Who's Keeping Them Safe? School Oversight Advances

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With a new school year underway, an effort to increase the accountability of public school safety agents is gathering momentum among lawmakers – but hitting resistance from the agents’ union as well as the city budget crunch that could mean a lack of funding for implementation.

The Student Safety Act, introduced into City Council last month by Councilman Robert Jackson, chairman of the Education Committee, mandates quarterly reporting of school crime and safety infractions to City Council. It also requires that complaints about school safety agents and their actions be directed to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), the independent agency that evaluates complaints against police officers. The bill has 24 cosponsors, as well as the endorsement of a 15-member coalition of community groups, including Advocates for Children, the Correctional Association of New York, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Make the Road New York.

Though the bill was introduced Aug. 14 with a near-majority of Council sponsors, and few would argue against the concept of increasing school safety and accountability, neither the Department of Education (DOE) nor the NYPD has come out in favor of the move – and some lawmakers often linked with education and safety issues also are silent on the issue.

School safety agents are employed by the police department but are meant to be under the daily direction of principals and other leadership in the schools where they are assigned. (Some school leaders have said agents do not obey them, however: See New Questions About Policing Schools, City Limits Weekly #628, Feb. 25, 2008.) Last year, 1,042 major crime incidents were reported in the city’s schools, representing a drop from 1,166 reported incidents in 2006-07 – but still, that means about five major incidents occur every school day of the academic year. According to the Bloomberg administration, less crime correlates with more safety agents: In 1998, there were 3,200 agents, but by the 2006-07 academic year, the count swelled above 4,600, along with 200 armed police officers assigned to schools. Because the lines of reporting responsibility are muddy, school safety agents can avoid accountability for their actions, no matter how questionable (see Principals, Police and A Question of Authority, City Limits Weekly #609, Oct. 15, 2007).

“The Student Safety Act is a meaningful, confidential vehicle [that] will give the public the information we need to assess the impact of school security policy and the massive infusion of police presence in our schools,” says Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which months ago put forward a draft version of the Student Safety Act legislation. “It will protect everyone in our schools – students and their parents, teachers and school safety agents – by holding rogue school safety agents accountable. Nobody benefits when abuse goes unpunished.”

Some key city officials may not agree, however. Melinda Katz and Peter Vallone, Jr., both of Queens, are the only members of both the Education and Public Safety Committees – the committees to which the bill was referred, prior to hearings later this fall – who have not signed on as cosponsors. Brooklyn Councilman Bill de Blasio, long an outspoken education advocate (and a public-school parent) declined comment through his chief of staff Freya Riel. Council Speaker Christine Quinn declined comment as well, saying through representatives that it was still too early in the legislative process to comment on the bill – the same demurral given by DOE spokeswoman Margie Feinberg. Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, who is often vocal about education issues, did not respond to an interview request.

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