Waiting for reform: slow and steady doesn’t always win the race

City Council members and the Mayor’s office had been feeling the heat from religious leaders throughout the city who are pushing to pass a bill that would supply city-funded school safety officers to the city’s private schools. Council member David Greenfield proposed the bill which called for one NYPD school safety agent per each religious or private school in the city with more than 300 students. Originally the DOE and NYPD opposed the bill citing high costs ($51 million) and an over-extension of the school safety officers currently employed by the NYPD. But last week the Mayor’s office agreed to support the bill with a compromise. Rather than use the costly NYPD staff, security officers from private corporations will be deployed to the non-public NYC schools. The cost of this plan should not exceed $19.8 million.

Well, $19.8 million is still a lot of money. It’s actually staggering, compared to the $3 million promised by the Mayor for training and resources to implement restorative discipline practices in NYC public schools. To me, three million dollars is a lot of money, but when put into the context of funding the desperately needed discipline reform in our schools, it’s a drop in the bucket. At last month’s Town Hall meeting on Education, the Mayor was asked by a high school student if he would consider eliminating B21 infractions from the school disciplinary code. B21 is stated as “Defying or disobeying the lawful authority or directive of school personnel or school safety agents in a way that substantially disrupts the educational process.” These infractions are most often the cause of in-school and out-of-school suspensions, and disproportionately affect students of color, students with disabilities and LGBTQ students. What qualifies as a B21 infraction can be open to interpretation and varies from school to school. Minor acts such as refusing to remove a hat, or eating in a hallway can be logged as B21 and lead to suspensions. The Urban Youth Collaborative has been working tirelessly for the last year to have the disciplinary code revised.

The city has been making progress on using alternative disciplinary measures. In fact, suspensions have dropped 17% in the last school year. But the disparity between white students and students of color remains significant, as it does nationwide. The Mayor’s Leadership Team on School Climate and Discipline has been working on recommendations for the city to better enact school-wide reform, ensuring the safety and health of all its students. While the steps already taken to adhere to these recommendations are a move in the right direction, they just scratch the surface of the deep seated culture of criminalizing people of color and those with disabilities. Last year, California banned suspensions for “willful defiance” which had the same impact on marginalized students there. That impact manifests in increased arrests and chances of incarceration for suspended students, reinforcing the “school to prison pipeline” epidemic. Similar reforms have proven to be successful in many cities, with suspension rates dropping and high school graduation rates increasing.

Altering the code is not enough to fully stabilize the imbalance of punitive measures applied to students of color and students with disabilities. The culture must change as well. That includes a massive movement to retrain school safety agents and add resources to public schools. Chancellor Fariña, at the Town Hall meeting, claimed that they had already begun retraining officers, citing that now, when she visits a school, she is smiled at. Smiles must go a long way with the Chancellor, but for commonly marginalized students, the Chancellor’s and Mayor’s words sounded anything but comforting. The cultural shift from punitive discipline to restorative discipline will take more than smiles -- it will take aggressive reform and leadership, supported by ample funding and implementation by experts in the field.

So while the city plans to spend almost $20 million on security for private schools, public schools are still waiting for their cash bonuses. Greenfield’s bill was intended to add protection for religious schools that feel the threat of terrorism or hate crimes, by staffing them with a school security officers with a direct dispatch to the NYPD. The irony is that public schools already have an NYPD presence, but their main purpose has been more about handcuffing students rather than protecting them from harm. Added security in all of our city schools is an unfortunate necessity given the normalcy of mass shootings in the United States. But policing our schools is also just a band-aid for the larger strife -- our students are living in a violent world, and their behavior is often a reaction to that. Healing the harm of a culture that makes students not only feel unwelcome, but fearful of their surroundings will be an integral step in achieving real reform. If the Mayor and Chancellor are serious about that reform, they would be wise to check their budget again, and put their money where their well-intentioned mouth is.

Amanda Lefer, Family and Community Outreach Associate at C3S


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