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Citing a ‘huge safety challenge,’ de Blasio says NYPD should stay in NYC schools

Mayor Bill de Blasio

Patrick Wall

School districts across the country are reconsidering their relationships with police departments and some are cutting ties entirely. But changes won’t be coming soon to New York City.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday that he continues to support police department control of school security, which includes about 5,000 agents stationed in schools, and would oppose transferring that responsibility to the education department.

“School safety as it’s currently configured has done a lot to reduce crime and violence in our schools,” de Blasio told reporters. He added that there is still a “huge safety challenge in our schools” and “school safety is necessary in its current form to keep ensuring the safety of our kids and all personnel in our schools.”

The mayor has faced withering criticism over the police department’s forceful, and often violent, response to largely peaceful protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck.

Hundreds of city educators have signed petitions in recent weeks calling for the city to transfer control of school safety back to the education department, which oversaw school security until Mayor Rudy Giuliani successfully pushed for an overhaul in the late 1990s.

De Blasio said he favors reforms to the school safety division, such as a “neighborhood policing” approach, instead of changing who is in charge. Last year, the city overhauled the agreement between the police and education departments in an effort to limit police interactions with students.

De Blasio did not offer details about what additional reforms he believes are necessary. He said a city task force would look into education department control of school security, though last year the mayor rejected a proposal from a separate mayoral task force to study the issue.

Although unsurprising, the mayor’s comments disappointed some advocates, who pointed to school systems in Minneapolis, Denver, and Portland, which have either cut ties with the police or are seriously considering doing so. Some also noted that de Blasio has repeatedly bragged about improved school safety — a position in tension with his view that schools are not safe enough to remove police oversight.

“The mayor can’t have it both ways: He can’t say [schools] are the safest they’ve ever been, but they’re so dangerous that we need a militarized police force in the hallways,” said Johanna Miller, an education policy expert at the New York Civil Liberties Union. 

There have been some notable examples of school violence in recent years, which the mayor’s critics have sometimes seized on. In the most serious example, a student was fatally stabbed at a Bronx school in 2017, though such incidents are extremely rare.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, flanked by police Commissioner James O’Neill and Chancellor Carmen Fariña held a press conference on school safety at M.S. 88 in Brooklyn in August.

Mayor Bill de Blasio held a press conference on school safety at M.S. 88 in Brooklyn in 2017.

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

School safety agents, who are generally unarmed and stationed in every school, play a variety of roles: greeting and signing in visitors to school buildings, deploying metal detectors at some schools, responding to fights, and even issuing arrests. In many cases, they’re called to respond to student mental health crises.

Civil rights groups have raised concerns about their role for decades, arguing that they criminalize low-level misbehavior, disproportionately among black and Hispanic students

Arrests and summonses in city schools have been falling in recent years, according to a New York Civil Liberties Union analysis. But stark racial disparities have persisted: In 2019, 90% of arrests and 93% of summonses issued in schools went to black and Latino students, who represent 66% of city public school students.

The vast majority of arrests and summonses in schools are conducted by regular patrol officers who are called into school buildings, not school safety agents, suggesting meaningful reforms will require a holistic approach, Miller said.

The city has budgeted $427 million for school safety next fiscal year — more than Boston spends on its entire police force. That represents a 1.3% increase, compared to this year’s budget. Facing pressure from activists who want to see police funding go instead to social services, de Blasio has committed to unspecified cuts to the police department’s budget to support youth programming. 

A City Hall spokesperson did not immediately say whether the cuts would include the school safety division.

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