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.

“That the DOE would deny its existence is both baffling and indicative of their confused, inconsistent and misguided approach to policing our schools,” NYCLU director Donna Lieberman said three months ago, when the 2003 document was made public.

Bloomberg spokesman Jason Post dismissed the renewal as “a technicality,” because “under mayoral control of the schools, both the DOE and the NYPD report to the mayor.” Mayoral control of both agencies suggests that no formal agreements, or memoranda of understanding, are required. Pressed to explain the DOE’s denial of the renewed memorandum, Post wrote in an e-mail, “Deputy Chancellor Grimm was mistaken when she said the MOU [memorandum of understanding] was not renewed.” He could not explain Grimm’s error, or detail why NYPD officials maintained similar statements in testimony before the State Education Committee.

In renewing the Memorandum, says Ofer from the NYCLU, “the DOE has essentially abdicated responsibility for school safety and handed it over to the Police Department.”

Crime down, police presence up

The number of NYPD officers in the city’s schools is such that if they were an independent force, they would comprise one of the country's largest police departments. Over the last decade, their number has only grown: In 1998, there were 3,200 school safety agents. Now, there are 5,200 – plus an additional 200 armed police officers – spread among the city’s 1,400 schools. More than 80 of the schools have permanent metal detectors at the main entryways. In addition to those permanent scanning stations, since 2006 most of the city’s middle and high schools have been subject to random scanning, when mobile metal-detection units arrive at schools unannounced for spot-checks for students carrying weapons or any metal objects, like iPods, mp3 players, and cell phones. At schools with permanent or occasional detectors, long lines snake out of doorways as the day begins, while students strip off jackets, bookbags, belts, and any other metal-bearing gear prior to screening.

The Bloomberg administration’s priority on crime reduction, in the schools as well as the city, meant identifying high-incident “Impact” schools, among other measures. School-based crime-reduction costs have risen 65 percent over the mayor's two terms, to a total of $88 million in the 2008-09 school year.

Crime continues to decline across the city as well, Mayor Bloomberg reported at the same time he announced the current school safety statistics; Police Commissioner Ray Kelly cited an 18 percent drop over one year's time in the city’s murder rate.

Major crimes in the schools have declined drastically from a pre-Bloomberg high of more than 1,300 incidents in 2001. In 2007-08, 810 major crimes were reported at the city’s schools. In 2008-09, that total fell to 737 – but included two rapes (no rapes were reported in 2007-08). Crime continues to decline across the city as well, Mayor Bloomberg reported at the same time he announced the current school safety statistics; Police Commissioner Ray Kelly cited an 18 percent drop over one year's time in the city’s murder rate. In the schools, rates of major crimes like felony assault, burglary and sex offenses are less than half what they were in 2000-01, according to DOE statistics. But less critical offenses, like misdemeanor assaults, remain relatively constant: In 2000-01, before Bloomberg’s tenure, 1,088 misdemeanor assaults were reported in the schools. In 2007-08 and 2008-09, those numbers declined less dramatically, to 1,057 and 953.

Meanwhile, educators and advocates say that reporting is inconsistent in the schools – some principals report every incident, while others do not. “One problem we face in monitoring safety is that schools have an incentive to underreport, because there are consequences to reporting incidents publicly that reflect badly on the school,” says Kim Sweet, head of Advocates for Children, one of the advocate-sponsors of the Act. “When schools report publicly, they run the risk of being seen by both their community and the DOE as a dangerous place – they’re marked,” and risk inclusion on the Mayor’s Impact School list. (The Student Safety Act, while strengthening reporting and transparency, does not provide a means to mandate or enforce thorough reporting. Schools may still be able to minimize reporting of incidents that may not rise to the level of major crimes.)

Bad behavior vs. criminal behavior

Advocates, elected officials, and school leaders agree that major crimes deserve police attention, but they add that less severe infractions – a shouting match that becomes a hallway scuffle, bullying in a schoolyard, insubordination and disrespect – are too quickly criminalized by the NYPD agents in the schools, and could be more effectively addressed as disciplinary issues rather than criminal ones.

“I believe the schools are safer,” said Assemblyman Camara. “But having police officers in schools, some students have been casualties of this policy. Too many are criminalized. There are 16, 17-year-olds who now have criminal records, who will have difficulty getting a job or going to college.”

