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As New York City public school students head back to school this week, the days when officers in the city’s police department could arrest students for minor misbehavior may finally be over.
After more than two decades in which the New York Police Department (NYPD) had near-total discretion, the department signed a policy in June that limits the responsibilities of police officers in New York City public schools. The policy is part of a school-climate effort by Mayor Bill de Blasio that also includes hiring 285 new school social workers, limiting out-of-school suspensions and providing support for educators to practice positive discipline techniques. It’s a sweeping, ambitious and impressive package, driven in large part by advocates and youth organizers.
It is singularly impressive that the nation’s largest police force agreed to restrain the authority of its officers in the school context. New York City is the nation’s largest school district, serving over 1.1 million students.
This is especially remarkable in our current cultural moment — a post-Parkland world in which school districts are pressured to purchase weapons, grant law enforcement access to student records, and spend limited education dollars on high-tech surveillance. The NYPD, the majority of whose School Safety Division officers are and will remain unarmed, is taking a drastically different approach.
The agreement, known as a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), puts student well-being at the center of school security. It replaces a Giuliani-era MOU that allowed police to arrest students of any age for any classroom infraction. That MOU was executed at the height of “broken windows” policing in New York City, a strategy that targeted mostly black New Yorkers for minor violations of the law, under the flawed theory that it would deter more serious crime. It imported a culture of zero tolerance into classrooms, with complete disregard for normal childhood and adolescent behaviors, or the importance of young people learning from their mistakes.
The number of school safety officers ballooned, leading to more arrests and conflicts, not fewer. The Department of Education ratcheted up its discipline code, dramatically increasing the number of infractions that could result in an out-of-school suspension, eventually peaking at more than 70,000 suspensions in a single school year. In 2007, then-NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly wrote to the City Council that the role of school safety officers included “removing unruly students” and enforcing school rules.
The New York Civil Liberties Union fielded complaints from families whose children were arrested for ridiculous “offenses” like being suspected of having a cell phone, starting a food fight, bringing banned sugary drinks into school or refusing to remove a baseball cap in class. NYPD officers even arrested principals and teachers for trying to protect their students.
The new MOU seeks to close the book on this culture. And while it preserves the NYPD’s control over school safety, it rightly directs their attention to addressing serious safety threats. It does not prohibit officers from arresting students or educators from calling the police, but it communicates that children should not be subjected to police tactics for common behavioral issues.
It is a meaningful values statement from the largest school district in the country.
Getting the city to this point wasn’t easy. At the center of the fight, for more than a decade, was a dedicated group of advocates and several generations of powerful youth activists.
We began to turn the tide by telling these stories over and over again, through personal anecdotes, policy critiques and data. With the help of City Council members, we passed strong local reporting requirements to get access to school arrest numbers and demographic information.
As in other cities, we learned that arrests of students in our schools revealed striking racial disparities. Black and Latinx students represented almost 90 percent of arrests in a given reporting period. Young people marched on City Hall, testified at Council hearings, filed official complaints against abusive officers, and sued the city for wrongful arrests and unreasonable use of force.
When a new mayor was elected in 2013, we were poised to make change happen. As part of Mayor de Blasio’s School Climate Leadership Team, advocates, parents and young people worked shoulder to shoulder with the NYPD to reach an understanding that arresting misbehaving students did not make schools safer.
In fact, it was a practice that made schools hostile and dangerous for any student having a bad day, especially if the student had special needs or was a child of color.
The police are trained to always plan for the worst, but we managed to show them that the worst wasn’t happening. Schools, like the streets of New York City, were getting safer, even as arrests began to drop. Terrifying scenarios like a school shooting would not be thwarted by handcuffing food fighters.
In the absence of new policy from the city, the School Safety Division reduced arrests by voluntarily participating in conflict resolution and other trainings, at the behest of youth leadership. They adopted a diversion strategy for handling non-criminal violations. And they worked with us to keep solving problems.
The MOU doesn’t address everything. We must work to limit the use of handcuffs, metal detectors and other forms of surveillance, and seek drastic improvements to the way the NYPD responds to children in emotional crisis. The School Safety Division is actually growing this year, which provides more opportunities for conflict with students, even under the new agreement. But we’ve started the work of policy change, and a change in culture is well underway.
We will continue to work toward a system in which every child has access to a school that is safe, healthy and free.
This story about policing in New York City schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.