Photo: Julian Roberts-Grmela. Over 200 students rallied at Tweed Courthouse in March, calling for the City Council to pass a budget that invests more mental health resources for students and less for NYPD officers in school.

Delia Davis –– a high school senior in the South Bronx –– says that as a Black woman, she feels self-conscious passing through metal detectors and encountering the NYPD on her way into school. Since Black and brown students are arrested in schools at a disproportionate rate, Davis says police presence in school triggers trauma that distracts her from her education.

“I am constantly worried that the next time, I will be the one who will be interrogated at the door or be searched for looking suspicious,” Davis said. “These are not thoughts I should be having while I’m in school.”

So Davis, along with over 200 other student leaders from across the city, marched to City Hall on April 20 to urge the City Council to pass a budget that invests more money into mental health and directs less money to school police.   

“It is not okay that over the last few years, the city has only given us small crumbs for programs that are vital to our lives and education,” Davis said.

Under Mayor Eric Adams’ proposed city budget for the upcoming fiscal year, school safety officers will stay under the purview of the NYPD, which would cancel former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to transfer control of school safety officers to the Department of Education by this summer. The city’s school safety workforce decreased since June 2020 from over 5,000 employees to under 4,000, according to the Daily News.

Of those 1,000 vacant positions, Adams plans to permanently cut 560 positions, leaving the city with more than 400 safety positions it still plans to fill. The proposed budget is under review by the Council, which will negotiate with the mayor on a final budget, due by July 1.

The NYPD’s school safety division –– which gets its funds directed from the education budget to the NYPD –– is already the largest in the nation.  In Los Angeles –– the second largest school district in the nation with just under half of NYC’s student population –– the school safety department employs less than 300 officers

The student activists asked the city council for a budget that does not plan to hire any additional NYPD officers and instead invests $120 million in “restorative care,” $75 million for new counselors and $75 million for new social workers. Six council members –– Alexa Avilés, Tiffany Cabán, Sandy Nurse, Chi Ossé, Kristin Richardson Jordan and Shahana Hanif –– signed a poster pledging their allegiance to the students’ cause. 

“As students, we have a voice,” said one student advocate with the organization Make the Road NY. “In school, they don’t teach us to have a voice so we have to take our voice of our own.”

Black and brown students make up 66% of the student population in the city but they make up around 90% of school arrests, according to a press release from Make the Road NY, which went on to claim high school arrests double the odds of a student dropping out.

“Mayor Adams once said public protection can be based on those who say it the loudest,” Davis said. “Well, I’m here to say that this kind of narrative is the same kind that is often projected onto Black girls like me, which make us targets at school for unjust harassment by school police.”

The New York ACLU said policing in New York City schools, paired with “zero-tolerance policies” in schools, drives youth directly towards the juvenile and criminal justice systems. They believe these policing measures harm student learning, especially among those who come from low income and Black and brown backgrounds.

Johanna Miller, director of the New York ACLU’s Education Policy Center, reminds that in 1998 when policing was authorized in city schools, the officer headcount was 3,500.  But that number grew to 5,200 under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s watch.  Meanwhile, enrollment in NYC public schools is dropping dramatically, and using funds to hire more officers, she said, is wasteful and overexposes students to police abuse.

“This proposed scaling-up comes at a time when students who have faced two years of isolation, grief, and hardship desperately need support from counselors, teachers, and staff, not policing, arrests, and criminalization in their schools,” Miller added.

Jenna Lyle, press secretary to the NYC Department of Education, said in an email that schools “must be welcoming, supportive environments for our young people as they grow academically and socially. Our school staff work hand-in-hand every day with outstanding School Safety Agents to provide safe, supportive environments for every student.’

The NYPD did not respond to multiple requests for comment about their school safety division.

The concurrent campaigns by the students and ACLU have prompted a serious re-evaluation in many quarters of how to balance school safety issues with the need to provide students more counseling and support in place of policing.

“The schools need to be built for the children –– when the kids are saying this loud and proud as activists and agitating for the things that they need, we need to hear them and make moves,” said Aixa Rodriguez: who’s a middle school teacher; the founder of Bronx Educators for Justice; a steering committee member for Black Lives Matter in Schools NYC and a member of the Movement for Rank and File Educators, a progressive caucus in the United Federation of Teachers.

“If you want to criminalize kids, invest in cops,” Rodriguez said. “That’s what you’re gonna get: criminalized kids and environments that are not going to be healthy. There’s not going to be solutions because all you’re going to do is react and respond.”

Rodriguez said students need long-term solutions rather than the NYPD officers, who she says react to conflicts instead of preventing them. She said that coming out of a pandemic, which caused one in 200 NYC children to lose a caregiver, the city needs to invest more for teachers and social workers to help teach students to work through conflicts and trauma. She thinks all students should have advisory classes led by social workers for students to learn about friendship and managing themselves in uncomfortable situations. She said NYPD officers are not having those conversations with students.

“We want them to have the best social skills. We want them to have the best survival skills. But how do you teach that if you don’t have environments that reinforce that and that means pay the staff that would do that,” Rodriguez said. “I’d rather have a health teacher that also ran advisory classes and circles than an extra cop any day.”

David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College, favors a greater investment in mental health instead of being used on school safety officers and surveillance technology like metal detectors. He wishes school safety officers were supervised by principals in the Department of Education. Bloomfield thinks the education community agrees with him for the most part.

“[Metal detectors and NYPD officers] create a certain prison mentality that’s antithetical to an educational environment,” Bloomfield said.

Bloomfield concedes that the general electorate might be convinced that school safety officers are necessary to combat a high rate of weapons seizures in schools, which are primarily carried by students for self-protection on their commutes.

“I think there’s a difference between the educational community, which probably favors fewer metal detectors and more social services and the general public, which probably cares more about school safety officers,” Bloomfield said. “Headlines of weapons and violence galvanize the public’s attention more than the day to day work of mental health professionals.”

Council Member Rafael Salamanca Jr. recognizes the need for more mental health services, but still believes police presence is important in schools.

“I have a 7-year-old kid, I want to make sure that my son is safe in school,” Salamanca said. “Right now, we don’t have enough public school safety officers in every school. Some of my schools have only one and they have to monitor that school.”

Salamanca said he supports Council Speaker Adrienne Adams’ request that $1.5 billion be added to the budget for “public safety programming,” which he said meant job creation. Salamanca said job creation reduces crime because it puts money in people’s pockets. Similarly, Salamanca said providing additional funds to after-school programs would keep kids out of trouble.

“If kids are at work after school, making money or they’re in after-school programs such as basketball, football or baseball, that time is occupied so they no longer have to be in the streets,” Salamanca said.

Farah Despeignes –– a former teacher at Samuel Gompers High School in Melrose for 14 years and the president of Community Education Council 8 in Hunts Point –– said she believes students need programs to help them learn how to resolve conflicts and communicate, but thinks those will take time to resolve imminent threats to safety in her community.

“Learn how to be effective at employing the tactics and the techniques that they are learning and then you can arrive at that point where you don’t need police officers and safety agents in the schools, but we’re not there yet. We have to do the work,” Despeignes said.

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