Revolution #93, June 24, 2007
NYC Public Schools and the Criminalization of the Students
What Kind of System Does This to Its Youth?
“They’re treating us like criminals, like we’re animals.”
-- Student at Curtis High School, Staten Island, New York City
“Sometimes the classroom feels like a jail cell.”
-- Jane Min, Flushing High School, Queens, New York City
Imagine if schools were places where youth were treated like the precious people they are--where their creativity, their curiosity, and their critical thinking were valued and encouraged. Imagine if, in school and out of school, the youth were challenged and unleashed and they were called upon to discuss and debate everything from Shakespeare to religion, from the state of the planet to how society-–including their own schools-–should be run. Imagine if the rebellious spirit and questioning of the youth were not only not squashed and corralled--imagine if it were valued as a crucial part of revolutionizing society.
But in this society, we can only imagine this. And for way too many youth, the experience is exactly the opposite. Schools are ringed with fences and metal detectors. Instead of the sounds of debate and lively discussion over string theory or globalization, the hallways ring with echoes of cops, Glocks at their hips, screaming to the youth to "Get the fuck back in line!"
When youth come to school, instead of knowing they are coming to a safe place where they will learn and be learned from, they live with fear: will they be frisked and humiliated in front of everyone for no real reason? Will they be arrested if they wander out of the metal detector line? Will they make it home at the end of the day, or will they be taken to jail for swearing or getting into a fight?
An important report, “Criminalizing the Classroom: The Over-Policing of New York City Schools,” was released by the New York Civil Liberties Union in March 2007 (available at: http://www.nyclu.org/pdfs/criminalizing_the_classroom_report.pdf). It covers the experience of youth in New York City, but it provides an all-too-rare glimpse at the experience of youth all over this country, particularly Black and Latino youth--the harassment, degradation, brutalization, and criminalization that they are forced to endure when they come to school. The report is drawn from interviews with parents, teachers, school administrators and staff, and, importantly, surveys from 1,000 youth in New York City schools.
In New York City, the public schools have been policed by the NYPD since 1998. In the 2005-2006 school year, there were a total of 4,625 cops (200 of them armed) patrolling the schools as so-called “School Safety Agents (SSAs).” The NYCLU report points out that if the NYPD’s School Safety Division were its own police force, it would be the 10th largest in the country--larger than the entire police force in Washington, D.C., Detroit, or Boston.
Cops Like School Prison Guards
Under the school “safety” program, any junior high and high school in the New York public school system is subject to “roving metal detectors.” What this has meant is cops coming into schools unannounced, setting up a military-style task force. In an approach very similar to what U.S. soldiers do in Iraq, the cops swarm in, take over the school's cafeteria or gym, and turn the school into a police zone, snaked with lines of students waiting to pass through the metal detectors.
Students are forced to wait for hours in line as their bags are searched and their cell phones (prohibited in the school district) or cameras (not prohibited) are confiscated. And 21 percent of the city's junior high and high schools now have metal detectors permanently installed. At Wadleigh Secondary School in Manhattan, one student who found a “roving” metal detector at his school called his mother to come pick up his phone before it was confiscated--and was then arrested when he tried to explain why he wasn't waiting in line.
These cops in the schools act like, and basically function as, prison guards: barking orders, pushing and shoving students, deciding arbitrarily what is and is not allowed on any given day. Students' bags are searched, and everything from house keys to spare change is confiscated. The cops decide what they will and won't let students bring in to schools. For example, some students who had permission to carry cell phones had them taken. Some students had their iPods confiscated and never returned. And at an aviation magnet high school, students had their engineering supplies taken for supposedly being “weapons.”
Cops have confiscated students' food and then eaten it. Students are routinely yelled at and cursed at, and have reported being physically shoved through the metal detectors or shoved against the wall to be frisked regardless of whether they set off the metal detectors. At one school, the cops taunted one student who was wearing a nice coat, accusing him of stealing it. When one cop found a blank CD in a student's backpack he said, “Is that rap? That's probably why you're being searched.” In one eight-month period more than 17,000 items were taken from students in the “roving” metal detector program--70 percent of them were cell phones, and 29 percent were iPods and similar items. Not one gun was found.
The NYCLU report detailed numerous instances where the cops actively
terrorized and brutalized students. At one school, cops chased students
who tried to avoid the checkpoints, screaming, “Round them up!”
