At first, it was jarring, but Andrea Colon got used to it — the surveillance cameras, the officers standing guard, going about their rounds, always watching you. She wasn’t an inmate exactly but she was doing time, at least until she graduated.
Then one day Colon, a junior at Rockaway Park High School, saw something that snapped her out of it. There was a commotion in the hallway and she stepped out of her classroom to see what it was all about. A fight had broken out between five or six boys, all of whom were black or brown, she recalls.
Colon watched as an NYPD school safety agent pressed one of them against a wall, choking him. One of her teachers, a big guy who was an Army reservist, body-slammed another to the ground. When one of the fighters attempted to walk away, the assistant principal told a safety agent to put him in handcuffs and announced he was calling the local precinct. Any student who was in the hall when backup arrived would be leaving in a squad car too, he said.
“It was just about criminalizing students of color,” says Colon. “They were going to get arrested, get suspended and then they were going to come back to school where it could happen all over again.”
That revelation led her to volunteer with the Rockaway Youth Task Force (RYTF), a grassroots advocacy group on the Rockaway Peninsula led by young people of color. Now studying economics at Baruch College, Colon is also on the organization’s staff.
As the new school year begins, RYTF, which for years has been part of a movement pushing for New York City to rethink its approach to safety in its public schools, might see some of what it’s been demanding put into place. There will be more counselors roving the hallways. And under a new agreement between the city Department of Education (DoE) and Police Department, officers will refrain from making arrests for low-level offenses such as graffiti, disorderly conduct and marijuana possession.
“Safety doesn’t necessarily mean police,” says Colon. “Safety means feeling supported. Safety means feeling like you’re in a community, and it is hard to feel that way when you are constantly being policed and watched. It makes you feel like you’re a criminal and that’s all there is to you.”
Building the School-to-Prison Pipeline
There’s no literal pipeline extending from New York’s middle and high schools to the prisons on Rikers Island and upstate. But tens of thousands of mainly black and brown youths have found themselves ensnared in what criminal-justice reform advocates refer to as the “school-to-prison pipeline” since 1998, when then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani presided over a memorandum of understanding between the NYPD and the Board of Education that opened schoolhouse doors to police.
Overnight, 3,200 school safety workers who had previously been employed by the school board became deputized members of the NYPD. More than 5,000 officers now walk the halls of New York’s public schools. They greet students at doorways that are often framed by metal detectors and respond on-call to mete out classroom discipline, handcuffs slung from their belts. More cops loiter just outside schools, should they be called upon to haul a student away to a station house for processing.
With 1.1 million students, New York City’s public school system is a virtual city of juveniles, bigger than San Jose, California, smaller than Dallas. But while New York has 5,000 cops deployed in its schools, Dallas, with 1.3 million residents, has a force of 3,000 officers to cover the whole city. San Jose, with about 1,050,000 denizens, has less than 1,000 police.
“You increase the security apparatus, you increase arrests,” said Dr. Anne Gregory, a Rutgers University psychology professor who studies alternative approaches to discipline in schools. “You wear those kind of glasses and you see the world through that lens.”
‘Safety doesn’t necessarily mean police.’
Students are often arrested or receive court summonses for offenses that aren’t even crimes. A landmark 2017 report from the Center for Popular Democracy and the Urban Youth Collaborative (UYC) noted that there had been “1,310 arrests, summonses, or juvenile reports for non-criminal violations” in the city school system in the previous year, including “‘trespassing’ for being on the wrong floor of a multi-school building, or ‘disorderly conduct’ for using obscene language or participating in a peaceful protest.” (“Juvenile reports” are issued for alleged offenses by students under 16 that would otherwise lead to an arrest. Students are detained while information is collected for such reports.)
Yet the original 1998 agreement that served as a permission slip for the police to enter New York schools expired in 2002. What were they still doing there? In 2003, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, heir to Giuliani’s “tough-on-crime” policies, joined with then-Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and quietly renewed the agreement. Both the NYPD and the Department of Education denied the document existed until 2009, when inquiries from Karim Camara, then a state Assemblymember representing central Brooklyn, brought it to light.
