NEW YORK, NY June 27, 2007 —Whether entering an office building, or going to the airport, a brush with security guards and metal detectors is increasingly becoming inevitable. But heightened security is also a fact of life for New York City public school students. How that security is administered has come under scrutiny this year. WNYC’s Beth Fertig has more.
REPORTER: On October 13th of last Fall, 15 year old Sky Lopez arrived at Middle School 224 in the Bronx late from a doctor’s appointment. She headed upstairs and was surprised to find the hallway filled with students and safety agents.
SKY: Everybody was going crazy in the hallways like it was a riot, something like that.
REPORTER: Sky says she kept on walking to class, but a female security agent told her to move faster.
SKY: So she kept on telling me to go to class and I’m like ‘I’m going.’ So then that’s when she went to grab me and I was like ‘Don’t touch me’ so I kept on moving back. And so me and her were just saying stuff back and forth so that’s when she grabbed me but she grabbed my hair. Then that’s when I hit her back.
REPORTER: Sky admits to hitting the security agent in the face. They started to fight.
SKY: She was hitting me back. Like physically hitting me back, she was punching me, she had me by my hair, she didn’t want to let go of my hair.
Some other staffers broke up the fight. Sky was handcuffed and taken to a classroom. But that didn’t stop the confrontation.
MAR: This is basically about 10 minutes after the incident originally started
REPORTER: Nelson Mar is Sky’s lawyer. We’re watching a video tape he obtained from the school, showing the safety agent in the hallway right after the fight broke out.
MAR: She actually enters the room now where my client was being kept while they’re figuring out what’s going to happen at this point.
REPORTER: Mar says this violates procedures stating agents and perpetrators should be separated after an incident.
MAR: And so she’s in there for close to 10 seconds now. And the school safety agents are actually pushing the client back in, and the school safety agent that was involved in the incident with my client just stuck her head back in and obviously said some words.
REPORTER: This apparent misconduct by the safety agent led a hearing officer to overturn Sky Lopez’s suspension. Assault charges against her were also dropped in family court. Mar has been representing young people for about eight years at Bronx Legal Services. He says this case isn’t so unusual.
MAR: There’s been far more incidents involving school safety agents either getting physical or getting aggressive with students.
Mar isn’t the only one who’s come to that conclusion. Donna Lieberman is executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which released a report this year titled “Criminalizing the Classroom.” Teachers and principals were surveyed and so were a thousand students. Lieberman says more than half of the students reported feeling uncomfortable in their interactions with officers and safety agents.
LIEBERMAN: There’s an incredible over policing of the schools. And at the same time there’s no accountability. There’s no evaluation and review. And the public has no clue what’s going on.
REPORTER: It IS hard to quantify the nature of these complaints. The police department – which is in charge of school safety – has yet to respond to a request WNYC made in February asking for the number of complaints involving officers and safety agents assigned to the schools. The Police Department also wouldn’t respond to a request for an interview.
The policing of schools has changed over the past year. Teams of officers and safety agents with metal detectors are now sent to high schools and middle schools on a random basis.
SAFETY AGENT: Take your belts off ladies
REPORTER: Previously, metal detectors were only used at certain high schools, such as Thomas Jefferson in Brooklyn, where kids got used to the routine. But with the introduction of random metal detectors last year, Lieberman - of the civil liberties union - says students are often caught off guard.
LIEBERMAN: We heard about one case where the kid told us that he was arrested for insubordination, I think it turned out to be disorderly conduct. And what was he doing? He was waiting outside school for his mom to pick up his cell phone. We heard reports repeatedly of school safety agents deciding that you can’t bring food into school. You can’t bring your breakfast in, you can’t bring your lunch in, and what do they do? Well, they confiscate it.
REPORTER: Some students have protested these policies. At the Community School for Social Justice, in the Bronx, a few kids decided NOT to walk through the metal detectors that showed up one day in the middle of March. Senior Louis Zabala was among those who refused to be scanned.
LOUIS: I was told that I would be suspended, and I asked them how long the suspension would be and they said they don’t know that would be up to the administration.
REPORTER: Students who refuse to go through scanners CAN be suspended. Since the random metal detectors were introduced last spring, more than 19-thousand cell phones were confiscated through the end of April - as well as 67-hundred Ipods and other electronics. 253 weapons and dangerous instruments were also seized – less than 1 percent of the total. The civil liberties union says this shows random metal detectors are unwarranted. But Schools Chancellor Joel Klein disagrees.
KLEIN: Two hundred-fifty weapons is a lot of weapons. Knives, boxcutters, things that people are bringing to school for at least as far as I’m concerned, no possible good reason. And as far as the Ipods, you don’t want them confiscated leave them at home.
REPORTER: Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has said another 23 guns were seized this school year – though not at the metal detectors. Weapons are often hidden outside of schools to avoid the scanners.
The use of random metal detectors is part of a wider crackdown on school security that began in 2004, when the city flooded the most dangerous schools with police. Crime went down afterwards. But the number of serious incidents rose last fall. And the teachers union has verified more reports this year of assaults, robberies, injuries and physical harassment. That’s why safety agents say the dangers are real.
FLOYD: My members were being injured by the students, not harassed, injured. Physically assaulted.
REPORTER: Gregory Floyd is president of local 237 of the Teamsters union, which represents the 42-hundred safety agents. He says gang activity is up. He’s dubious about the complaints against his members.
FLOYD: Prior to the mayor implementing his program you didn’t hear a complaint from the ACLU. The reason you didn’t hear a complaint is because kids weren’t complaining because they were running the schools! They’re not running the schools anymore so now they complain.
REPORTER: Floyd claims the civil liberties union is encouraging students to complain to further its own agenda: the opposition of random metal detectors. HHe says they’re no different than what passengers expect at airports. And he says safety agents are professionals who are given 14 weeks of training by the police department. But he acknowledges there is some room for improvement. The top salary for safety agents is 30 thousand dollars a year.
FLOYD: It’s difficult for school safety to have continuity because you have – I have to tell you in 5 yrs you have a 50% turnover. So with that kind of turnover how can you have consistency in school safety?
REPORTER: With a revolving door of safety agents and the natural tensions involved in supervising adolescents, clashes may be inevitable. A group called the Urban Youth Collaborative has been calling for more conflict resolution training, as well as meetings between agents and students. Sixteen year old Shantel Peterkin is a sophomore at the Bronx Guild school. The school made headlines a few years ago when its former principal was arrested during a confrontation with school safety.
SHANTEL: They talk to us like we’re criminals, they be like “oh I’m going to take you down.” And it’s ridiculous. Talk to me like I’m a child, the child that my mother raised me to be. Don’t talk to me like I’m some thug off the street. So I think they need to learn how to be, like, kind of friendly but at the same time have the students know they have authority and we need to listen to them.
REPORTER: The Education Department says it’s listening. Last fall, it started a 15 hour training course on “crisis intervention strategies to promote positive student behavior.” But the class is only for school staffers. The safety agents are under the Police Department’s jurisdiction – and they get just half a day of training in conflict resolution by school officials. For WNYC I’m Beth Fertig.