Proposed reforms to NYC school policing would limit arrests, use of handcuffs, and hospital transfers

A school safety agent at Staten Island’s New Dorp High School.
A school safety agent at Staten Island’s New Dorp High School. A slew of City Council bills seek to change the way they operate. (Alex Zimmerman/Chalkbeat)

New York City Council members are considering a raft of legislation meant to reform the role of school policing. But the bills, which will be considered at a hearing on Thursday, are already drawing mixed reactions from those who say that the proposals don’t go far enough.

When it comes to police reform, the nation’s largest school system has trailed others in the wake of the police killings last year of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and the mass protests that followed.

In Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest district, the school board voted on Tuesday to cut a third of its school police officers and put the money toward the education of Black students. Several other school districts have cut ties with their local police departments.

New York City officials have stopped short of that, however. The most controversial of the Council bills would enshrine in city law a promise Mayor Bill de Blasio made last summer to transfer oversight of school police officers from the police department to the education department by June 2022. It also would bar school police from making arrests, using handcuffs, wearing their uniforms on school grounds, and would also require retraining to focus on “de-escalation” and “restorative justice” techniques.

Mark Treyger, a co-sponsor of the bill and chairman of the Council’s education committee, said he hopes the legislation will prompt a more public discussion about what it means to put school policing in the hands of the education department. “The administration has done a very poor job as far as including all of the relevant stakeholders,” he said. “This is about driving the conversation forward.” The bills are also a response to an executive order issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo this summer, which required local governments to come up with police reform proposals.

But even advocates who favor sweeping reforms to school policing are raising questions about whether city lawmakers have the authority to mandate these changes to the school safety division — on its own one of the largest forces in the country with over 5,000 officers. They argue it is a mistake to invest resources that could be spent elsewhere to train law enforcement. 

“The City Council has never been able to legislate what the [education department] has done before,” said Dawn Yuster, director of the School Justice Project at Advocates for Children. The bill has also drawn criticism from the Urban Youth Collaborative and a handful of other advocates, including the New York Civil Liberties Union, whose leaders penned a letter to the City Council stating their opposition to the legislation mandating the transfer of school safety to the education department.

“This bill would further entrench policing in New York City schools instead of investing in the staff and programming that students deserve,” they wrote, suggesting the school safety division be “disbanded” instead of moved between agencies.

Local 237, the union that represents school safety agents, pushed back against the suggestion that their presence should be reduced. “Removing School Safety Agents from a child’s safety net encourages criminal behavior, and, with no one watching, would embolden troublemakers, and will cost lives,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement.

Over the summer de Blasio promised significant reductions in police spending, in part by moving the school safety budget to the education department, an accounting maneuver that has yet to take place, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. The mayor and City Council did not substantially reduce the school safety division’s $425 million budget, which has grown significantly in recent years, despite calls from advocates to shift that money into social services for students. 

The mayor has supported school safety reforms in the past, including efforts to reduce suspensions and a 2019 effort to limit the use of on-campus arrests and summonses for low-level offenses, an overhaul that won praise from some advocates.

“Moving 5,000 employees between two agencies is an incredibly complex process and it is critically important we thoughtfully engage all student, community, labor, and advocate partners to get this right,” said Nathaniel Styer, an education department spokesperson. “We look forward to a substantive and constructive conversation with the Council.”

A second bill under consideration would minimize the role of the police in responding to student mental health crises and transporting them to the hospital for a psychological evaluation — one of the most common reasons students end up interacting with the police.

School safety agents should refrain from intervening when a student is facing an emotional crisis unless it’s at the request of the school staff, according to the legislation, and only after making sure other de-escalation techniques have been tried first. It also discourages calling in patrol officers from outside the school and limits the use of metal and Velcro handcuffs “unless restraints are necessary to prevent serious physical injury.” If a student needs to be taken to the hospital, it should be at the discretion of a “clinically trained mental health professional,” according to the bill.

In 2019, the police transported about 3,400 students to hospitals because they were experiencing an emotional crisis, or roughly 30% of all police interventions in schools that year, according to an analysis of city data by the New York Civil Liberties Union. About 87% of those students were Black or Latino, despite being 67% of the student population, and about 9% of those incidents involved the use of handcuffs. A 2017 report found students as young as five years old in emotional distress have been handcuffed.

“We want a mental health approach taken,” said Yuster, especially given the trauma students will likely bring to school in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. “If there is a student in emotional crisis, there’s no reason to restrain them.

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