NEW YORK — New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has softened his stance on a variety of police reforms in recent days, amid open revolt from former and current allies, but when it comes to cops in schools he’s standing fast — for now.
“I personally believe that the better approach is to continue what we have but improve it, reform it,” de Blasio said this week when asked about removing police from schools.
Hours after he made that declaration Wednesday, reports emerged of 16-year-old Jahmel Leach being beaten by police during the recent stretch of protests over police brutalizing black people.
Two weeks of often chaotic demonstrations in the wake of police killing George Floyd in Minneapolis have already accelerated police reforms in Albany and sparked a national reckoning with police brutality. But city students, along with other activists, elected officials and some de Blasio allies are demanding school safety agents — another name for cops in schools — be removed or seriously curtailed as part of that push.
Students say the conflict between police and communities of color starts early.
“You’ve been criminalizing them since they first entered schools with metal detectors and constant policing and all these rules, and you made them feel like criminals” said Eliana Martinez, a junior at Talent Unlimited High School in Manhattan.
She added that if protests became violent at times, it was a natural outgrowth of decades of frustration from black and Latino communities over being harassed by police and the slow pace of reform — a dynamic exacerbated by police in schools.
“It’s not just people being violent because they’re born violent,” Martinez said. “You’re not born violent. You’re taught different things and this is just a result of all those things at one time.”
But de Blasio insisted this week there were ways to change how the city’s roughly 5,500 school safety agents approach their duties, without removing them from schools.
“The safety issue is not resolved in schools at this point,” the mayor said. “School safety is necessary in its current form to keep ensuring the safety of our kids.”
De Blasio’s stance on police in schools has not altered even as he’s allowed for other changes to policing under pressure from his own allies and staffers to live up to the promise of reform he first ran on in 2013.
He’s backed legislation in the City Council to illegalize chokeholds, supported more transparency for police records, and even suggested he’d shift funding from the department to youth services.
Last June, the city announced that it would restrict the number of circumstances in which police can arrest or give students summonses for low-level offenses. The mayor has also backed policies to reduce suspensions.
But he rejected a recommendation by the city’s School Diversity Advisory Group to evaluate the benefits and disadvantages of shifting supervision of school safety agents from the NYPD to DOE.
Maya Wiley, co-chair of the School Diversity Advisory Group (also a former counsel to de Blasio and former chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board) said there are plenty of functions police serve in schools that could be transferred away from the department.
“A lot of what they do every day is sign people out of the building, a lot of what they do is administrative in that sense,” Wiley said in an interview. “The question is why do those types of employees have to be employed by the police department for those functions and trained by the police for those functions?”
Advocates say there are issues that should be handled by social workers, school psychologists and others instead of police and school safety officers.
Wiley said the protests have shown that New Yorkers of all colors are “really, really angry about our failure to make big transformational change.”
Nia Morgan, interim organizing coordinator for the Urban Youth Collaborative, said the presence of cops in certain schools almost guarantees disproportionate enforcement.
“Even as we see a decline in arrests and summonses, the racial disparities haven’t changed and it speaks a lot to just how reform to this point isn’t enough,” they said. “If the police are in schools, they’re gonna just disproportionately police black and brown students.”
They, like many others, are skeptical when de Blasio speaks of police reform.
“The very institution of police is harmful and reforms aren’t gonna cut it,” Morgan said after the mayor’s comments Wednesday. “They haven’t cut it so far and our youth are tired of waiting.”
Morgan said last quarter, more than 63 percent of the students under 21 who were arrested were black even though they only represent 25.5 percent of the population.
The Minneapolis school board recently voted to end the city police department’s contract to provide school resource officers, and the Minneapolis City Council voted to disband the department altogether.
A majority of Denver school board members said they would support a measure to take police out of the district’s schools by the end of the year, and the superintendent of Portland, Ore.,’s public schools said he is “discontinuing the regular presence of school resource officers.”
The New York City Council is examining ways to cut the NYPD budget and Speaker Corey Johnson specifically cited pulling cops from schools as one measure he’d support.
“We can start by delivering budget justice and making significant cuts to the NYPD budget and reinvesting that money in communities,” he said at Council hearing this week. “By getting police out of our schools, out of traffic enforcement, out of homeless services, out of mental health.”
“I feel like something we should do is follow in Minneapolis’ steps,” said Jessica Garcia, a 17-year-old student at Curtis High School on Staten Island.
She was among hundreds of students, parents and teachers who marched from the headquarters of the United Federation of Teachers to Tweed Courthouse, the DOE headquarters, to call for police-free schools over the weekend.
“We make the city run so therefore I feel like we have every right to have something to say about what happens with the funding, what goes where,” Rayne Hawkins, 17, a student at the James Baldwin School in Manhattan, told POLITICO during the march. “At the end of the day, this is not affecting the people that are in office, these are affecting real life people, day to day people, regular people.”
Former Deputy Mayor Richard Buery has been among the prominent allies of the mayor to criticize the NYPD’s behavior amid the protests. He heads the Achievement First charter network and told POLITICO he has been watching student groups like Teens Take Charge “fundamentally transform the conversation.”
“If anything gives me hope, it is young people and I am happy to follow behind and march behind,” Buery said.
“The question of do I believe that we should defund the police and divert those resources to other social goods, I think, absolutely,” Buery said. “I think if nothing else, this moment has made clear that it’s not that we didn’t know it before but thanks to the people in the street, we have the opportunity to actually do it.”
He said it doesn’t mean “that you don’t have police,” but that it’s time for the city to reexamine the role of the NYPD in schools and in other institutions, though he acknowledged it’s “a complicated conversation.”
Teens Take Charge recently held a meeting for students to discuss policing issues.
Lorraie Forbes, 17, a student with the group who attends Clara Barton High School, said students have different opinions on engaging officers and the merits of violent versus peaceful protest.
“Different people might feel strongly about one thing and not be as passionate about the other but we can still use both of those things to our advantage,” she said.
Ultimately, she believes the city should limit the number of school safety agents rather than remove them completely. She said her school has only six guidance counselors for more than 1,000 students. It has roughly 50 police officers and school safety agents.
The city announced it would hold youth town halls in each borough in areas with high police and youth interactions. NYPD officers will partner with Cure Violence providers and meet with local teens to explore interactions between youth and police.
The DOE said it’s expansion of social-emotional learning, restorative practices and mental health care in schools has brought a decline in traditional disciplinary measures. From July to December 2019 suspensions are down by more than 50 percent from the same time frame in the 2013-14 school year, the department said. Student arrests dropped 60 percent from 2013-14 to 2018-19 — from 2,202 arrests to 882.
“Our goal is to build trust and respect between all students and all staff in our schools to keep students safe,” schools spokesperson Nathaniel Styer said, though he did not specifically address the question of removing police from schools.