As protests across the country force a reckoning over police violence and city police crack down on local demonstrators, advocates are ratcheting up calls for New York City schools to sever ties with the police department.
The New York Police Department stations thousands of safety officers in city schools, an arrangement that has been in place since 1998. But after the recent killing of George Floyd, who died last week after a Minneapolis police officer leaned on his neck for nearly nine minutes, calls have grown across the country to rethink the role of police in schools.
The Minneapolis school board voted Tuesday to cut ties with the local police department. A Denver school board member has advanced a similar proposal, as has the Chicago teachers union. The Advancement Project, a national civil rights group, is urging all school districts to cut ties with the police. In New York City, advocacy groups and some elected officials are calling to reduce the police department’s funding and even eliminate their presence in schools.
Those calls have been fueled in part by growing outrage over the NYPD’s response to protests, with videos emerging of city police officers mowing down protestors with their patrol cars, pointing a gun at a crowd in Manhattan, and numerous instances of using force to disperse groups of demonstrators and journalists.
“The idea that black and brown kids are going to walk back into a school where the NYPD is standing there — that level of threat is unacceptable,” said Matt Gonzales, director of the Integration and Innovation Initiative at NYU’s Metro Center. “The New York Police Department really doesn’t have any business inside New York public schools.”
A substantial reduction in school safety spending or an overhaul to their structure is probably a long shot: The school safety budget has grown substantially under Mayor Bill de Blasio, and just last year he rejected a proposal to study moving the division back to the education department.
School safety agents, who are 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 and summonses. 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.
Others argue that school safety officers are essential to maintaining order, including schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who has rejected the “counselors not cops” slogan favored among advocates.
“I think it’s the wrong conversation to have about the number of safety agents you have. It’s not an issue until, God forbid, something happens in our schools,” he said last year.
Still, de Blasio and Carranza have agreed to school safety reforms meant to limit arrests and summonses for more minor offenses. They have also championed policies to reduce suspensions and other punitive disciplinary measures.
But in the six years since de Blasio took office, the school safety division budget has increased by about 38%, according to figures from the Independent Budget Office. The number of police officials assigned to school safety has held steady at roughly 5,100, making it one of the largest police forces in the country. De Blasio’s budget proposal calls for increased spending on school safety officers by 1.3% to roughly $427 million next fiscal year.
Some advocates blasted that proposed increase, especially as the mayor plans to cut $827 million from the education department in response to a fiscal crisis spurred by the coronavirus pandemic. Officials did not say if they’re considering cuts to the school safety division.
“That money could be better used for other resources within our schools,” said Jasmine Gripper, executive director of the advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education, which has launched a petition to reduce police funding. “We want them to have counselors, we want them to have social workers, we want them to have sports.”
The responsibility for school safety officers moved from the education to police departments under the Giuliani administration in 1998, when “zero tolerance” approaches to student discipline were in vogue. Additionally, school leaders had concerns about corruption in the education department’s safety division and issues with officer discipline.
Although the de Blasio administration has been ideologically aligned with advocates who want to move away from punitive approaches to student discipline, he has resisted. Last year, de Blasio rejected a proposal to analyze the benefits and drawbacks of giving the education department, rather than the police department, control of school safety officials — a study recommended by the mayor’s School Diversity Advisory Group.
The city’s teachers union, which participated on that advisory group, resisted a stronger recommendation to actually give the education department control of school safety, according to people who were present during negotiations. United Federation of Teachers chief Michael Mulgrew signaled Wednesday he is open to further discussing the idea.
“The safety of students and staff is our first priority. If people have an alternative suggestion to better ensure that safety, we are willing to discuss it,” he said in a statement.
Local 237, the union that represents school safety agents, declined to comment.
Spokespeople for the education department and City Hall did not answer questions about why they believe school safety should be in the hands of the police department or their rationale for rejecting a proposal to study the costs and benefits of moving school safety to the education department.
Instead, they pointed to changes that were made last year to the “memorandum of understanding” between the education and police departments, which had not been updated since the Giuliani administration.
The overhauled agreement says that police officials should not arrest students or issue them summons “whenever possible” for certain low-level offenses and limits school staff from calling safety agents for infractions like uniform violations, cutting class, lateness, smoking, lying, or gambling — as long as they can be otherwise addressed “safely.”
The police department’s patrol guide was also altered to limit situations in which students can be arrested in school for minor offenses that occurred off campus.
“We prioritize creating school environments that are welcoming, inclusive, and safe for all of our students, and updated our [memorandum of understanding] with the police department for the first time in decades to underscore our commitment to communities built on trust and respect, not discipline and policing,” said education department spokesperson Nathanial Styer.
Still, some students said they continue to have mixed experiences with school safety officials.
La’Toya Beecham, a student at Health, Education, and Research Occupations High School in the Bronx, said the school safety agents are generally “really warm and welcoming.” Still, they are the first people who greet her when she walks through her school’s metal detectors. “It makes us feel like we’re in a system that views us as criminals,” she said.
Keneisha Buckley, a rising junior at Scholars’ Academy in Queens, said there are no metal detectors and few school safety officials at her school, which is disproportionately white. But down the street, at the Beach Channel Educational Campus, which serves more students of color, there are far more school safety officials and students must pass through metal detectors each morning.
“How are you going to give one school metal detectors and then give another school none? “That’s like saying, ‘Oh, well, those kids are bad, and those kids are good,” said Buckley, who is a member of the Urban Youth Collaborative, a student advocacy group.
“It’s crazy just based off the percentage of white kids that go to a school the difference that it makes.”
Ashleigh Garrison contributed reporting.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story cited school safety budget figures that did not include fringe benefits. The figures have been updated to include the full cost.