Students at mostly Black NYC schools are more likely to have negative feelings about school police

A police car in front of the Peter Rouget Brooklyn middle school. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Students at predominantly Black New York City schools are significantly less likely to have a positive view of school police or to believe school discipline is applied fairly, according to a new analysis of school survey data.

Yet across the city’s schools, large majorities of students, parents, and teachers agree that school safety agents help keep schools safe and respectful.

At schools where fewer than 20% of students are Black, 83% agree on average that school safety agents “promote a safe and respectful environment at this school.” But at schools where more than 80% of students are Black, that falls to 76%, according to a Chalkbeat analysis of education department survey data from last school year.

Students at schools with large shares of Black students are 14 percentage points less likely to think discipline is applied fairly on average, the data show. Notably, the opposite trend is true for schools with many Hispanic students, which are slightly more likely than average to have favorable views of school police and student discipline. In general, the share of white and Asian students at a given school did not appear to make a substantial difference in student attitudes about school safety agents.

School safety agents, who are part of the New York Police Department but are unarmed, play a variety of roles: greeting and signing in visitors to school buildings, deploying metal detectors at some schools, responding to fights, and even issuing arrests. In many cases, they’re called to respond to student mental health crises. There are roughly 5,000 school police stationed across the city’s public schools. That makes the school safety division one of the largest single police forces in the country.

In the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, and the ensuing antiracism protests, calls have grown louder for school districts to sever ties with police — and a few have done so. Several members of New York City Council, as well as some student advocates, have called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to give the education department control of school safety, which was handed over to the NYPD in 1998, when Rudy Giuliani was mayor. 

On Thursday evening, the city’s Panel for Educational Policy approved a resolution to transfer control of school safety to the education department, a largely symbolic move since that authority rests with the mayor. (The panel includes 13 members, eight of whom are appointed by the mayor.)

Although attitudes toward school safety agents in the survey are generally positive among students, parents, and teachers, there are important variations. Ninety-six percent of families and 90% of teachers have positive views of school safety agents, but just 81% of students do. 

Those findings complicate the debate about the role of school police. Even as many advocates and some city lawmakers want the education department, not the police, to control school safety, most people connected to the school system have a favorable view of school safety agents. And yet students at predominantly Black schools represent an outlier from virtually every other demographic and racial group, including students with disabilities and those living in poverty. This data point supports the concern that the negative consequences of police in schools are unevenly distributed.

“Police presence in schools has a harmful impact on students, but especially Black and Latinx students,” said Ashley Sawyer of the advocacy group Girls for Gender Equity. 

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The Chalkbeat analysis is based on the results of last year’s school survey, which is conducted by the education department and asks parents, staff, and students in grades 6-12 various questions about the system, including school safety. About 460,000 students responded to the survey, or 83% of those eligible.

The data comes with an important limitation: It does not include student-level responses, meaning that it can’t show how students of different demographic groups responded to the surveys. The analysis relies on comparing school demographics to tease out attitudes of different groups, a less exact method.

Still, the findings are consistent with other evidence that Black students in New York City schools are more likely to be given lengthier suspensions for the same infractions as students in other racial groups, and are suspended and arrested in school at disproportionately higher rates.

Research on school police is limited. What exists suggests that they lead to more student arrests and may cause worse academic outcomes; studies on their effects on school safety are mixed. Most arrests in New York City schools are carried out by regular patrol officers, however, not school safety agents, which suggests that removing school police wouldn’t completely limit students’ contact with law enforcement. 

Rose Antoine is a senior at the Brooklyn School For Music & Theater, Prospect Heights Campus, and an activist with Girls for Gender Equity. She said school safety agents sometimes intensify rather than defuse conflicts and she’d like to see them removed from schools altogether.

She recalled an argument she had with a classmate, which she said was loud but not physical. But when the teacher called the safety agent to break up the fight, things escalated. “The security guard being there made it into a bigger altercation than it had to be,” she said, noting that she was pushed against the wall as the officer separated the two girls. “It didn’t feel like it was handled the right way.”  

Rose Antoine, a senior at the Brooklyn School For Music & Theater, Prospect Heights Campus, and an activist with Girls for Gender Equity (Courtesy of Rose Antoine)

Antoine said she wants more emphasis on mental health and conflict resolution. She and other student activists have lobbied for years for more “counselors not cops,” and those calls have increased alongside the ongoing demonstrations against police brutality. Legal Services NY released a report Thursday that aims to provide a “roadmap” for reimagining school safety without police and metal detectors. 

“In this current moment we’re having conversations about what safety means,” said Katrina Feldkamp, who works in the Education Law Unit at Bronx Legal Services. “And it’s more than physical safety. It’s psychological safety and it’s emotional safety. And those are both necessary ingredients for learning.” 

The report — crafted over nearly two years by parents, students, educators and advocates — calls for removing police from schools, and focusing on training staff on trauma response and restorative justice. Feldkamp said that approach is crucial as schools serve students facing the double impact of COVID-19 and racial violence. “Right now our students are grappling with really two traumas,” she said. “When schools are not equipped to understand trauma and how it impacts learning and behavior, they actually end up causing greater harm to students.”

It’s unclear whether increased pressure to remove police control over school safety will lead to significant changes. Mayor de Blasio said this month that shifting control of school safety to the education department would create safety concerns, though he did not offer specifics. And just last year, the mayor rejected a proposal to analyze the benefits and drawbacks of giving the education department control of school safety officials.

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Still, de Blasio has also made reforms to school police, including a “neighborhood policing” approach. Last year, the city made more significant reforms, overhauling the agreement between the police and education departments in an effort to limit police interactions with students — a move that was celebrated by many advocates who had long pushed for changes. Overall, suspensions have fallen significantly under de Blasio, as have student arrests, though racial disparities persist.

In response to activists’ demands, de Blasio has agreed to reduce the police department’s budget next fiscal year, though it’s unclear if that will apply to the school safety division. The city has budgeted $427 million for school safety next fiscal year — a 1.3% increase, compared to this year’s budget, and a 38% increase since de Blasio took office.

“We are tackling the racially disproportionate impact of school discipline head on, and we know there is work to do to build on the progress we’ve made,” education department spokesman Nathaniel Styer said in a statement. “We will continue to invest heavily in social-emotional learning, restorative practices, trauma-informed practices, and de-escalation.”

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