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City Council bill introduced today aims to clear up school safety confusion

For years, students and activists have complained that lines of authority in school discipline are muddled by the presence of New York Police Department safety agents in schools — and that the confusion can lead to abuses and conflict. As of today, the City Council is considering legislation to improve the school safety situation.

This afternoon, Robert Jackson, chairman of the City Council’s education committee, introduced the Student Safety Act, which would make information about school safety more transparent and accessible, with the goal of clearing up lines of accountability and fostering a positive atmosphere in the city’s schools. More than 100 supporters, from community organizations such as Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative, gathered on the steps of City Hall this morning bearing signs that read “Graduation, Not Incarceration” and “Schools not Jails.”

The act, which has already won the support of 24 of the council’s 51 members, would require the DOE and NYPD to report arrests, suspensions, and expulsion data on a quarterly basis, along with a demographic breakdown of the students involved in school incidents. Under the legislation, parents and students would also be able to register grievances against school safety agents with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates complaints against New York City police officers; currently, the board does not review incidents that take place in schools.

“The act will provide a sense of confidence among students that school safety agents will be accountable,” said Jaritza Geigel, a student at Bushwick High School for Social Justice and a Make the Road youth leader.

Without that confidence, students said, school becomes a place for fear, not learning. “People think if they do something wrong, even something little, they’ll get in trouble,” 9th grader Jonathan Jimenez told GothamSchools. Jimenez said his parents transferred him to Catholic school after he was involved in a physical confrontation with the safety agent at his Queens middle school.

The safest school environments are ones where educators, not police officers, make most of the decisions about discipline, speakers emphasized. “School safety agents should follow the lead of academic personnel,” said Nancy Ginsburg, director of the adolescent intervention and diversion team of the Legal Aid Society, which frequently represents young people in criminal and family court after incidents at school, said school discipline should be primarily the job of educators.

And students should not be arrested for minor infractions that are “essentially age-appropriate conduct,” said Damon Hewitt of the NAACP-Legal Defense and Education Fund. “When students misbehave, that is a teachable moment.”

GothamSchools will soon be looking at ways that some educators and experts think schools can make these “teachable moments” in school discipline happen. Stay tuned.

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