Misbehaving students in New York City’s public schools may very well be sent to the principal’s office, or sentenced to detention, or suspended when they earn an educator’s displeasure. But they also seem to end up in handcuffs rather often these days – treated in a more criminal fashion by the school safety agents who can arrest students as a police officer would adults on the street.
With each cherub in chains whose photo and story lands in the tabloids – and even those who don’t – the question of who is responsible for arrests made in schools becomes more pressing. The Department of Education says the NYPD is responsible, because school safety agents are hired and trained by the city’s police force. But according to the NYPD, responsibility rests with the DOE, because school safety agents (SSAs) are under the immediate supervision of individual school principals.
Thus SSAs reside in a kind of accountability limbo, a 4,600-strong group that seems to operate in a contrary fashion to the transparency so vocally prized by DOE and Mayor Bloomberg. The New York Civil Liberties Union charges that SSAs are not being held to account for their actions, because neither the NYPD nor the DOE are required to report criminal incidents in the schools. “We know they have the data,” says NYCLU advocacy director Udi Ofer. “But they refuse to release the raw data to the public.”
To address the situation, NYCLU has drawn up proposed legislation called The Student Safety Act, which proposes direct lines of accountability for SSAs, with regular reporting and the provision that issues can be brought to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, as is true for questions about NYPD behavior. Agencies with portfolios as varied as the Correctional Association, Advocates for Children, and the Children’s Defense Fund all support the Act. But unless and until the act is embraced by City Council – and there’s no sign of that at present, as no Council member has yet adopted the measure – the efforts of parents and advocates to learn more about specific arrests may continue to be impeded by DOE, individual schools and the NYPD.
Take the case of Genesis Seaton, an eighth-grader at Nathan Straus Prep on the Lower East Side. On January 8, Genesis was handcuffed, arrested, and transported by van to the Seventh Precinct by school safety officers, where she remained restrained until a kind-hearted sergeant asked that she be made more comfortable, by cuffing only one hand to the metal chair where she sat. Unlike 5-year-old Dennis Rivera, who was handcuffed last month at a Queens school, Genesis’ story didn’t land in the dailies. But her arrest symbolizes a critical issue for the city’s students and families, with difficult questions for the Department of Education and the NYPD.
There’s little argument over what happened: Genesis and some friends were together at school when a fire extinguisher that had been standing on a table (an unexplained violation of OSHA rules) fell or was knocked to the floor. The impact caused the extinguisher to flood the room with smoke-like, fire-retardant foam and fumes; the area was evacuated and some students received medical attention for potential inhalation injuries, including one student with asthma who was treated on-site and three who were taken to area hospitals, evaluated, and released. Genesis was handcuffed by school safety agents – at the explicit direction of school principal Esteban Barrientos, she maintains – bundled into a police van and transported to the local police precinct, where she was cuffed to a chair until her parents came. Calls to Esteban Barrientos were not returned to City Limits.
Genesis had never been in trouble before, in school or out; she is not a disciplinary problem, a truant, or a child with a record of behavior challenges. Her parents sought an explanation from the school. They also wanted to know why she had been denied the medical attention offered to the other students. Appointments made in advance to meet with the principal were not kept; on one occasion, they, with their attorney Robert Leino, waited 45 minutes until they were turned away. No one at the school has acknowledged the incident to Genesis or to her parents. It is, her mother says, as if it never happened.
Attorney Leino says the arrest potentially violates constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure. “We believe that it was a wrongful arrest. It was unreasonable on the facts that occurred” – the fire extinguisher and subsequent smoke/foam flood. “For that, she was arrested; she was cuffed and taken to the precinct. That is unreasonable in our opinion.” Additionally, he says, Genesis was denied timely medical attention: “My understanding is she did have difficulty breathing. Something happened, physically.”
“At some level, there must be accountability. In that kind of situation … an employee is acting on behalf of or under the authority of an employer, such as a school principal,” says Leino. The reticence of the DOE is “just something they do to escape responsibility – it’s a smokescreen, but they will be held accountable.” The family is contemplating taking legal action.
The DOE, pressed to respond, acknowledged the incident but not the arrest. In an e-mail message, DOE spokeswoman Margie Feinberg wrote, “According to the school, in the early afternoon of January 8, a student reportedly knocked over a fire extinguisher, filling the classroom and the entire first floor of the school with smoke. The school was evacuated [sic] at 12:30 pm. Three other students were taken to local hospitals by EMS where they were treated and released. A fourth student suffered an asthma attack and was treated by EMS at the scene. The school reopened at 1:15 pm. Police, FDNY and EMS responded to the scene. You will need to check with DCPI if there were any arrests.” In a second e-mail, Feinberg further noted, “School Safety Officers are the employees of NYPD and it would be improper for us to speak on their behalf.”
DCPI, the communications arm of the NYPD, did not permit City Limits to speak with police personnel involved in the arrest, although precinct officers did confirm Genesis’ detention there. Principal Barrientos filed an incident report with the DOE, as required. But what happened to the SSAs involved remains unknown.
This pattern is not atypical, according to Ofer of the NYCLU. And a climate where police incidents can go unchecked poses a critical risk to city youth: Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director, testified before City Council that overpolicing and overreliance on harsh discipline criminalizes students, pushing them along the “school to prison pipeline.”
“We’re in an environment where school discipline has been taken over by the Police Department,” says Ofer. “The system is broken and needs to be fixed.” The SSAs include more than 200 weapons-armed NYPD officers. Even so, at the highest-risk “Impact” schools, few events – only about 6 percent – qualify as criminal incidents.
Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum strongly supports the regular, public reporting of school safety incidents. “With all this open transparency in government, nobody can get any real information on how many actual incidents take place,” she notes ironically. “We need a systematic reporting mechanism so we can get that information. We’re not getting the true and accurate information, and we should.”
Gotbaum speaks from personal experience, having been subjected to a metal detector screening and a hands-on-the-table, electronic wanding prior to a visit to a Bronx high school. Even after Gotbaum made her public-official status known and the host principal expressed his concern, school safety agents persisted in scanning her for potential weapons. “The principal was mortified,” says Gotbaum. “If this happens to me, as a public official,” she asks, “what is it like for the children? If the school principal can’t stop the school safety officers, where’s the accountability?”
“If the Police Department is the entity that’s supervising the agents, and no police officer is in sight, who’s minding the store?”
Still, Gotbaum is doubtful that the Civilian Complaint Review Board can be directed to take responsibility for school safety agents. “I don’t think anybody in this atmosphere is putting more money in,” she says, referring to the tightening economic climate. So the Student Safety Act’s progress has, for the moment, stalled in City Council. Whether that’s primarily economics-driven or underpinned by political caution in an election year, the issue remains controversial. Elected officials approached for comment, including U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez and Mayor Bloomberg, declined to speak with City Limits on the subject. DOE officials said that commenting on the Student Safety Act would be premature, as they have not seen the act and thus have not reviewed it.
Councilman Robert Jackson, who chairs the Education Committee, points to “a lack of clarity” in the lines of responsibility and accountability. “In today’s world, a child can be arrested for assault, when in another time, that child would be sent to the dean’s office, the parents would be called, and the child would be suspended.”
An institutional lack of candor is also troubling, says Jackson: “I don’t think we hear about many incidents that occur.”
“There needs to be absolute clarity and transparency, and there needs to be an objective appeals process independent of the NYPD,” he said.