-profit advocacy groups, six working class New York high schools with humane security policies are held up as models. The report shows how these schools, often in the same neighborhoods as their heavy-security counterparts, achieve better results with a wholly different approach. The veteran teacher Tabari Bomani of Bushwick Community High School in Brooklyn summed it up: “If you don’t want the students to act like criminals, don’t treat them like criminals.”
Disciplinary matters are handled exclusively by teachers, aides and principals. Principals have established clear authority over police personnel, who act mainly as greeters at the door. Punishments for infractions of rules are proportionate to the offence and do not mean handcuffs or a trip through the criminal justice system. Students have a voice in the formulation of rules. An ethic of mutual respect and self-discipline is cultivated and employed at every meeting and assembly. These schools have student demographics that are virtually identical to those of the heavily policed IMPACT schools, with high percentage of students living below the poverty line and coming from immigrant households where English is not spoken. And yet these schools perform better at every level. Not only do they have lower rates of violent incidents, arrests and suspensions, they also show better educational results – higher graduation rates, lower dropout rates – than IMPACT schools.
New York’s failed experiment may be ending. The drop in crime over the past 15 years is diminishing the political returns for get-tough gestures; and officials seem embarrassed at the thought of five-year-olds and principals getting handcuffed. Non-profit advocacy groups and youth activist organisations have mobilized and the media is beginning to take note, even if the Department of Education, notoriously autocratic and impervious to public criticism, is not.
The greatest ally of reform may turn out to be massive budget cuts forced by the economic downturn. Humane alternatives cost a small fraction of metal detectors, police personnel, court costs and legal settlements paid out to arrested students and educators. Even so, the struggle for educators and communities to regain control of discipline is going to take years, and even the modest measure of placing the 4,500 security guards on the purview of the relatively weak Civilian Complaint Review Board is currently stalled at the City Council. The lesson from New York is clear: once you bring police into schools it can be hard to get them out.
CHASE MADAR is a civil rights lawyer based in New York and co-author of Safety With Dignity, New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appears in the July edition of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.