Harlem — As another academic year gets underway, New York City public schools once again open their doors under the watch of more than 5,000 school safety agents, employees of the NYPD who enforce security on campus. And like last year and the year before, some officials, parents, school leaders and watchdogs remain vexed about what they consider insufficient accountability for those safety agents – who have been accused of everything from making inappropriate arrests, including placing grade-schoolers in handcuffs, to starting fights themselves.

A city bill aimed at changing that is slated to receive a hearing before City Council this fall, more than a year after Harlem Councilman Robert Jackson, chairman of the Education Committee, introduced it. The Student Safety Act was to require more detailed, regular reporting of school safety incidents, and offer parents, students, and school personnel access to the Civilian Complaint Review Board – the independent group that evaluates complaints levied against other NYPD officers – to audit and evaluate complaints. The bill was referred to the Public Safety committee and hearings were anticipated, then tabled, in fall of 2008.

Now a hearing is slated for Oct. 22, and the Student Safety Act seems poised to become law. The legislation has undergone considerable revision on its way to gathering additional councilmembers' support; it appears close to garnering a co-sponsor count that’s only one member short of the 34 votes needed to override a possible veto from Mayor Bloomberg.

Coming closer to capturing the backing of Council leaders like Peter Vallone Jr. and Melinda Katz, the only Council members who sit on both the Public Safety and Education committees, and perhaps also Speaker Christine Quinn, has meant eliminating one of the Act’s major elements: No longer will complaints go to the cash-strapped, stretched-thin CCRB, which along with other city agencies experienced additional budget cuts this year. Instead, the revised version offers an enhanced reporting process via the city hotline 311 and the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau, which is the office to which parent complaints currently are directed. More explicit parent education – including posting directions for reporting complaints in all schools served by safety officers, all police precincts, and on the first page of school and DOE websites – is thought sufficient by the bill’s supporters, including a coalition of community advocates that includes the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, Advocates for Children, the Correctional Association of New York, and the community group Make the Road by Walking.

Advocates charge that safety agents can and sometimes do trample the individual rights of students and teachers; numerous press reports have documented children as young as five years old handcuffed, and older children cuffed, detained and held at local precincts. Principals who have resisted safety agents’ actions have found themselves arrested as well – disciplined and threatened with legal action by the safety agents who ostensibly work for them, in their schools. While many safety agents serve as benevolent, caring adults in their school communities, the more detailed reporting elements of the School Safety Act will permit closer tracking of agents against whom repeated complaints are lodged, and can reveal possible patterns of behavior in individual agents, their schools, their community and the school district.

The bill would create "a much more transparent process,” says Udi Ofer, advocacy director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, also a member of the supporting coalition. “There’s no question, the bill would be stronger with the CCRB. But [the revision] will create transparency that is long overdue. We just can’t wait any longer for it.”

The DOE-NYPD 'understanding'

The presence of police officers in the city’s schools dates back to Mayor Giuliani's era: In 1998, Giuliani signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the NYPD granting the police department the authority to enforce discipline and address crime in the schools. This memorandum, widely thought to have expired in 2002, was in fact quietly renewed by Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein in Jan. 2003 – despite repeated denials of its existence by high-ranking police and education personnel.

In 2007, four years into the new agreement, Kathleen Grimes, DOE Deputy Chancellor for Infrastructure and Planning, testified before City Council. “To the best of my knowledge,” Grimm said, “there is no written Memorandum of Understanding.” And in 2009 hearings convened by the state Assembly's Education Committee, “high-ranking members of the NYPD and the DOE testified they had no knowledge of a new memorandum of understanding,” recalls Brooklyn Assemblyman Karim Camara. This June, just weeks before the original legislation for mayoral control of the public schools expired, Camara obtained a copy of the renewed 2003 Memorandum of Understanding that continues the prior agreement – and bears the signatures of Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein.

During the debate over the renewal of mayoral control, Camara sought stronger checks on the actions of police and student safety officers in the schools. Even as a supporter of mayoral control, Camara considered accountability lacking, and “information was not being disclosed to the public.” As he pressed for safety reforms in the revised legislation – reforms that never made it into the final law – he learned of the Memorandum of Understanding from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. “The DOE said there wasn’t one,” Camara explained, yet he requested and received a copy of the document from the Assembly’s Program Counsel.

Camara said the issue was acutely resonant in his Brooklyn district. For example, police officers were frequently called upon to break up school fights. When the officers assert they have to arrest the fighting students, “the principal’s hands are tied,” said Camara. Principals don’t know how to break the cycle. “I spoke with five principals, and got five different responses.” The lack of coherence prompted his desire for “a revision of safety policy, and an agreement between schools” about what constitutes criminal behavior – and what does not. "In emergencies – a weapon, an evacuation – the NYPD decision overrides. In all other situations, principals should be allowed to decide the disciplinary action,” not the police, he said.