‘I have come to see police, surveillance and harsh punitive measures in schools as a way to disproportionately target vulnerable students, primarily Black and Latino, and not to protect and support us as many suggest.’

Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor de Blasio visits with School Safety Agents in 2014.

School is about to start and many young people like myself are bracing ourselves for the routine experience of being stopped, searched, harassed (and often worse) in schools before our first class has even started. 

While we have seen numerous videos go viral around police brutality and excessive force in the streets that have sparked uprisings (rightfully so) and important discussions around the role of police in our communities, we haven’t given the same attention to the disproportionate mistreatment of and violence towards young Black and Latino students in schools at the hands of law enforcement. And more important, the narrative we have heard in defense of police and other security measures in schools is that they are meant to ensure schools are safe. And our response as young people organizing around police-free schools is, “Safe for whom?” 

The reality is that if we put young people’s voices at the center of this conversation and decision-making, our schools would be largely unrecognizable from today’s institutions and be transformed into educational spaces of holistic support and learning where all students thrive. 

As a youth leader with Sistas and Brothas United—the youth organizing arm of the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition—I have heard a lot of people, primarily adults including politicians and government officials, share their opinions about and the justification for police and surveillance in schools. They depict is as a necessary way to help enforce important policies and keep students safe. And while this might sound good on the surface, young people who regularly experience metal detectors and harassment by school safety officers while not being supported socio-emotionally or academically will offer a different perspective around school safety.  

Based on my personal experiences, I have come to see police, surveillance and harsh punitive measures in schools as a way to disproportionately target vulnerable students, primarily Black and Latino, and not to protect and support us as many suggest.  Every morning, I, like nearly 100,000 public school students, go through a metal detector in order to enter my school building. Touted as a way to protect us, these machines staffed by security officers and armed NYPD make us feel like criminals, make us late to school, invade our privacy, and instill a sense of institutional control rather than safety. Pins in your hair? Expect to be searched. Lunch wrapped in aluminum foil? Expect to lose your lunch.  Unidentified container of personal hygiene product? Expect to be harassed and interrogated. We often wait in long lines to get into school, especially for campuses that have many schools using one entrance.  “Go to school early,” some have said—but arrive too early, and the scanners are not yet ready.  Getting into the school building at times seems more challenging than our school work.

But that is not all. I have seen more violence exhibited towards students of color in public schools than consistent support towards our learning. Experiencing a police officer verbally and/or physically assault a student especially when there is a physical altercation between students is a normal occurrence. In these instances, police officers “break up” these encounters by ripping the students apart, pushing or dragging the involved young people literally out of schools, and often exacerbating the conflict instead of getting to its root cause. These same students are then usually suspended, pushed out of schools for long periods of time and by default sent into the juvenile justice system. We call this the school-to-prison pipeline.     

Recent data made available from the city’s Department of Education affirms my experiences: Although Black and Latino students make up only 66 percent of the student population, we made up 91 percent of arrests and 94 percent of summonses in New York City public schools in 2019-2020 school year.  And while we have heard that arrests and summons are generally declining in NYC, the data shows that arrests and summonses are still disproportionately Black and Latino students. To make matters worse, 9 percent (or nearly 240,000) of city students report having police but no psychologist, nurse, social workers and/or guidance counselor within their school. In these instances, if I am a young person in need of counseling or academic support, I am more likely to encounter a police officer exacerbating my distress than a supportive staff person who will listen to me and connect me to resources. 

In my school, for example, there are three guidance counselors and only one social worker for 600+ students.  If we have seen study after study showing the detrimental effects of police and punitive zero tolerance policies, why is it that we have schools with more police than guidance counselors, social workers, and nurses? If we have data-driven results that schools with positive practices like restorative justice are more safe and supportive for student learning, why haven’t we invested in and implemented these practices universally across all New York City public schools? 

At the end of the last school year, many of us felt like the city had a major opportunity to truly invest in our vision for police free schools by passing a budget that would divest the $450 million spent on the NYPD’s School Safety Division and redirect it back into support services we had been asking for. This would have brought an end to the era where the police department was in charge of school safety and made room for us—students, parents, teachers and community—to reimagine school safety. However, we now know that the 5,511 school safety agents will continue to be NYPD employees and the program’s budget has increased, resulting inevitably in the same inequities for Black and Latino students this coming school year. 

We will not tolerate more of the same, especially during this time of COVID. We can already predict that social distancing and mask-wearing enforcement will inevitably disproportionately impact those of us already targeted by this unfair system. We are organizing for Police-Free Schools to remove armed NYPD and school safety agents trained by NYPD from our public schools and eradicate all forms of surveillance that criminalize us. And in their place, we want investment in and implementation of policies and practices that de-escalate conflict, that support our socio-emotional growth, that invest in our leadership and culturally relevant academic learning. 

On behalf of all of my peers who have feared school spaces more than they desired them, who have felt more targeted than supported, who have felt more punished than invested in, I call on the City Council, the mayor and all those responsible for our public education, to keep your word: divest funds from the police and surveillance and invest those funds into more guidance counselors, social workers, nurses, extra-curricular activities, educational materials and laboratories.  #PoliceFreeSchools.

Leah Moise is a rising junior at the Worldview High School in the Dewitt Clinton Campus and a youth keader at Sistas and Brothas United at Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition.