Lawsuit Charges NYC Police With Criminalizing Kids

By Michelle Chen Jan 21, 2010

After years of complaints and mounting tensions in New York City public schools, civil liberties activists have filed landmark lawsuit against the city government and police force. The NYCLU accuses the NYPD’s School Safety Division of systematically violating children’s civil rights and creating a school climate of violence, arbitrary arrest and discrimination. The NYPD’s School Safety Division has drastically expanded the police presence in schools, following the NYPD’s takeover of security duties in the late 1990s. Today, the city has filled school hallways with more than 5,000 school safety officers (uniformed security personnel, not regular police). As a result, advocates say school grounds often resemble a police state, where students, particularly Black and Latino youth, are terrorized by ill-trained security authorities, who might handcuff them for carrying a cell phone or drawing on a desk. In one of the alleged incidents, Dajia (pictured above), an eighth-grader at Lou Gehrig School in the Bronx tried to avoid bullying and ended up being brutalized by the officers tasked with protecting her. In a testimony published by the NYCLU, she recalls:

My mom had just dropped me off at school when two women I didn’t know came up to me and my two friends outside the school. They were acting all rowdy and yelling. I was scared of them so I texted my mom. But the School Safety Officer who responded to the ruckus told the women to go into the school and told me to go inside also. My friend was crying and I didn’t want to go into school with the women because I was afraid and wanted to wait for my mother. So the officer started grabbing my arm and pulling on me to drag me into school. Then two more officers came and they started pulling on me, too. One pushed me in the chest and handcuffed me. When we got into the building, that same officer tripped me and I fell face down on the ground. The officer put her knees on my back and taunted me, telling me to get up while she was pinning me on the ground. She finally pulled me up and took me into the school safety room and pushed me into a desk. I sat there handcuffed and scared until they finally let me see my mom. They let me go. Since that time, I’ve had to go to the doctor for stomach and back problems. And I’m scared a lot of the time. I feel unsafe at school. I’m afraid that that School Safety Officers could attack me again for no reason. I just want the school year to be over so I can be a normal kid again. I shouldn’t have to be scared of school.

The lawsuit seeks to hold the NYPD accountable for allowing rampant abuse by security officers. The underlying problem isn’t a personnel issue, but the psychology of fear that permeates the educational experience. Since the criminalization of youth and the militarization of schools disproportionately impacts children in communities of color, the city is perpetuating a two-tier educational system–in which white and affluent children are expected to aspire and excel, and poor children of color are shunted into classrooms designed to contain and control them. The NYCLU argues in its complaint:

As a result of these policies and practices, students fear the School Safety Officers in their schools. Many avoid certain hallways where they know a School Safety Officer will be patrolling; some even avoid going to school altogether for these reasons. Students report that they feel like criminals when they enter the school building. Fearful of abuse by the School Safety Officers assigned to their schools, many of these students are forced to transfer to different schools, creating significant disruptions to their education. Indeed, studies show that excessive policing in schools is likely to produce alienation and mistrust among students, and compromise the educational climate of schools, and may actually increase student disorder.

In short, school is a scary place for many children, and students who might otherwise thrive intellectually and socially are pushed away by adults who treat them as nuisances, or outright criminals. The same day the suit was filed, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has boasted of a statistical decline in school-related crimes, vowed to crack down on truancy in his annual State of the City Address. He declared, "staying out of trouble starts with staying in school." Maybe attendance would be less of a problem if the Mayor realized that the safety measures intended to make schools secure for learning have instead made them unsafe for children.