Principals, Police And A Question of Authority

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In the hundreds of New York City public schools where school safety agents police the hallways to protect the safety of students and teachers, one thing has become clear: both safety agents – who are employed by the New York Police Department – and principals are unsure who has final authority in the disposition of disciplinary matters.

The confusion was highlighted last Tuesday when the principal of a Manhattan high school was arrested by a safety agent when he intervened after the arrest of a student. It was illustrated again the next day, as nine hours’ worth of testimony at a City Council hearing revealed no bright lines to guide the interaction of educational and safety officials – and an abundance of unhappy people on all sides because of it.

The hearing – called by City Councilman Robert Jackson, chair of the education committee, to examine school safety in light of ongoing concerns about the school safety climate, including his constituents’ complaints – uncovered a host of problems, including the expiration of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that governed NYPD and Department of Education collaboration on school safety. Witnesses also described unfulfilled promises that teachers and students would have input about safety agents’ training; possible underreporting instances of school violence; difficulty in obtaining information from both education and police divisions; and confusion as to whether safety agents or teachers and principals are really in charge.

“Our police and teachers need something in writing,” said Councilman Peter Vallone, Jr., chair of the public safety committee, which convened the hearing along with Council’s education and juvenile justice committees. “We’ve got confusion in this antiseptic atmosphere of a hearing.”

Although Vallone thinks safety agents effectively resolve tense situations and improve school security “most of the time,” he agrees the DOE-NYPD relationship is vaguely defined. Vallone says the City Council is examining whether it can created a formal protocol for school safety, using the Office of Emergency Management’s Citywide Incident Management System (CIMS) as a model.

A primary finding of the hearing was that the 1998 MOU that assigned responsibility for school safety to the NYPD expired in 2002 and has not been renewed. Furthermore, a joint committee called for by the MOU to “ensure the effectiveness of school safety” and prepare annual evaluations of the school safety program was never convened. The only outside oversight of the school security program, according to DOE and NYPD, is conducted by Mayor Bloomberg.

Elayna Konstan, chief executive of the DOE’s Office of School and Youth Development, which is responsible for school safety, told councilmembers that the agencies’ partnership was working, citing DOE statistics that show a drop in school crime over several years. However, when situations arise in schools, Konstan says the police have the authority to act: “When the police or school safety agents believe there was a crime, they need to act, and we need to let them do what they need to do.”

More than 5,000 school safety agents and uniformed officers are presently assigned to New York’s roughly 1,400 public schools, effecting 1,276 total arrests last school year, and 167 in the current academic year.

Assistant Police Chief James Secreto, the commanding officer of the NYPD’s School Safety Division, said that safety agents and uniformed officers are trained to apply reasonable suspicion and probable cause to arrests in the school setting. “They’re like officers on the street: if they see the crime, they’re going to make the arrest,” Secreto said. “Once you have an injury, you have a crime.” Following further back and forth with Secreto over the criminalization of schoolyard scuffles, Councilman Jackson aired his frustrations. “This blows our minds, as parents,” he said.

Principals also are dissatisfied with the current arrangement, which they feel pushes them to the periphery and undermines their authority with other staff and students. Ernest Logan, president of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators which represents public school principals, says his union wants a greater role in safety agent training, as well as better communication with the DOE and NYPD. “We need to look at school safety in a different way – we can’t have armed camps,” said Logan. “School safety is a support mechanism for education and learning.”

In the afternoon portion of the day-long hearing, students testified about their run-ins with school safety personnel. They complained of a lack of respect and over-aggressive behavior on the part of safety agents, who youth say often go out of their way to find students at fault. Several students said the agents had physically accosted them or prevented them from going to class, then written up tardy slips. Students also want greater accountability and an active role in overseeing school security. “If we had a clear complaint process set up in our schools, with a board of youth, and other community residents, then at least when an issue occurs we could complain about it, and action can be taken,” said Juan Antigua, a student at DeWitt Clinton High School.

Since 2002, 2,670 complaints have been made to the NYPD about safety agents’ conduct, despite a grievance process that many find difficult. The complaints are handled by the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau rather than the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent agency
that handles misconduct complaints against uniformed officers. Of these complaints, about 722, or 27 percent, were substantiated. To date, 32 agents have been arrested or suspended, according to Chief Secreto. Furthermore, there are on average about six reported cases per year of “fraternization” between safety agents and students. Roughly one-third of such cases are substantiated, including the arrest of a safety agent at Springfield Gardens High School in August for a sexual relationship with an underage girl.

Children’s advocates and civil liberties groups also spoke out against the police presence in the city’s schools, a situation many called the “schools-to-prisons pipeline.” New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman and legal counsel Udi Ofer discussed their organization’s recent critical report on school safety policy. Echoing those conclusions, Nancy Ginsberg of the Legal Aid Society said the current enforcement strategy is counterproductive and exacerbates existing problems: “Based on numerous examples in which we have represented children, we conclude that school safety agents often create more problems than they prevent.”

While other councilmembers got specific in their questioning of city officials, Queens Democrat John Liu was outspoken about his general distaste for the current security arrangement. “I have grave reservations with what we’re doing with the police department to our schools,” said Liu, calling for a comprehensive reevaluation of the city’s school safety approach. “The overall mindset and management of the police ‘securing a school’ is faulty.”

There is also debate over how comfortable students, parents, and teachers feel with the city’s current school safety policy. Prior to the signing of the 1998 MOU, parents and former schools Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines opposed handing over control of school safety to the NYPD for a variety of reasons, from creating an unnecessarily martial atmosphere to citing racial tensions between minority youth and the largely white police force.

Some parents have felt marginalized on the matter of school safety, and have observed recent incidents between students and safety agents with rising concern. David Bloomfield, president of the Citywide Council on High Schools, claimed that school safety personnel “are trained to view our kids and even parents as the enemy…any infraction is subject to overwhelming force and punishment.”

Bloomfield’s final statement echoed the recommendations of the students, school staff, and children’s advocates who had preceded him throughout the day: “Balance the need for school order with the need for respect.”

– Ali Winston

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