Metal Detectors and Math Classes

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The Internet Protocol Digital Video System is only one aspect of New York City’s school safety program, a joint Department of Education – New York Police Department effort that some student advocates consider so aggressive, they’ve dubbed it the “school to prison pipeline.”

In addition to security cameras, the public school atmosphere today includes more than 4,500 uniformed officers patrolling the halls, enforcement of zero-tolerance behavior policies, and thousands of predominantly minority students attending “Impact” schools – a designation given to the most crime-ridden – who must walk through metal detectors and past armed police officers just to get to class.

Students have expressed their objection in a variety of ways, including at a demonstration in Aug. 2006 on the steps of DOE’s central office at Tweed Courthouse. “We’re students, not felons. We need books, not prisons,” hundreds of student demonstrators chanted.

In the wake of a City Council hearing this fall, lawmakers increasingly have spoken of a need for change (See Principals, Police And A Question of Authority, City Limits Weekly #609, Oct. 15, 2007). “The current school safety system is at best a Band-Aid, and at worst a criminalization of the students,” City Councilman John Liu said this month. A member of Council’s Education Committee, Liu went on to condemn the DOE’s widely-touted decreases in school crime and overcrowding as “smoke and mirrors.”

Councilman Robert Jackson, the chair of Council’s Education Committee, believes that the current safety policy has turned schools into “institutions resembling prisons” and “is not conducive to learning.”

The “school to prison pipeline” is a phrase coined by civil libertarians to describe the heavy policing and monitoring of students that characterizes many large urban school systems, where ethnic minorities form the student body majority, like those in New York and Los Angeles. Chloe Dugger, a field organizer at the New York Civil Liberties Union, says that policies such as the DOE’s rigid discipline code introduce youth to the criminal justice system at an early age by criminalizing normal adolescent behavior.

The atmosphere leaves students with a perspective on school that earlier generations probably wouldn’t relate to. “The most devastating thing is how students start thinking about school,” Dugger said. “Students say, ‘the way I’m treated in school by school safety agents makes me feel like … the school expects me to be a criminal.” The NYCLU presented a model “Student Safety Act” to City Council leadership this fall, which would remedy overreaching in the school safety program – but it has no sponsor to date.

“The Student Safety Act will bring oversight and accountability to police practices in the schools,” said Udi Ofer, the NYLCU’s advocacy director. “It will hold abusive school safety agents accountable for their actions, and require regular reporting by the NYPD and Department of Education on police practices in the schools.”

In addition to the policing of schools, questions are being raised about the effect of video surveillance on the tense climate that pervades city schools, four years after the camera system was first introduced.

Video surveillance in schools not only represents a basic shift in American society, but also exacerbates distrust of young people. “If you put in all these cameras, you’re saying you don’t expect students to behave like reasonable human beings,” said Melissa Ngo, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based research center focused on civil liberties and privacy issues. Moreover, Ngo maintains that camera use in schools could alter how children perceive the world around them: “Do we want to raise a generation that accepts, without question, complete surveillance of their lives?”

Will, a Bronx Science graduate who requested his last name be withheld, said his generation grew up with a very limited sense of personal privacy. “I can’t think of a public place that doesn’t have cameras – we grew up in a city full of them,” he said. At Bronx Science, video cameras were only one aspect of DOE’s limitations on student privacy. In 2006, Bronx Science began issuing its own locks for student lockers, which could be opened by a master key, rather than allowing combination locks brought from home. “We didn’t have that much privacy to begin with at school,” Will said.

Although NYC students are some of the most vocal protesters against a police atmosphere, one national school security consultant agrees with Will that they may view privacy issues in particular differently than adults.

“Adults tend to get hung up a lot more on Big Brother-type questions much more than today’s kids,” says Ken Trump, president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services. “Security equipment is part of the broader society they’ve grown up in.”

Despite the heavy criticism it received at the October school safety hearing, DOE maintains it is pleased with the current school safety program, including cameras. “School crime is down, and we’re continuing to push that back,” said Elayna Konstan, director of DOE’s Office of School and Youth Development, which oversees the camera and school safety programs. Regarding video cameras, Konstan says they are popular among principals and staff, and an important tool for DOE and NYPD’s “team approach” toward school safety.

DOE data seems to demonstrate that zero-tolerance policies disrupt the educational experience. Between 2000 and 2005, suspensions spiked by 76 percent, from 8,567 to 15,090, according to DOE statistics. Special education students are suspended at a rate that’s twice their proportion of the student population. In 2005, students with disabilities made up 10 percent of the student population, but accounted for nearly 22 percent of all suspensions, according to DOE statistics (3,295 special education students suspended out of 15,090 total suspensions).

As for IPDVS, legislators like Jackson and Liu support a camera presence in New York’s most violent schools, despite their reservations about the current safety program. Both cited parental concern as a major factor (and both Councilmen have children in the public schools), while Liu viewed the spread of cameras as “inevitable.”

“I personally am in favor of those cameras as long as NYPD employees are patrolling the schools. When they’re out, the cameras should be out,” said Susan Woodward of the Legal Aid Society. “For years we’ve heard stories of safety agents being physically aggressive with students. Now we’re starting to see some of it on camera.”

– Ali Winston