High Schools can be chaotic places. Hundreds —sometimes thousands — of teenagers jammed into a building who are expected to learn, grow and interact with one another in a civil matter. But as most anyone who has attended high school would attest to, there are disagreements and situations where discipline is required.
However, the Department of Education and the NYPD School Safety Division’s approach to discipline has been criticized over the past few years. Groups including the New York Civil Liberties Union and Diversity in Schools have said that student arrests and suspensions are issued far too often and disproportionately affect black and Hispanic males.
“What’s going on in the schools happens far too often as indicated by the huge number of low-level offenses that kids are being summoned or arrested for,” said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the NYCLU. “Kids are being thrown into the justice system for disciplinary matters that should be addressed by administrators and those kids are overwhelmingly kids of color. Kids need and deserve the dignity and respect of being treated as kids, which means being held accountable, but being given a support system.”
This year, the number of arrests citywide has decreased by 33 percent and yet the minorities make up well over 90 percent of those arrested — 93.5 percent from January 1 to March 31, compared to 96 percent during the same time period in 2012.
Queens falls in second place for the highest number of school arrests and summonses, 28 percent — just below Brooklyn which makes up 29 percent. While it can be argued that Queens and Brooklyn have more high schools than any other borough, the dividing lines within the boroughs show a clear separation where these arrests take place.
According to a report released by the NYPD last week, there were nine felony and 16 misdemeanor arrests in South Queens compared to only two felonies and 10 misdemeanor arrests in Northern Queens. While Queens overall is one of the most diverse areas in the country, a majority of southern Queens residents are black and Hispanic.
The report has drawn some parallels to the widely controversial stop-and-frisk policy that has also been criticized as being unfair to men of color. The tactic has since been declared unconstitutional by a state judge and a federal monitor has been put in place to oversee all stops. Mayor Bloomberg has filed an appeal.
“If you’re in a predominately black and colored community, it almost makes you think back to Brown v. The Board of Education when we began integrating students and yet we have schools that are still — in some cases even more so — very highly segregated,” said Ken Cohen, the president of the NAACP of Northern Queens. “No one seems to want to get involved.”
In 2011, a city law called the Student Safety was created that required regular reporting by the DOE and NYPD on school safety and disciplinary issues, including student suspensions and arrests but while this has been seen as a step towards transparency by some, others have pointed out that the data is not as clear as it seems.
“The one thing about the numbers is that they are not complete as they only report the number of arrests made by the School Safety Department,” Lieberman said. “We repeatedly hear that often times, regular police officers will make the arrests near school grounds and it will not get counted toward a school arrest. Children are, in large numbers, detained and prevented from going to school simply because they didn’t get there in time.”
Specific schools are not singled out in the report. Arrests are listed based on precinct sections.
Arrests made in the past for missteps including drawing on desks or arriving late to school are part of the reason the City Council requires the data to be released. But while the charges pressed against an individual student are listed, there is no way to determine exactly why a student was handed a summons or arrested.
In Southern Queens, 66.7 percent of those arrested for committing a felony were charged with second-degree assault — intent to cause serious physical injury to someone and actually causing serious physical injury to that person — all of which were committed by African Americans.
There is a strong interest in fighting amongst kids today,” Cohen said. “It’s like second nature. One of my neighbors was talking to some kids who may have been playing but looked a little wild and I came over and supported her and asked them to stop. It is the responsibility of the school community and community residents to find alternatives to suspension or calling the cops. The community has not been as welcome in the schools as it was years ago and that is mostly because a large number of students who attend school don’t live in the community the school is in.”
On Sept. 4, the Student Safety Coalition, a group of educators, parents, students, advocates and legal experts, called on the next mayor of New York City to implement reforms to end “overly aggressive policing in the city schools and restore authority over school discipline to professional educators.”
They presented a “New Vision for School Safety,” a set of nine principles for overhauling the so-called “flawed” Memorandum of Understanding between the NYPD and the DOE that governs school safety operations. The memorandum is an agreement that the Board of Education made with the mayor in 1998 that transferred school safety responsibilities from the DOE to the NYPD.
In essence, they are calling on teachers and administrators to play a more active role in disciplining students.
“I would say that 100 percent of what I learned in college, I don’t use as a teacher,” said a Queens high school teacher, whose name has been withheld. “I don’t remember one thing I was taught to apply when I was getting my master’s working in real life. One of the first pieces of advice I received is not to get involved in a fight, but if a kid is stomping on another kid’s head, I’m sorry but I’m getting involved. There aren’t fights all the time but there have been times when I had to beg students to help me separate their peers.”
The DOE could not comment on student arrests as they said they do not handle the data.
“A school cannot now and never could be an effective learning environment if it does not provide emotional support so that the kids are invested in their school community and are supported through a productive and constructive administration,” Lieberman said. “The suspensions, arrests, summonses are overused. These are measures that should only be utilized as a last resort in the most extreme cases. They should never be used without substantial due process.
“The biggest irony in our school discipline tactics is that kids get arrested for being late to school instead of figuring out why some children fail to attend schools and figuring out mechanisms of getting them interested in learning again,” she added.