Last week, the hedge fund backed pro charter school advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools (FES) filed a lawsuit against New York City public schools claiming that the civil rights of black and Latino are being violated because “violence” is out of control in our public schools. This organizations lawsuit and campaign is a slap in the face to the black and Latino parents, educators, community members, and especially young students that have fought for decades and continue to fight for racial justice and civil rights in public education. It is appalling, that in 2016, a white led organization claiming to represent black and Latino communities could so callously use their resources and influence to further dehumanize and criminalize black and Latino children.
FES “Safe Schools” campaign is steeped in the kind of messaging and rhetoric that plays upon the fear of black crime and violent and dangerous black children that is reminiscent of Willie Horton and the tough on juveniles era of the 90s that brought us the “superpredator” myth. In February, FES released a report, Safety Last: New York City’s Public Schools Are More Dangerous Than Ever. The report claims a weapon is found in NYC schools every 30 minutes, a child is a victim of a “violent incident” every 5 minutes and all children are exposed to violence in schools. Shortly after the report, FES began running television ads. One commercial shows black and Latino children, no older than 6 or 7, walking into a classroom while ambulance sirens and police scanners blare in the background and statistics about violence flash across the screen.
New York City public schools are overwhelmingly comprised of black and Latino children and it is one of the most segregated school districts in the country. FES claims they are concerned about the safety of black and Latino children, but the tacit implication of the commercial is clear, those young black and Latino children are in danger from the black and Latino children sitting next to them. In their efforts to continue to damage Mayor de Blasio’s reputation, FES is spending millions to convince the public that our schools are filled with thousands of dangerous and violent black and Latino schoolchildren and de Blasio refuses to do anything about them.
According to FES CEO Jeremiah Kittredge the data in their Safety Last report proves there is an “urgent crisis of school violence,” and that “this culture of violence pervades district schools in every borough and at every level.” Kittredge doesn’t mention that the source of the data, New York State Education Departments VADIR (Violent and Disruptive Incident Report) system is so flawed, school administrators and state officials have raised concerns about the reliability of VADIR data for years. Former New York State Education Commissioner and current Secretary of Education John King referred to VADIR as “well intentioned, but poorly enacted law,” and that it “rarely reflects the realities of school safety and health. VADIR data showed a large increase in so-called “violent incidents” at charter schools, but curiously, FES has not addressed concern about “violent incidents” in charter schools at any of their press conferences and has not filed suit against any charter operators.
The flaws in the VADIR system results in school incidents that do not result in serious injuries or place students in imminent danger could be categorized as “violent incidents.” The VADIR system could categorize a water bottle, crayon, or dodge ball if they are cited in a disciplinary incident at a school. If a student were disciplined for throwing a crayon across the room and hitting another child, that crayon would be categorized as a weapon. The state is currently reassessing the system and determining how to overhaul it. FES report relies on a reporting system that the state admits is inaccurate, but they completely dismiss NYPD data that shows crime and incidents in schools are down and make no mention that 92 percent of students in New York City reported feeling safe in their classroom and 87 percent of students reported feeling safe in their schools. Why is Jeremiah Kitteridge manufacturing an epidemic of schools being plagued by violent and dangerous children?
Before this campaign, FES has been known for their close ties to Eva Moskowitz Success Academy Charter Network and spending their money to push for legislators to increase the number of charter schools. It should come as no surprise that their concern about safe schools materialized after the overly punitive approach to discipline at Success schools became a national story. The narrative that “de Blasio’s public schools are failing children” quickly ramped up to “de Blasio’s schools are going to get children killed.” In their back and forth with the mayor, FES has shown that they care more about the schools that house black and Latino children than the actual children. If they were concerned with the future of black and Latino children they would stop pouring millions of dollars into a campaign that is going to push them out of school and into prison. We have seen what happens when people start blowing the dog whistle about violent and dangerous schools. This type of narrative is what was used to build the school-to-prison pipeline.
