Defining School Safety In New York City

The tragic events at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida has sparked a fierce national debate around gun reform and school safety, and it is young people who have have risen up and forced that conversation to the forefront. In many states and cities across the country, this debate has lead to the swift enactment and proposal of numerous legislative acts. While much of the new legislation that has poured out of the national response has taken meaningful steps toward common-sense gun control and increased mental health resources, some of it is counterproductive in that it leads to increased policing and arming of schools. These types of counterproductive policy measures ignore the social and emotional needs of all students and disproportionately affect vulnerable student populations such as students of color and students with disabilities. Examples of this include increased metal detectors and scanning, mandatory armed guards, and an increase of invasive surveillance in schools.

Perhaps the most ludicrous solution has been to arm school teachers with guns. The idea has been the focus of multiple news cycles and has gained support in the White House, yet, it’s not a novel idea. Texas and Michigan are two of at least fourteen states that currently allow teachers to carry weapons in the classroom. Supporters of the idea claim that armed teachers would serve as a deterrent to those wishing to cause harm to students on school grounds. Opponents argue that having more people with guns in a school shooting situation can make it difficult for first responders to identify the gun holders as perpetrators or protectors. Additionally, many have brought up the uncomfortableness of training a teacher to potentially shoot one of their students.

Even putting the idea of arming teachers aside, it has not been proven that putting more guns in schools in any capacity makes schools safer, no matter whose hands they are in. In fact, many students report that the presence of guns in their schools at all typically makes them feel less safe. This is especially true for black, brown, immigrant, LGBTQ/gender non-conforming, and disabled, students who are often criminalized and harmed disproportionately to their white peers by school policing and punitive approaches to school discipline.

New York City and State legislators have been no less swift than their national counterparts in their response to the Parkland shooting. Already, we have seen a flurry of new legislation aimed at addressing school safety be proposed or enacted at both the state and local levels. For example, the New York State Senate has approved a package of bills that would mandate the presence of armed guards and greatly expand the scope of high-tech surveillance at all public schools. In New York City, the de Blasio administration has announced its own plan to increase security at NYC schools. According to the plan, all NYC public schools will be randomly screened with metal detectors and undergo regular active shooter drills and many schools will see an increased presence of NYPD-trained school safety officers.

Research shows students are uncomfortable and feel unsafe with police and metal detectors on campus. Also, in schools with police presence, black and brown students are criminalized for normal youth behavior. Why are you [Mayor de Blasio] making the same mistake - prioritizing police and metal detectors - instead of ensuring we have enough social, emotional, and mental health support and resources in our schools?
— Andrea Colon, RYTF Community Engagement Organizer & student at Rockaway Park High School

On Thursday, March 8th, Mayor de Blasio and the First Lady held a youth town hall on gun violence and school safety in order to engage directly with students on how to keep their schools safe. Several members of the Urban Youth Collaborative, including RYTF organizers, took part in the town hall and weren’t afraid to challenge the mayor’s ideas on school safety.

Ayobami Olabode, RYTF organizer and student at Scholars’ Academy, asked the mayor why the vast majority of schools with metal detectors are located in communities of color, even though there are metal detectors in only 6% of schools citywide. Ayobami reflected on his town hall experience: “I don’t think that the mayor listened to the question I asked or to the key points I brought up. I feel like he just brushed it off and jumped to the answer that will make him look good, which was that metal detectors aren’t put in communities of color. If he would’ve truly listened to everything I said he would’ve realized that what he said is not true. 6% of schools in all of NYC have metal detectors, yet in my community of color that percentage is 67%. Students of color are obviously a target which is completely unfair.” Ayobami continues, “Throughout the town hall, I don’t believe the mayor listened to most people. Anything that went against what his agenda was he brushed off. For example, a student from Canarsie asked him why schools of color were a target and the mayor completely ignored the student because it had nothing to do with what he [the mayor] was asking, yet the conference was meant for students to speak their mind. He contradicted the whole point of the meeting.” Here, Ayobami is referring to a point in the town hall meeting when the mayor asked the crowd a question about mental health support needs, and would only address what the next several students he called on said if it was a direct answer to his own question.

