New York City’s school system is beginning to remove the police from its corridors and classrooms in a move welcomed by advocates as a de-escalation of a system that is often seen as imposing harsh punishments that disproportionately target students of color.
In all, about 5,000 New York City school safety agents (SSAs) will be transferred from the supervision of the New York police department to the Department of Education (DoE) in June 2022. The city’s school system is the biggest in the US.
The change follows similar programs from other major US cities. According to Education Week, 33 school districts in places like Oakland, California and Madison, Wisconsin, defunded their school police force or changed their relationships with school safety officers in the wake of racial justice protests after the murder of George Floyd.
An ACLU report using data collected by the Department of Education found that referrals, suspensions, detentions and arrests disproportionately affect students of color and disabled students. It found that in some states disabled students were 10 times more likely to be arrested, while Latino students were arrested at a rate 1.3 times that of white students. Meanwhile, Black students were arrested at a rate 3 times that of white students, rising as high as 8 times in some states.
In a statement, the New York City Department of Education’s deputy press secretary Nathaniel Styer said: “This transition ensures that SSAs are fully aligned with DOE trainings and values when it comes to caring for students in crisis, deescalating situations, and ensuring that students get the mental health support that they need when they need them.”
For some advocates advocating the removal of policing from schools, there is a hope that this transfer of power will encourage the use of restorative justice – the practice of resolving conflict through communication and collaboration rather than by punishments such as suspensions and detentions.
For example, instead of suspending a disruptive or bullying student, they would be encouraged to enter into a circle with their teacher, counselor or peers and engage in a dialogue to address the problem they are facing.
Styer said SSAs began training in conflict resolution, mediation, restorative justice and implicit bias with the DoE this past spring and any new agents will undergo similar training.
“The goal of transitioning SSAs back to the DoE is specifically focused on ensuring that SSAs are deeply integrated into the school community, are aligned with the school’s social-emotional work, and are true partners of educators, parents and students in ensuring the wellness of the entire community.”
Kellsie Sayers is the director of restorative practices at the Center for Court Innovation. In the 2018-2019 school year, she and her team launched a restorative justice pilot program in five Brooklyn public schools in partnership with the Department of Education, with funding from an arm of the Department of Justice. She said she learned school safety officers were integral to executing restorative justice.
“School safety officers were actually a big part of what we did. They are adults who aren’t limited in their time because they don’t have classes to run,” Sayer said. “We leaned on them heavily when we did harm circles. They often had the strongest relationships with the students in our school, different from the teaching staff or administration. They knew when a fight was going to happen because they could see in the kid’s face.”
Sayers said she is interested to see the effect of moving SSAs away from the NYPD.
“Some of the way their job is described under the direction of the NYPD is that they’re not supposed to fraternize with the students, but a lot of their strength was that they were building those relationships,” Sayers said. “I’m excited that maybe their role is changing.”
But the transfer of power is not enough for some. Tiffany Cabán, a democratic socialist projected to win a seat on the city council, said the role of school safety agents or any kind of police in schools, should be dissolved altogether.
“The presence of school safety officers leads to the increased likelihood of arrest or upcharging children for minor problems into really serious legal issues. I can say this from the perspective of being a public defender in the past,” Cabán said. “We see it all the time. We say, ‘We just need to get police officers more training in mental health response.’ No, we need to make sure we have dedicated, skilled workers and not retrofit that job. There’s no place for that in a school.”
A long-term advocate for restorative justice practices, Cabán said there are other ways to achieve restorative justice than by transferring school safety agents away from the NYPD – ways that don’t leave current agents “out to dry”.
“I know the majority of SSAs are Black and brown women. These women live in the same community. How can we create a transition into work that these women are best suited to do, to support young people in their communities?” Cabán said. “We need to be funding and transitioning folks into those jobs and restorative justice programs.”