When High School Students Are Treated Like Prisoners

Advocates call for an end to the criminalization of students in New York and around the country

Police officer in the hallway of a high school.
Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Advocacy groups are calling for a reduction in the use of police officers in schools.
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As students in New York City return to school for the fall, a coalition of youth and legal advocacy groups, including the New York Civil Liberties Union, has launched a campaign to address disciplinary policies that they argue criminalize students, making them less likely to graduate and more likely to end up ensnared in the criminal justice system. The "New Vision for School Safety" presented by the campaign calls for a citywide reduction of the use of police and NYPD school safety officers in schools and an increase in the power of educators, parents and students to shape the safety policies in their school communities.

Advocates argue that strict disciplinary practices, including police presence, metal detectors and "zero tolerance" policies, disproportionately target students of color, especially black and Latino youth. Although only a third of students in New York City are black, they received over half (53 percent) of the suspensions over the past decade, according to the Dignity in Schools Campaign. Of the students suspended for "profanity," 51 percent were black, and 57 percent of those suspended for "insubordination" were black. Students with disabilities are also four times as likely to be suspended than their non-disabled peers. (A representative for New York's Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment.) The creeping criminalization of school spaces targeting already marginalized populations is not limited to the city of New York – as The New York Times reported earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of students around the country face criminal charges, as opposed to school-based disciplinary measures, each year. A civil suit filed earlier this year in Texas alleges that misdemeanor ticketing disproportionately targeted African American students.

"These arrests are resulting from the same Stop and Frisk approach we see in the streets," says Steven Banks, Attorney in Chief of the Legal Aid Society. "The continued criminalization of normal adolescent behavior in schools is literally feeding the school-to-prison pipeline." There were 2,500 arrests and 69,000 suspensions in New York City schools last year, and Banks says that the overwhelming majority were for behavior that, in another era, would have been handled by educators rather than police. The presence of school safety officers (SSOs) – agents within the School Safety division of the NYPD – means that a child's minor misbehavior or perceived disrespect can quickly escalate to lead to an arrest, criminal summons or suspension. "We've watched SSOs be disrespectful to students and treat students like they're criminals," says Cheyanne Smith, a 16-year-old senior at the Bushwick School for Social Justice in Brooklyn and youth leader at coalition group Make the Road. "School is an environment where people come to learn. Instead of learning, it feels like a prison."

Smith says that the scanning machines sometimes detect even gum wrappers as metal, leading to humiliating public inspections that take place in front of other students. Her friends have been told to remove their clothes because an SSO suspected they had something concealed. "We have to go to school every day and we want to feel welcome and comfortable," she says. "Instead, the adults are disrespecting young people." SSOs and police intervene in non-criminal incidents twice as often at schools with metal detectors than without them, and high schools with metal detectors are more likely to issue suspensions. "There are extraordinary collateral consequences for treating children as suspects rather than as adolescents who need to be educated rather than criminalized," Banks says of the high rate of suspensions and arrests. In addition to falling behind in school, children who face criminal charges may end up with a record that affects their ability to obtain employment, remain in public housing with their families, receive financial aid for college or even stay in the country, depending on their immigration status.

According to NYCLU research, the School Safety Division of the NYPD has over 5,000 SSOs, which actually makes it the fifth-largest police force in the United States – and leaves more officers in New York schools than there are guidance counselors. The Student Safety Coalition is calling for a renegotiation of power from the NYPD back to educators, with an emphasis on empowering students and parents. They cite alternative models for discipline policies in places like Los Angeles and Denver, whose school districts have implemented positive behavior support programs, as well as schools within New York City that successfully employed similar initiatives. Smith hopes that if the NYPD does remain in schools, that there is increased accountability for their treatment of students. "All over America, there are officers targeting students and making them feel like they've done something wrong just by showing up to school," she says. "It hurts, and it makes you not want to come back to school anymore."