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Putting police officers in violence-prone schools may cut crime, but it also increases tensions, turns harmless disputes into criminal matters and is perceived by many students as racially biased, according to a recent report by graduate students at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

The Impact Schools Initiative began in January 2004, when New York City assigned officers to 22 especially troubled public middle and high schools. The city claims that half of those schools have shown such dramatic safety improvements that they have now been removed from the program.

But the Wagner report found that the program has also increased expulsions and that many students in these schools get criminal records for incidents that would not be treated as criminal offenses if they were committed in schools with less police presence. “The Impact Initiative is a quick-fix to lower the number of crimes and it ignores the educational and psychological aspect of violence,” said Roberta Thomas, who recently graduated from the Wagner program and worked on the report.

When police are present, students are often charged with “disorderly conduct” for screaming in the halls or yelling at a teacher—incidents that are punished less severely in other schools, the study found. The study recommends that the city focus on crime prevention rather than punishment, on building relationships with the students rather than treating them as potential criminals, and a renewed focus on the broader issues of reducing overcrowding and funding disparities.

According to city statistics, putting cops in the schools has led to a 59 percent decrease in major crime, a 43 percent decrease in violent crime and a 33 percent decrease in overall crime in the Impact Schools. The Police Department is now beginning to deploy mobile scanning units—metal detectors similar to the ones used at airports—to search students and their book bags for weapons.

The sight of armed police officers in schools, however, is not a sign of safety for students, said Kate Kyung Ji Rhee, executive director of the Prison Moratorium Project (PMP), a Brooklyn-based organization that hopes to end mass incarceration and the expansion of prisons. It was PMP that proposed the topic of Impact Schools to the NYU researchers. “Instead of 20 policemen, there should be 20 child psychologists, community advocates, and educators in schools,” said Rhee. “Instead of metal detectors, there should be more recreational space.”

The report, “Impact Schools Initiative: A Critical Assessment and Recommendation for the Future Implementation,” was produced as part of a program that requires Wagner School students to get practical policy analysis experience. Under the program, called Capstone, students join with public service organizations to assess and resolve real social issues. Capstone, funded by a Ford Foundation grant, allows nonprofit, governmental, health-related, urban planning, and international agencies to submit topics. If approved by NYU faculty advisors, these topics are then assigned to student researchers. The Impact School Initiative topic was proposed by PMP and the research was conducted by a team of five graduate students in 2005-2006.

Capstone studies are funded in part by the participating organizations, with other costs covered by tuition fees, and third party donations, said David Schachter, assistant dean for career services and experiential learning at NYU’s Wagner School. Since Capstone’s inception in 1995, more than 2,000 students have participated in more than 400 projects, Schachter said, working with 300 different organizations.

–Kamelia Angelova

If your organization has an issue you think is worthy of academic scrutiny, you can contact Capstone at 212-998-7474 or by e-mail at

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