When people listen to Kittredge speak, they should think back to the mid 90’s when federal policy and rhetoric about dangerous inner-city schools helped to usher in zero tolerance policies that continue to treat black and Latino children as criminals in their schools. In a 1996 speech at a high school near St. Louis, then President Bill Clinton took credit for the passage of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act as part of sweeping criminal justice reforms passed in the 90s. Clinton said, “Every young person should be safe…I want us to be safe and secure…I know, too, that unless we can purge ourselves of crime and violence and drugs and gangs, your future will never be what it ought to be. So I ask you to stand up as you have here for the concept of zero tolerance in school.” His words implied that there was an epidemic of violence in schools that needed to be purged, with the blunt force of the police, but the truth was, school crime was on the decline prior to the passage of the 1994 Safe and Gun Free Schools Act and there has never been evidence or data that schools are plagued by crime waves or overrun with violent children. Zero tolerance quickly escalated from being harsh on students that were found with a gun or drugs, to being harsh on students that were late to class, skipped school, or were deemed “defiant” or “insubordinate.” Criminal justice responses for almost everything became justified because something had to be done about these children that seemed to have no conscious and were terrorizing their schools.
After the 1994 Safe and Gun-Free Schools Act passed, there was an explosion of the number of school-based law enforcement officers in black and Latina/o schools and massive federal and local investments to support zero tolerance approaches to discipline and policing in schools. The New York City School Safety Division has grown to employ more Safety Agents than the municipal Boston police force. There are 1500 more Safety Agents than guidance counselors and social workers combined and school safety costs are approaching $400 million annually. All of this, despite after decades of police in schools, there being no evidence that the presence of police makes schools any safer or improves school climate. However, there is research that shows the presence of police in schools is more closely related to the number of black students than crime in schools, and police lead to an increase in the number of students being arrested for minor infractions, such as disorderly conduct, the number one reason for criminal summons in New York City. black and Latino students make up 94 percent of all students arrested in the city and we aren’t going to drive that number down and stop arresting children for non-criminal violations in schools if FES campaign influences school discipline policy.
For over 10 years, black and Latino youth that lead our coalition, the Urban Youth Collaborative have been organizing to change New York City’s approach to school discipline. We understand that safety is not about treating children like criminals in waiting and greeting them with metal detectors and police at the door. Suspending students, giving them criminal summons, and arresting them are effective if our goal is to fill up Rikers and not CUNY. We are fighting for the city to fundamentally rethink school safety and embrace restorative justice and reallocate funding to hire more guidance counselors, social workers, and restorative justice coordinators. The Chicago Consortium of School Research recently found that the relationships between students and staff is one of the most important factors of whether or not students feel safe. Our schools are woefully understaffed with the kind of professionals that can work with children to co-construct healthy and inclusive learning communities.
The efforts of young people fighting to end the school-to-prison pipeline in New York City and the efforts of those that came before us, those that rallied against punitive discipline policies in the 50s and 60s that were pushing black and Latino children out of school are in danger in being undermined by a campaign that will do nothing to bring us closer to educational equity and racial justice in public education. FES is waging a campaign to continue to treat black and Latino children deemed “violent and dangerous” as disposable. The kind of narrative they are pushing has resulted in thousands of black and Latino students being stereotyped before they even begin their education. It has resulted in black and Latino students losing thousands of days of instruction and countless classroom time due to suspensions, attending court to answer criminal summons, and being sent to alternative learning sites.
New York is the largest school district in the country and how it moves forward on school safety could have implications for black and Latino schoolchildren across the country. We have an opportunity to pass transformational reforms, invest in non-punitive strategies and staff, shift the way we view black and Latino children, and work collaboratively to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. The mayor and Chancellor Farina have been committed to developing strategies to keep schools safe, while keeping children in school, and moving away from criminal justice consequences. For the future of black and Latino children, our city must continue down this path, continue to include more voices from the community in the discussion, and do not let this campaign bring us backwards.
Kesi Foster is a coordinator at the Urban Youth Collaborative.