At Samuel Tilden High School in Brooklyn, a 17-year-old student named
Biko Edwards was walking toward his chemistry
class when a vice principal stopped him. When Biko protested not being
allowed to go to class, the vice principal called in a cop. The report
describes what happened next:
“Officer Rivera then grabbed Biko and slammed him against a brick door divider, lacerating Biko’s face and causing him to bleed. Officer Rivera then sprayed Mace at Biko’s eyes and face, causing Biko’s eyes to burn. Rather than treat the student, Officer Rivera then called for back-up on his radio, and proceeded to handcuff Biko… [He]was taken to a hospital where he spent approximately two hours being treated for his wounds, and spending most of his time in the hospital handcuffed to a chair… He faces five criminal charges.”
And what happens to young women in these schools--are they places where young women are treated as human beings with value and intelligence, and not as a collection of body parts? Are the schools themselves a place where young women and men are encouraged to debate the oppression of women, and called upon to solve it? No--the schools are places where women are harassed and groped by the armed enforcers of the state themselves. One student reported that “the police like to put their hands on kids without reason.” And 27 percent of students surveyed reported that officers touched or treated them in a way that made them feel uncomfortable. Young women whose underwire bras set off the metal detectors reported they were forced to lift up their shirts, supposedly to prove they weren't carrying any weapons, or to unzip or unbuckle their pants supposedly to prove they weren't concealing cell phones. Young women have been searched by male officers, and the report says, “students and teachers alike complain that male SSAs subject girls to inappropriate behavior, including flirting and sexual attention.” At one high school, cops were heard making remarks about a young woman's body. At another school, a gay student was humiliated every day as male cops would flip coins to see who had to search him.
Teachers Also Targeted
And what about those teachers who really are trying to make a difference? Who care about the students and despite low pay, cutbacks, deteriorating buildings, and increasingly fascistic rules, and who are really trying to connect with students and give them an education? Who do not like the way schools are being turned into prisons?
The ACLU report exposes how teachers who dare to defend their students are attacked and brutalized, sending a crystal clear message to the youth: "No one is going to defend you. Look what happens to anyone that does." Take one story recounted in the report:
“On March 8, 2005, at least seven NYPD officers arrived at the New School for Arts and Sciences after teachers called 911 to ask for medical assistance for a student who had been involved in a fight.
“Several teachers had successfully stopped the fight and controlled the situation before the police responded, and Cara Wolfson-Kronen, a social studies teacher, informed the 911 operator that the fight had been defused. Despite this, one of the officers demanded that the teachers identify the students who had been involved in the fight and said that they would be handcuffed.
“Quinn Kronen, an English teacher, pointed out that those students were now peacefully sitting in the classroom. Officer Bowen responded by yelling: 'You fucking teachers need to get your shit together. These kids are running crazy. You need to get rid of them.' When Mr. Kronen objected to such language, Sergeant Walter told Mr. Kronen that he had 'better shut the fuck up' or she would arrest him. When Ms. Wolfson-Kronen objected, Sergeant Walter said: 'that is it; cuff the bitch.' Officers arrested Ms. Wolfson-Kronen, paraded her out of school in handcuffs and forced her to stand outside in sub-freezing temperature without a jacket. They also arrested Mr. Kronen.
“The teachers were detained at the 41st Precinct for approximately two hours before being released. The charges against them — disorderly conduct — were dismissed at their initial court hearing, because their alleged wrongdoing did not constitute unlawful activity.
“On March 22, 2005, Mr. Kronen and Ms. Wolfson-Kronen received an anonymous letter signed by 'The Brotherhood.' The letter threatened them with physical harm for 'messing up with our fellow officers' continuing: 'If I were you I’d be planning my getting out of New York fast.'”
In October 2006, Adhim Deveaux, a math teacher at the Urban Assembly Academy of History and Citizenship, ran outside after hearing that one of his students was being assaulted by a cop. After seeing the student being slammed onto a car, Deveaux went up to the cop, hoping he could calm the situation down; he said, “He’s my student, I’m his teacher. He’s just a kid.” In response the cop hit and shoved Deveaux and then another cop grabbed Deveaux from behind, slammed him onto the sidewalk and handcuffed him. Deveaux was taken to the precinct and charged with assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest, and obstructing governmental administration.
