Posted by: vote4claxton | May 15, 2004


Policing the Hallways
The Impact on Impact Schools

By Olivia Goldberg
May 2004

Boisterous students responded to shrill calls from a police officer on the main floor at Washington Irving High School in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park.

“Where you going?” the safety officer called from her small wooden table. Two girls had bypassed her, walking away from the metal detectors. They yelled back something about a teacher who asked them to return after school. “Come here, come here, come here,” said the officer, redirecting them. The police sergeants stationed at the metal detectors demanded clarification. Soon the adamant voices of adults and teens echoed off the elegant wood paneling inside the lobby.

The girls had no choice but to give in, succumbing to the officers’ questions: What were their names? Which teacher did they plan to visit? To what room were they headed? The girls felt they were intruders in their own school.

This scene is recreated throughout New York City public schools every day, even more intensely in the system’s 12 most violent schools—the so-called “impact schools” targeted by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg last January to receive more uniformed officers to quell the disruptions.

During the 2002-2003 school year Washington Irving was the scene of two highly publicized incidents. On two occasions, students hurled chairs from the building’s upper floors. The first time, a car was damaged below. The second injured a pregnant woman as she walked past the building, prompting local tabloid headline writers to declare the students “Dumb and Dumber.”

A social studies teacher at Washington Irving, Greg Lundahl, petitioned the city Department of Education to add his school to the impact schools list. “A few in my school,” he said, “have brought in guns, attempted rape, brought in drugs packaged for sale, formed gangs and robbed other students without retribution from the Department of Education.”

The 10 high schools and two middle schools on the list reported violent incidents between 2002 and 2003 that accounted for 13 percent of all serious school crimes citywide. Data from the teachers’ union cited 691 reported assaults on school staff citywide in 2001. Those reports jumped to 994 in 2002.

The mayor’s response was to dispatch an additional 150 police officers to the 12 schools. Seven were sent to Washington Irving. This April, four more schools were added to the list for next year. In addition to arresting students for major crimes committed in schools, the police also issue court summonses for minor infractions, including fighting or arguing on school grounds. Bloomberg argued that police would help. “Disruptive students will not be tolerated,” he said. “We simply won’t allow a few people to destroy the educational opportunities of others.”

But some legal and law enforcement professionals believe the mayor’s initiative may further curtail learning opportunities for young people, troubled or not. Children who receive summonses must take at least a day off from school to attend court. Children age 15 and younger appear in Family Court. Those 16 to 18 must answer to a criminal court judge.

In addition, judges sentence some students to community service, which must sometimes be fulfilled on school days. Also, if the student’s family cannot afford the standard court fees, approximately $100, they must take another day to reappear in court.

“We’re obviously not happy about it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a criminal defense attorney for the Legal Aid Society. “There’s a large distinction between those crimes of everyday adolescent behavior incidents and felonies that are being committed in school.” But, she said, strict interpretations of penal law mean minor offenses committed at school can technically be charged as criminal violations.

“When someone punches someone,” said Jackie Dean, a legal supervisor in Manhattan Family Court, “that can be classified as an attempted assault in the third degree, which is actually a B-class misdemeanor.” Both Dean and Ginsburg mused that any parent who has a teenager at home could conceivably call the police several times a day.

Even police argue that, technically, they can classify a typical adolescent argument with a teacher as misdemeanor harassment. “That’s part of the concern about police in schools,” said Detective Marquez Claxton, spokesperson for 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, an organization that represents black police officers. The group argues that racism laies behind Bloomberg’s impact school initiative, which they say targets schools of color.

You have a situation such as an argument or a minor dispute that used to be resolved with students and counselors,” said Claxton. “And now you have the police there, who feel mandated to take police action.”

Many school employees feel ambivalent about being on the impact schools list. On the one hand, police presence provides a feeling of safety. On the other, just being on the list does not relay a positive public image for the school. Washington Irving’s principal, Denise Dicarlo, took a practical approach to the list.

“We weren’t originally earmarked to be an impact school,” she said in her well-appointed office. Prim in a tailored pantsuit accented by a sparkling tennis bracelet, Dicarlo sat on an antique-style seat. Six plush chairs surrounded a glass conference table, making the principal’s office look more like an elegant dining room. “It was a way to get resources,” she said. “When the city cut the budget, it also cut school aides and school safety agents.”

According to Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, 4,200 school safety agents oversaw security at the start of New York’s school year in 2001. But two years later, attrition and budget cuts caused the number to dwindle to 3,300—a 21 percent loss

Impact school status meant Washington Irving qualified to replenish its safety reserves, Dicarlo said. Last September, the school opened with seven safety agents and two police sergeants. In January, the city added seven more agents, for a total of 14. There are also six teachers, known as disciplinary deans, who spend part of the school day monitoring the halls and cafeteria.

Like the other impact schools, Washington Irving is large and overcrowded. Dicarlo said that 3,200 students are enrolled in a school built for 2,400. It is divided into nine smaller sections called “houses.” Dicarlo said that classes average between 30 and 40 students, but declined to give a tour or further comment.

Faculty may be relieved by the increased police presence, but local advocacy groups warn that more cops bring only an illusion of safety. “The fact of the matter is that cops don’t make schools safe,” said Kate Rhee, director of the Prison Moratorium Project. “Smaller classes, qualified teachers, trained counselors and programs for conflict resolution and violence intervention are what make schools safe.” The group’s mission is to help eradicate further construction of prisons nationally.

The agency’s campaign coordinator, Chino Hardin, called Bloomberg’s plan part of a “prison-industrial complex,” meaning that police are stationed in predominantly black and Latino schools only to feed prison populations.

“When we say ‘the prison-industrial complex,’” said Hardin in a lecture to students at the Columbia Law School last month, “we don’t mean the cell bars, the walls. We mean the whole system that incarcerates people. That’s everyone from the police to the district attorney, the judge, until you get incarcerated.”

Dressed all in black from bandana to shoes, Hardin, 23, spoke with raspy directness. Her shirt and pants hung baggy over her short, stout frame. Chin and tongue piercings made her round face rough. She acknowledged the frequency and severity of violence in schools, but didn’t agree with the city’s solution.

“The victim who was assaulted does not heal,” Hardin said, “and the kid who assaulted the victim becomes a victim as well.” One child is the victim of physical or emotional abuse and the other winds up in the juvenile detention system, where, Hardin said, he or she may be further abused. “So that process never stops, and creates a vicious cycle of violence within our communities.”

Jackie Dean believes Department of Education follows a history of sending troubled children—those somewhat neglected by the school system—into the juvenile justice system. Creating situations where children are out of school longer, she said, pushes children to the point where they stop showing up altogether.

Washington Irving students find simpler arguments against police presence in the halls. “It’s not good if violence were to break out,” said Kariym Bell, a sophomore. Kariym pondered the possible consequences of armed officers in his school. “They might get a hold of their gun,” he said. “Too many police officers is no good. You know how cops are.” Kariym was referring to police reputation for treating people of color harshly, he said.

His mother, Joanne Bell, who was set to transfer her son to another school, agreed that police officers are unnecessarily rough. “As children,” she said, “they’re not always going to follow rules.”


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