In schools, a question of cops vs. students1

Students protested outside One Police Plaza in Manhattan last week against what they said are discriminatory police practices in the city’s public schools.

As a student at Flushing High School, Nilesh Viswashrao said police unfairly punished him, and other minority students, so often that he and many of his friends dreaded going to class — so much so that Viswashrao ended up dropping out of school days after his 17th birthday.

“When I was a student in high school, every day I was harassed by the school safety agents and NYPD officers,” said Viswashrao, now 18. “My friends and I were threatened, frisked and discriminated against, to the point where many of us never made it past high school.”

The New York Civil Liberties Union and the Dignity in Schools Campaign say Viswashrao’s story is all too common and charged that it highlights a systemic problem within the city —that minorities make up the overwhelming majority of individuals arrested or ticketed in the public schools.

According to data released by the NYPD last week, police arrested or ticketed about 14 students each day from October through December of last year. Of those arrested, about 94 percent of the students were black or Latino.

To protest these numbers, Viswashrao and other students, teachers, advocates and legislators gathered outside One Police Plaza in Manhattan on Feb. 22 to call on police to change the way they handle school arrests.

“These numbers are shocking,” Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Sunnyside) said. “… These numbers and figures are out of line with the mission of the Department of Education, which is to educate and protect students, not prepare them for the school-to-prison pipeline.”

According to the data, which the NYPD and city DOE began to collect and make public after a 2011 City Council law forced them to do so, there were 279 arrests throughout the city schools from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31, 2011 — more than five per day. Police issued 532 summonses, or about nine a day. About 20 percent of the youth arrested were between the ages of 11 and 14.

It was reported that black students were nine times more likely to be arrested than their white peers.

“This data demonstrates that the impact of heavy-handed policing in city schools falls mostly on African-American students, who suffer more than 60 percent of the arrests, and on male students who suffered nearly three-quarters of all arrests,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “If the Bloomberg administration is truly serious about helping young men of color succeed, then they must address these disparities and focus more attention on educating children — not arresting them.”

NYPD spokesman Paul Browne criticized the NYCLU’s analysis.

“The NYCLU talks about arrests in schools but, conveniently, not crimes,” Browne said in a prepared statement. “There were 801 felonies in the schools last year, compared to 1,577 in 2001 before the current administration took office.”

Now a youth leader with the Jackson Heights-based Desis Rising Up and Moving organization, which is a part of the Dignity in Schools Campaign, Viswashrao said he was often severely punished for what seemed like slight infractions, such as chewing gum. According to the NYCLU, many students confirmed that they were arrested for offenses like writing on a desk, cursing and pushing.

“This data confirms that in just three months, too many school children were treated as criminals for minor infractions and pushed into the criminal justice system —often for behavior that probably should merit a trip to the principal’s office,” Lieberman said.

Advocates said they are hoping the release of the data will prompt the City Council to further investigate how police treat students within schools.

“We really need the City Council to have hearings on the student safety data,” said Roksana Mun, an organizer at DRUM. “The numbers are so startling you need to investigate what the NYPD is doing in public schools that disproportionately results in youth of color being arrested.”

Dromm said he’s pushing the Council to hold a hearing on the arrest data.

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