This teacher was trying to defuse a situation before it got worse: in any society where the police or other kinds of authorities were really about serving the people, they would welcome this and try to work with and rely on the teacher--and they would listen when the teacher pleaded, "He's just a kid." But these cops arrested the teacher, because enforcing repressive prison-like conditions in the schools is what they are about--not trying to solve problems among the students and teachers.
Criminalization of the Youth
The NYCLU report details numerous times where students were attacked and/or arrested for petty and ridiculous offenses like swearing, being late for school or refusing to turn over their cell phones. Their web site mentions a case of a 13-year-old girl who was handcuffed and taken into custody in May for drawing on her desk in school, charged with graffiti. These are youth who are doing nothing wrong--and they are being pulled into the criminal system and treated like criminals themselves.
And this kind of criminalization of the youth is not limited to New York City. Bob Herbert, a writer for the New York Times, has written a number of columns about outrageous instances of police brutality against youth, including a 6-year-old Black girl in Florida who was handcuffed and driven to jail because she threw a tantrum in kindergarten, and a 7-year-old Black boy in Baltimore handcuffed for riding a dirt bike on the sidewalk. Herbert points to the racist discrimination involved in such cases. For instance a 14-year-old Black girl in Texas was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2006 for shoving a hall monitor (she was recently released) while a white girl in the same town convicted of arson was sentenced only to probation.
Commenting on how students are “belittled, shouted at, cursed at, instrusively searched and improperly touched by cops,” Bob Herbert points out: “This poisonous police behavior is an extension into the schools of the humiliating treatment cops have long been doling out to youngsters--especially those who are black or Latino--on the city's streets.” ("Poisonous Police Behavior," June 2, 2007)
What kind of message is this sending to the youth? Schools should be places where the youth are encouraged to test and try out limits, where they are encouraged to make mistakes, where the most important thing is making sure their minds are really challenged and unleashed. But not in this society. When a young woman is handcuffed for drawing on a desk, or a 6-year-old is handcuffed for throwing a tantrum, this is a reflection of how this society views youth. And the message to the youth themselves here is unmistakable: This is not your world. Your lives don't matter. The only future this system has for you is a shit job or prison. And when the cops arrest these youth, these illegitimate and bogus arrests are used to "prove" that the youth really are criminals, and to isolate these youth further from the rest of society.
It is not simply that these cops are racist, brute thugs who hate and fear the youth they are charged with controlling--although that is unmistakable after reading things like this report. The outrageous and brutal use of the police in the schools and more generally against the youth reflects the role of the police in enforcing exploitative and oppressive relations in society, including national oppression. These police are not in the schools (or anywhere else) to “serve and protect” the people. They are there to serve and protect the conditions of poverty, misery and degradation that many of these youth face with the highest unemployment and worst housing, education, and health care.
The report states that “during the 2004-2005 school year, 82 percent of children attending high schools with permanent metal detectors were Black and Latino, a minority enrollment rate eleven percentage points higher than in schools citywide. At DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, the largest high school with permanent metal detectors in the city, there are 4,511 students and not one school librarian.”
What kind of system is it, where youth are forced to go to overcrowded, under-funded schools that look more like prisons than places of learning and growth? What kind of system treats the energy, the creativity, the rebelliousness of youth, as something to be snuffed out, rather than cherished and unleashed? What kind of system has enforcers who harass youth for not going to school--and then harass and even arrest them, for petty bullshit, when they do?
Those who peddle the lie about America being the "land of opportunity where any kid can become president,” who prattle on about the "value of education" and “no child left behind”--while saying and doing nothing about the prison-like conditions in schools--have no right to speak about “individual responsibility” and how the youth need to take make “better choices.”
To quote Pink's song "Dear Mr. President": " How can you say/No child is left behind?/We're not dumb, and we're not blind/They're all sitting in your cells/While you pave the road to hell…"
This wasting and squandering of human potential, this dehumanizing of the youth, is unacceptable and intolerable. We could have an entirely different society--a society where there is no need at all for schools with state-sanctioned armed thugs, jacking up and locking down students. A society where the youth have an important role and future in building a whole new world. A society where there is no longer one group that is held down and locked out of the realm of ideas--and locked into prison-like schools--while others are trained to use ideas to either “get ahead” or to dominate others. A socialist society--where the state power is in the hands of the masses and where they wield it to wipe out exploitation and to dig up the roots of all the social relations, institutions, and ideas that go with that exploitation--and get to a communist world, where this kind of domination and abuse is really NO MORE.
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.