A look into the growing calls for the NYC DOE to cut ties with the NYPD

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In early June, the Minneapolis Board of Education voted to end its contract with the Minneapolis Police Department, removing all members of the Minneapolis PD from the city’s public schools. Since then, an increasing number of New Yorkers have publicly called for the New York City Department of Education (DOE) to take similar action with the New York City Police Department (NYPD). Last night, members of the Panel for Educational Policy voted to recommend that the DOE take over management of the school safety division from the NYPD. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said as recently as last week that he supports maintaining the NYPD control over school security.

#NotMyTownsend, a community organization of Townsend Harris High School (THHS) alumni, has been sharing allegations of bigotry within the school since late April in order to encourage greater accountability within the school. In an email to The Classic, the group called on the DOE to “sever its relationship with the NYPD” due to their history of violence against communities of color. 

Alliance for Quality Education, a group that works for education justice across New York state, announced support for these calls for change. In a press statement emailed to The Classic, Executive Director Jasmine Gripper said, “It has never been clearer than in this moment that police officers have no place in our communities, and especially not among our children in public schools. Too many Black and Brown children are exposed to the violence at the hands of police officers in their youth, and too many of those instances take place in their schools where they are supposed to be safe.” 

Evie Hantzopoulos, Executive Director of a nonprofit called Global Kids, supports replicating the actions taken in Minneapolis in NYC. In an interview with The Classic, Ms. Hantzopoulos said that in her more than two decades of experience with the nonprofit, students have regularly shared their discomfort with the NYPD in school buildings. “They often really feel as if the police presence in their schools just really adds to a negative environment,” she said. 

Ms. Hantzopoulos said she believes there should be more counselors added to schools in lieu of safety agents who work for the NYPD. “Those are some of the supports that young people need…to help them grow and develop, as opposed to something that causes them to feel as if they’re being policed while they’re supposed to be learning,” she said. 

In an interview with The Classic, Alex Vitale, author of the book The End of Policing and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, discussed the idea of replacing the presence of school safety agents with that of certified youth workers like guidance counselors and social workers. He said that despite there being cases where school safety agents form strong relationships with students, he thinks this can still pose a problem: “The problem is that [the safety agents are] still part of the criminal justice system; they have an obligation to report criminal activity, they feed kids’ names into the gang database, they’re collecting intelligence for the police department, and they are authorized to use force,” he said.

He added, “If what kids really need is a mentor who understands them, who can relate to them from a position of mutual respect, why do they have to be connected to the criminal justice system? Why can’t we actually hire more counselors [or] give teachers more support services so that they can play that role with some kids? So I don’t see the value added in trying to turn police officers into youth workers. Let’s just bring in youth workers.”

The DOE’S Student Diversity Advisory Group advised the DOE last year to “analyze the benefits and drawbacks of moving School Safety Agents to DOE supervision from NYPD supervision,” as stated on the NYC DOE’s “Student Diversity Advisory Group Recommendations” online page. However, the DOE rejected this recommendation last year. 

In an email to The Classic, Deputy Press Secretary of the DOE Nathaniel Styer said, “We stand against racism and police brutality, and at the core of our work we believe in anti-racism.” He referred to the greater emphasis on restorative practices and mental health interventions that the DOE made in June 2019 as well as an updated Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the DOE and NYPD. He said the new strategies have seen a drop in suspensions, and that the new MOU does things like limit the number of arrests that can be made in school for minor out of school offenses. 

Responding to The Classic’s request to comment, NYPD spokesperson Sophia Mason said, “The NYPD and School Safety Division have ongoing open dialogue with child advocacy groups, students and other stakeholders in order to respond to concerns, while maintaining a balance between the safety of the entire school community and the importance of not criminalizing our youth.” Detective Mason said that school safety agents provide students with positive law enforcement role models and that arrests, summonses, and major crime in schools is down in recent years.

However, NotMyTownsend commented that NYPD presence in schools has a negative effect on the school community. “We encourage the examination and dismantling of [a] policing mentality that is pervasive among administrators, staff and even students: hallway monitors, Deans, security guards, counselors, or anybody in a position of power is susceptible to adopting this toxic mentality,” they wrote.  

They acknowledged that a new school safety system not affiliated with the NYPD would not  “end policing in schools” and more work would still need to be done at the administrative level.

The Classic reached out to the THHS administration for comment on this issue in early June. Principal Brian Condon did not return requests for comment. Assistant Principals Veronica York and Georgia Brandeis, who lead the school’s Equity and Access team, did not respond to requests for comment. Assistant Principal of Organization Ellen Fee, who frequently interacts with school safety, declined to comment.

Senior Kayla Seepersad, who has been sharing her thoughts during recent school wide discussions on racism and bigotry, commented that she believes policing as we know it should change, and be replaced by an entirely new system. She proposed the idea of schools safety agents being trained by a party affiliated with the DOE and suggested that candidates could take a DOE-administered exam prior to being hired.

Due to a transcription error, an earlier version of this article featured the phrase “game database” rather than “gang database” in a quotation by Professor Vitale. The quotation has been updated to fix the error.