New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) executive director Donna Lieberman called the denials “baffling” and indicative of a “confused, inconsistent and misguided approach to policing our schools.” The document was not made available to the public until 2017, when the education news outlet Chalkbeat obtained a copy from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.
By then Bill de Blasio was running City Hall. He had been elected years earlier in 2013, running on a promise to end “the tale of two cities” and bolstered by television ads that featured his multiracial family, including his Afroed son, Dante, then a junior at Brooklyn Technical High School. Both the mayor and his son have commented frequently since on the racial dynamics between people of color and law enforcement.
Suspensions, summonses and arrests have declined since de Blasio took office, but racial disparities in the school system — including who has access to A-list academies like Brooklyn Tech, where the police presence is minimal, and who receives an education from the stiff arm of the law — have persisted.
Black and Latinx students make up 76.5 percent of the school population, according to city data from the 2017–2018 school year compiled by the NYCLU, but they accounted for 88.5 percent of arrests and nearly 92 percent of summonses issued. Black students, 26 percent of the student body, account for about 60 percent of those arrested and more than 50 percent of those who are issued a summons. Black pupils also account for nearly half of all suspensions, which increases the likelihood of dropping out by more than 15 percent, according to the Popular Democracy-Urban Youth report.
“It’s a racist policy,” UYC youth coordinator Roberto Cabanas says. “There’s no other way to talk about it without talking about race.” Year after year, even if arrests and summonses go down, black and Latinx students continue to receive the bulk of them, he notes. “It’s the same statistic, time and time again. It hasn’t changed.”
This school year, it just might.
At a June 20 press conference, de Blasio, with his wife, Chirlane McCray, and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza at his side, announced a new agreement on policing. Under the arrangement, teachers and staff are to refrain from involving in-school cops with non-criminal offenses such as being late, smoking, “making excessive noise” and “engaging in verbally rude behavior” unless their safety is threatened. When it comes to discipline for behavior considered criminal, such as trespassing or disorderly conduct, the involvement of the police is at educators’ discretion, but they are encouraged to “utilize, whenever possible, diversionary responses and protocols.”
There, however, is a fine line between being rude and noisy, normal teenage behavior, and being disorderly; between trespassing and wandering onto the campus of another school, especially when those schools share a building. Some educators consider the option of turning to law enforcement to resolve classroom disputes to be an asset.
Now at least they have the option of a different approach. The Education Department is also launching a citywide restorative-justice initiative, an alternative to suspensions, summonses and arrests that several city schools have already been exploring.
Restorative justice asks “after a harm is committed, how do you repair the harm that has been done by bringing all parties into a conversation,” says Amy Chou, project officer for a restorative-justice pilot program launched by the Brooklyn Community Foundation at two high schools and a middle school.
“Let’s say two kids get into a fight,” Alliyah St. Omer, an RYTF activist and a senior at Channel View School for Research in Rockaway who takes part in a “restorative circles” program there, tells The Indy. “Everybody will be in a circle. There will be two peer mediators there [and] the kids who got in an argument. Maybe a staff member can be involved if he wants to, but normally the students take control over the circle. The point of the circle is that there’s no start and no end to it. We’re all equals, so we’re all sitting down together. We take turns talking about how we felt about the situation and how we can move forward from the situation.”
Restorative justice can also prevent violence. St. Omer recalls how a rumor was circling around Channel View that two groups of girls were planning to fight one another in the cafeteria during lunch. The potential row was over gossip. St. Omer was called in by the principal to mediate before things got out of hand. “The girls decided to tell each other, ‘You know what? I think maybe we should just not talk bad about each other. I’ll stop talking about you and you stop talking about me.’”
More broadly, Chou says restorative justice also encompasses “the way that teachers interact with students in their classroom. It’s the way that schools interact with parents. It’s about shifting the way schools fundamentally think about punishment and discipline, from a way that is punitive to another approach where you honor the dignity and sovereignty of students.”
Schools involved in the Community Foundation pilot saw a 53 percent reduction in the number of suspensions over three years when compared to the three years preceding the program, said Dr. Gregory, who was in the midst of compiling a report detailing the pilot’s results for the foundation when she spoke to The Indy. Based on student surveys, there was also “documented progress in creating more equitable school climates,” she added.
