School Safety Agents Cause Tensions

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It was just over a year ago that Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration sent hundreds of extra safety agents and police officers to the city’s most troubled schools, following an outbreak of violence. The effort has reduced crime by 40 percent at those schools. But as WNYC’s Beth Fertig reports, it’s also produced tensions.

AGENT: Walk through. Beep. You gotta get scanned, wait.

REPORTER: Thomas Jefferson High School in East New York has been on the front lines in the battle to reduce school crime for over a decade. In 1992, two students were shot during a fight in the hallways. A year later, metal detectors were installed at Jefferson and other schools.

REPORTER: Today, the 1600 students in the building line up each morning and send their bags through scanning machines as they walk through rows of metal detectors. Visitors also need special permission. WNYC was accompanied by a member of the Chancellor’s public information office. The scene resembles an airport. The kids have to take off their belts and anything else that could set off an alarm. When that happens they’re scanned with a wand by a safety agent.

AGENT: Take your belt off sir, take your belt off when I ask you.

REPORTER: School Safety Agent Joel Benjamin says there’s a good reason why kids have to remove their belts.

BENJAMIN: Cause a lot of times they have the razor blades and the knives in the belts, sometimes they have slits where they put it there.

REPORTER: Last year, Thomas Jefferson was one of the first schools placed on the Bloomberg administration’s Impact list of violent schools. That doubled its number of safety agents to 25. Agents can make arrests but they don’t carry guns. In addition, eight police officers were assigned to various trouble spots inside the building.


OFFICER: Hi, how you doing?

REPORTER: This officer is monitoring the cafeteria. He didn’t want to be identified. But he says he’s been working at the school since September and hasn’t made many arrests. He credits this partly to knowing the students.

OFFICER: Yes I already know a lot of the kids, the parents. We do a lot of mediations. We try to go any alternative route to help the kid out.

REPORTER: Jefferson’s principal, Varleton Mcdonald – known to everyone as Mack – says the school has changed tremendously. There’s been a 67 percent drop in crime this school year. But he credits that to police working WITH educators. They hold regular meetings with the staff and even play basketball with the students.

MCDONALD: I think the accessibility to the students has been different where police have been able to go into classroom and talk to kids, and take part in instruction as opposed to walking in and being the force.

REPORTER: But in a school system with hundreds of police officers and thousands of safety agents, there are times when that security presence IS seen as an occupying force.

GRIFFIN: Going thru metal detectors is a big issue because the safety officials are rude, nasty and disrespectful to the students.

REPORTER: Students at Bronx Guild High School testified this year at a special hearing just for kids held by the City Council’s Education committee. Kendall Griffin and Karen Bryan focused on safety agents.

GRIFFIN: Another problem is that some of the safety officials touch the students inappropriately when they scan them with the wand.

BRYAN: I watched my 15 year old sister get harassed by a 40 year old security guard, tell her –tell her how she looks so sexy in those jeans. My sister is 15. She looks like she’s 12.

REPORTER: Neither the education department nor the police department had a response when WNYC followed up on the students’ complaints, after the City Council hearing. The principal of Bronx Guild, Michael Soguero, says he’s never seen any harassment at the scanning machines. So he was reluctant to draw any conclusions about whether his students’ complaints were part of a pattern.

SOGUERO: You know they complain about teachers, they complain about me.

REPORTER: But Soguero does have first-hand experience of the confrontations that can result when educators and police are assigned to run the same building. Bronx Guild is a small school located inside Adlai Stevenson High School, which is also on the Impact List and gets extra security. In February, Soguero was arrested for trying to stop a police officer from removing a student from a classroom. The student had cursed in the hallway. Soguero was removed from the school for two months until assault charges against him were dropped. He says the incident raised questions about who’s in charge of the schools: principals or police.

SOGUERO: Almost any behavior can be deemed as criminal. When is a kid’s emotional outburst an educational matter and when is it a criminal matter?

REPORTER: The NYPD’s patrol guide defines criminal incidents in or around a school as involving fireworks, trespassing, disorderly conduct, harassment, gangs or drugs. Commissioner Ray Kelly says that’s perfectly clear.

KELLY: I don't think there should be any confusion at all. There shouldn't be any confusion. Certainly principals are in charge of the school. But when you have a NYPD officer in uniform taking action, taking legitimate law enforcement action, you don't interfere. It's not that complex.

REPORTER: But the incident at Bronx Guild wasn’t the only clash this year between law enforcement and educators. Two teachers at The New School for Arts and Sciences in Hunts Point were arrested in March after police came to break up a fight between students. English teacher Quinn Kronin says the trouble started when he asked an officer not to handcuff kids in a classroom.

KRONIN: The officer said I was obstructing him from doing his job, and I said no I’m just asking a question if it’s necessary to do this. But at that point they took all the students out in cuffs. And after that another officer said to me and a school aide you teachers need to get your BLEEP together, if you knew what you were doing you’d just get rid of these kids.

REPORTER: Kronin was arrested for disorderly conduct but the charges were dropped the same day.

REPORTER: Students and teachers are able to file complaints about police officers with the Civilian Complaint Review Board. A board spokesman says 8 complaints were filed in 2004 involving officers who work in the schools, the same year Operation Impact went into effect. There were none the previous year. But there’s no parallel independent entity for complaining about school safety agents. Eight-hundred fifty six complaints were filed last year with the police department about its safety agents, according to a spokesman; an increase of 7 percent. Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, says there’s a need for more oversight.

LIEBERMAN: Who are they accountable to? It seems that nobody’s holding them accountable. So there need to clear guidelines that establish the authority of school officials on educational matters and school rules, there needs to be training and there needs to be accountability.

REPORTER: On the matter of training, the NYPD says safety agents get a 14 week course but it wouldn’t let WNYC review the manuals. Police officers who are deployed in the schools get three days of training on topics ranging from terrorism to youth diversity, through a program funded by the federal government. One of the instructors is Gregory Thomas, of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. He’s also the city’s former head of school security.

THOMAS: In general law enforcement tends to in my mind operate in black and white areas, it’s either a crime or it’s not. And in schools because children are more apt to take risks and do things to find themselves, which is what we want them to do as adolescents, they’re going to go into that gray area.

REPORTER: He says the safest schools are ones where children with emotional problems or disruptive behavior are known to the safety teams, who talk regularly with principals and teachers.

MARTORI: Good morning, how are you? OFFICER: Good morning.

REPORTER: At Adlai Stevenson High School, several principals in the building say the NYPD has been reaching out to them more since the Bronx Guild principal was arrested. They’re even planning role-playing games involving students and officers. Stevenson Principal Gerald Martori says he believes police want educators to stay in charge, unless a law is being broken.

MARTORI: They don’t want to have to go into a classroom and remove a student they want us to do it. They don’t want to handcuff a student that’s out of control. They want us to take the student, bring him in the office and call the parent or whatever we need to do. But they want to be clear that when we ask them for their help that they will take over the situation and deal with it.

REPORTER: Over a hundred thousand school employees and over a million students are depending on that level of cooperation – for the safety of everyone. For WNYC I’m Beth Fertig.

WNYC reported that disorderly conduct charges against New School for Arts and Sciences Teacher Quinn Kronin were dropped the same day he was arrested in March, following a fight between students at the school. While Kronin was released the same day, the charges weren't dropped until several weeks later.