de blasio and school safety officers
2014: Mayor Bill de Blasio announces a tentative contract agreement with Teamsters Local 237, which represents school safety agents and special officers.

There are roughly 5,500 cops and School Safety Agents (SSAs) in New York City public schools, making the school police force larger than the entire Boston Police Department. While SSAs do not carry guns, they are still employed and trained through the NYPD. There are also more SSAs than social workers and counselors combined. This inevitably creates a criminalizing environment in educational spaces. We know Black and Latino children are hyper policed, receive harsher punishments, and are more likely to experience state violence than white children in their schools. The NYPD’s presence exacerbates the existing racial disparities in school discipline. During the 2018-2019 school year, there were 4,560 police interventions in public schools and Black girls constituted 57 percent of those interventions while only making up 25 percent of girls in schools. This is unacceptable and harms students’ ability to learn. But are more counselors enough to truly change the school climate?

There are 1.1 million students in the NYC public school system and only 4,173 counselors and social workers, so there is a severe need for more mental health services. However, there are gaps in available assistance. Out of the 4,173 counselors and social workers in NYC public schools, only 546 are bilingual, creating barriers for providing holistic care. However, the problem with the “Counselors not Cops” rallying call is that it ignores the harm and violence that is often perpetuated by those in the counseling profession or by other mandated reporters. Mandated reporters are people who are required by law to report suspicions of child abuse or neglect. Counselors and social workers have a lot of power, particularly in regards to reporting to the Administration of Child Services (ACS). Given that most people in this profession are white women working in schools serving Black and Latino students, implicit bias and blatant racism is present, regardless of anti-bias trainings. Therefore, many unfounded calls are made to ACS based on misunderstandings and cultural differences. Even though Black children (under 18) make up only 15 percent of New York City’s population, they constitute 53 percent of the 9,000 children in foster care. Nationwide, 80 percent of currently incarcerated people have previous experience in the foster care system; this trend has been coined the foster care to prison pipeline. This is also evidence that even if cops were not present, Black and Latino children can still be criminalized, but by counselors.

If we do not analyze the role mandated reporters play in perpetuating abuses of the child welfare and legal systems then removing cops will merely be symbolic, and the harmful system will continue to be upheld by counselors, social workers, and psychiatrists. Simply removing cops will not remove the criminalizing culture that exists for Black and Latino youth unless the new counselors actively work to untangle the lie that safety requires law enforcement. In fact, safety, especially in schools, is jeopardized by law enforcement.

Under the “Counselors not Cops” call, there is a push for a transition to a behavioral health model, which may lead to an increased risk of medicalizing disobedience. Studies show that Black and Latino children are more likely to be “adultified” by authority figures than their white peers, resulting in children being seen as at least five years older than their actual age. In addition, behavior deemed acceptable for white students is seen as “acting out” if done by students of color. In increasing the number of counselors and mandated reporters, we need to ensure that Black and Latino students will be supported holistically in a way that addresses root issues, not simply misdiagnosing child-like actions as behavioral health problems.

To conclude, we do need to get cops out of schools. We also need to recognize that harm will continue if we do not have counselors and social workers who are holistically trained, actively anti-racist, trauma-informed, and understand youth development. Therefore, we must reroute the current $25 million projected for the School Safety Division budget of the NYPD to public education resources, to cultural competence trainings, and supporting pathways to increase the number of teachers of color in order to truly create a supporting and thriving environment for students.

Caitlyn Passaretti is a Social Worker with a Master’s of Public Administration.