The Education Department also began a separate restorative justice program in 2015 in Brooklyn’s District 18, which stretches from Flatbush to Canarsie. Suspensions fell by a quarter in the program’s first year and by 11 percent last year, according to City Hall. Racial disparities in discipline also dropped: Citywide, African-American pupils are 2.6 times more likely to receive suspensions than other students. In District 18, they are 1.2 times more likely.
Meanwhile, the department is reducing the maximum number of days students can be suspended from 180 days, the length of a full school year, to 20 days. It is hiring an additional 85 social workers, an acknowledgment of what observers have long noted is the source of many of the infractions that feed students into the school-to-prison pipeline: mental health crises.
“Police don’t make schools safe, period,” said Cabanas. “There’s no such thing as dangerous kids in schools. There’s kids who have social-emotional needs, but because schools lack social workers, guidance counselors, mental-health service workers, a lot of those needs are never addressed. We’re dealing with young people in poverty.”
The departure from zero tolerance and toward restorative justice wasn’t a smooth one. It comes after the mayor convened a “School Climate and Discipline” task force in 2015 that put activists and civil libertarians in the room with the representatives of numerous city agencies, including the police and the Education Department. One year later, the task force issued its recommendations, but the de Blasio administration didn’t announce that they would be implemented until this June.
Chancellor Carranza, appointed in 2018, now refers to himself as a “realist” but initially pledged to boldly tackle civil rights violations within the school system, among the most segregated in the nation. Testifying before the City Council in March, he said he was not satisfied with the way the agreement was developing. “There was a lot in that [agreement] that was very much law-enforcement centric,” he told the Council. “We’ve been pushing back, and we’ve actually been having great conversations with NYPD.”
As Carranza addressed the lawmakers, students stood up in the back of the room holding signs demanding more social workers and “culturally responsive education.” The protest was one of dozens students and young adults have orchestrated over the years, urging elected officials and school administrators to act to close the school-to-prison pipeline. Andrea Colon and Roberto Cabanas even flew Iowa to confront de Blasio at a meet-and-greet hosted by his presidential campaign on June 8. Two weeks later, he announced the discipline reforms.
“We’ve had these demands for a while, but it feels like the mayor just recently started listening to us a lot more,” says Colon.
Yet the police have not retreated from the city’s schools. The city is taking a parallel approach to safety. There will be more restorative circles like the ones St. Omer facilitates this year, but handcuffs will remain an option for disciplinarians.
“I have two main concerns,” Dr. Gregory says of the dual approaches. “One of which is resource allocation as a society. Are you going to put your funds into another security agent, or are you going to put your funds into a guidance counselor or school psychologist? These funds come out of different budgets but ultimately we’re talking about taxpayer money.”
There are 285 social workers in the Education Department’s employ, at a cost to the city of $30 million this year with the new hires. When it comes to maintaining the 5,000-plus in-school police force, the city spends $350 million annually. The additional social cost of policing the schools, including a loss of future tax revenue when students fail to graduate due to suspensions, comes to $350 million a year, the Popular Democracy-UYC study found.
Moreover, there is a “fundamental, philosophical clash, around social control and policing versus trying to correct and repair a wrong,” says Gregory.
The Education Department did not respond to requests for comment, including to written questions a spokesperson asked The Indypendent to provide.
“Doing restorative justice practices doesn’t happen overnight, but I feel like it would really benefit schools if they took the time and actually practiced it and learned from it and worked together to do it,” St. Omer says. “Having a heavy police presence in schools doesn’t help anybody. It’s the same thing repeating every year.”
For young activists like St. Omer, Colon and Cabanas, the reforms don’t go all the way but nonetheless signify the beginning of a major change. Time will tell how the new approach to safety plays out, given that it leaves much to the discretion of educators and to safety agents — who aren’t going anywhere.
The Urban Youth Collaborative wants the metal detectors gone and a full ban on arrests, summonses and juvenile reports for minor infractions and misdemeanors.
“We still have a long way to go,” says Cabanas. “We have to prioritize the kinds of things young people are asking for: more restorative justice, social workers and police-free schools.”