In my school, as a person of color, I feel like the school safety officers are there more to watch me instead of to help me. We’re trying to talk about how we want to help the mental health of the students - then why would we be putting in more metal detectors, why would we be putting in more police officers instead of trying to talk to them?
— Olukemi Jemilugba, RYTF Organizer & student at Scholars’ Academy

Fellow RYTF organizer and Scholars’ Academy student Olukemi Jemilugba left the town hall with a similar impression that the mayor was not truly listening or directly responding to what many of the students, including herself, were saying. “When I was chosen to ask my question I felt honored and nervous. The first thing I wanted to do was call him out for the way he was dodging other questions, as he responded with generic answers. When I asked him what specific policy he would implement to make the atmosphere in our schools better, there was no direct answer to my question. I was not satisfied with his answer, and felt as if he was not truly hearing what I was saying.” The fact that student voices and concerns are often not genuinely heard, addressed, or valued in conversations that shape school safety initiatives is part of the problem. Legislators must actively prioritize student voices and experiences when deciding how to keep their schools safe. It is always those who are closest to the problem that are also closest to the solution.

Overwhelmingly, students at the town hall expressed a need for more guidance counselors, college advisors, and social and emotional support - not more school policing. That’s because the real solutions to achieving true school safety lie in addressing the root causes of harmful and disruptive behavior in a way that supports the growth of students holistically and encourages them to repair harm caused to others and take personal responsibility. The Safe and Supportive Schools Act, which is currently under consideration by the New York State Assembly, seeks to establish practices and cultivate school environments that do just that.

5 main policy objectives of the Safe and Supportive Schools Act:

  1. Keeping students in school and learning in a safe and orderly environment so that teachers can focus on teaching
  2. Supporting schools in developing the skills and capacities of students through strong state-level policies
  3. Shift harmful and exclusionary discipline practices to more fair and equitable approaches that address systemic disparities experienced by students of color and students with disabilities
  4. Implement evidence-based approaches to school behavior and discipline that consider the particular details of each situation, while ending blanket zero-tolerance provisions
  5. Increase student academic achievement and encourage the social and emotional growth of students by creating safe and supportive learning environments

The Safe and Supportive Schools Act would take many positive and meaningful steps towards the vision of school safety that local students have been, and continue to be, calling on the mayor to deliver. Included in the bill are several concrete policy directives intended to directly counter the harmful and exclusionary practices that have helped forge and feed the school-to-prison pipeline. One example is the elimination of school suspensions for grades K-3. Another is replacing purely punitive approaches to school discipline that center classroom removals, such as zero-tolerance policies, with restorative justice practices that focus on identifying and addressing the root causes of behavioral problems through dialogue, peer mediation, and other means. In encouraging students to self-reflect on their behavior, hold themselves accountable, and take steps to right the wrongs that they have inflicted on others, restorative justice practices create not only positive, safe learning environments but also develop the social and emotional maturity of students. Notably, the Safe and Supportive Schools Act also requires teachers and administrators to hear the student’s side of the story and take into account additional factors such as a students age, disability or special education status, and the degree of harm caused before taking any punitive measures.

Exclusionary discipline policies like school suspensions also incur a greatly increased risk of students falling behind academically. As it currently stands, NYC students can be suspended from school for up to 180 days and there is no law requiring teachers to provide make-up work to suspended students in a timely manner. Thus, a student can be suspended for a month but may not receive any of their missed work from their teachers until three weeks into their suspension. The Safe and Supportive Schools Act solves these problems by limiting the maximum amount of time a student can be suspended to 20 days and requiring teachers to provide missed work to suspended students within 24 hours.

In addition, the bill aims to end all inappropriate interactions between school resource officers and students. Although the presence of school resource officers in schools were intended to promote safety, many students say that their presence actually makes them less safe. In addition, there have been numerous reports of school resource officers using abusive or inappropriate language or excessive force when interacting with the students that they are supposed to be protecting. The Safe & Supportive Schools Act will limit and define the role of law enforcement personnel in schools and minimize their involvement in situations where student behavior does not threaten school safety.

All of the above-outlined goals of the bill will be furthered by the bill’s provision that all adults who interact with students during the school day are equipped with the proper training and support, such as restorative justice and anti-bias trainings, to effectively and appropriately deal with behavioral problems as they arise. All-in-all, the Safe & Supportive Schools Act is a comprehensive package of common-sense, evidence-based reforms aimed at correcting the disproportionately harmful effects of existing school safety policies and procedures while creating supportive school environments that promote and sustain a vision of school safety that does not have to be imposed on students by force.