Councilman Vallone, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, has long supported vigilant reporting of school safety incidents, which formed the core of a bill he sponsored that passed in 2005 requiring annual public reporting of information on school violence. But even as a strong advocate for school safety – “school safety takes precedence over the individual rights of students,” he said in an interview – he agrees that “confusion exists over who’s in control.”

“I believe the police make the ultimate decision, but some principals don’t accept that. I’d like to know which law we’re operating under.”

Defining criminal behavior is “a gray area,” Vallone said. “Kids pushing in the schoolyard – is that a crime or not? There’s a difference between robbery and something that should be handled by a principal or a mediator, or by suspension. But defining a crime – deciding when disrespect, peer conflict, bullying, shoving is bad behavior or criminal – that’s something you can’t really mandate by law.”

“The problem is getting the information in the first place,” said Vallone. Working for his 2004 bill, which mandated annual reporting of school crimes but did not include an appeals or oversight mechanism, “the police were very reluctant to release more information.” But, he added, “when information does come out from the police department, it usually does support the police. So the more information that’s released, the better.”

Lining up the votes

The revised Student Safety Act eliminates the CCRB reporting element, in favor of improving the existing reporting mechanism, via the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Division. “The CCRB can’t handle the complaints,” said Vallone. “It can barely handle the complaints it has now.” Cuts to the CCRB’s budget, which Vallone cited a year ago in his objections to the original bill, “would actually hinder” reporting. “You can’t give power without the funding,” he said. “If the Mayor doesn’t fund the CCRB, the CCRB can’t do its job.”

Parents have had recourse to Internal Affairs reporting all along, says Vallone, but new efforts to educate parents on their options will improve access and transparency. “This bill goes even further than my bill [No 226]. I’m not opposed to that.”

Vallone plans to support the revised Student Safety Act when it comes up for a hearing in October. “I will be supporting it,” he said. “I do support the goals of this bill.” While it’s often his practice to withhold sponsorship of legislation – as the Chair of Public Safety, Vallone says it’s critical to preserve his objectivity – his anticipated endorsement will bring the co-sponsorship count to 32.

Councilwoman Melinda Katz, who with Vallone, sits on both the Education and Public Safety Committees, has not yet read a revised version of the bill, according to spokesman Ben Branham. But “based on conversations she has had with its proponents,” Branham wrote in an e-mail, “she is inclined to support it.” Her original “strong reservations” about an “overburdened and underfunded” CCRB have been tempered by the elimination of the CCRB element, “and increases the likelihood of her sponsorship.” Katz’s probable endorsement will bring the tally to 33, tantalizingly close to the 34 votes the bill’s sponsors desire.

Council Speaker Quinn would not comment publicly on the bill or the revisions to it; according to her spokesman, Anthony Hogrebe, “The Speaker has not yet taken a formal position on the legislation, and we continue to have conversations with all stakeholders.” Many familiar with the negotiations said she, too, perceived the CCRB reporting requirement as a stumbling block. Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson, who first introduced the Student Safety Act, strongly advocated for an objective monitoring process via the CCRB. In February, he remained adamant in his commitment to independent oversight: “There needs to be absolute clarity and transparency, and there needs to be an objective appeals process independent of the New York Police Department,” Jackson told City Limits.

This month, Jackson revised his view: “While we initially pursued an independent process, it soon became clear that the CCRB lacks the resources to handle these complaints in a timely manner, especially given the current budget crisis,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The existing proposal achieves greater transparency by using 311 as the vehicle for transmitting complaints to [the Internal Affairs Bureau], and strengthening reporting requirements.”

Advocates see the bill as a possible national model for school-safety reform. Mandated quarterly reporting of school safety incidents, in hyper-granular, wonkish detail, will permit close scrutiny of what actually happens in the city’s schools, and either refute the claims of the DOE, or of the advocates who says policing the schools represents a systemic challenge.

“Many people, including the Department of Education, accuse us of exaggerating the situation,” says the NYCLU’s Ofer. “Advocates and the NYCLU believe this is s systemic problem. Students, parents and police personnel are the victims. School safety agents are in a position that’s bad for them, making decisions they’re not trained to make. This bill will allow people to make an informed decision whether the police department is enforcing school discipline.” It could also set the stage for discussions of behavior, responsibility, crime and punishment in the city’s schools, as well as the nation’s schools.

- Helen Zelon