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NYCLU lawsuit challenges city's school discipline policies

Stepping up its campaign against excessive policing in city schools, the New York Civil Liberties Union today sued the city on behalf of students who say they’ve been victims of overaggressive school safety officers.

The abuses alleged in the 56-page complaint filed in federal court today “shock the conscience,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman at a press conference this morning. The NYCLU charges that school safety officers threatened, intimidated, handcuffed, and assaulted students whose only offenses included writing on a desk or being late for class.

The NYCLU has sued the city before about single cases of abuse by school safety agents, who are overseen by the police department rather than the Department of Education. In November, the city agreed to pay $55,000 to a student who said he was assaulted by a safety agent at Robert F. Kennedy High School in Queens. Today’s suit is different because it seeks to represent all city students and because it aims to establish that the city’s official school discipline policies violate students’ civil rights.

The NYCLU wants the court to require the city to give authority over school discipline to educators, make information about school safety more accessible and transparent, provide better information about how students can file complaints about safety agents, and improve the training given to the agents. There are about 5,500 school safety agents, making that division of the NYPD larger than all but four municipal police departments in the country.

One of the five named plaintiffs, whom NYCLU says represent middle and high school students in general, broke down this morning while describing what happened to her in October outside her school, IS 151 in the Bronx. (Watch her statement in the video above.) Identified in the complaint as D.Y., the 13-year-old girl said multiple school safety agents handcuffed her and pushed her around after she refused to enter the school building. She was never charged with a crime. D.Y.’s story is one of 26 outlined in the complaint.

Today’s lawsuit represents the culmination of two years of work, according to lawyers from NYCLU and the American Civil Liberties Union. The city must respond to the claims within about a month, although a corporate lawyer working on the case on a pro-bono basis, Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, said NYCLU would likely give the city an extension.

The policy recommendations have appeared before in two major reports NYCLU released in 2008 and 2009. They also make up the core of the Student Safety Act, a bill that most City Council members support but has never been brought to a vote.

Since the NYCLU began its school safety campaign, some details have emerged from inside the notoriously opaque complaint process. James Secreto, the commanding officer of NYPD’s school safety division, told the City Council last fall that 27 percent of complaints against school safety agents are substantiated by the police department’s Internal Affairs Bureau. Only about 4 percent of complaints made to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the independent agency that investigates charges against all other police officers, are substantiated, according to Udi Ofer, a NYCLU lawyer.

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