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Back to the Future in NYC Where Police Will “Wander the Halls”

September 8, 2018

This week was the first week of school for children in NYC, and, as reported by Eliza Shapiro in the NYTimes, children in many schools in the Bronx experienced a new approach to school safety:

School districts across the country have added new layers of security to their buildings, and the federal government has signaled a willingness to arm teachers in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., massacre. But on the first day of school, New York tacked in a different direction.

Starting this week, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday, the city would begin a pilot program at a group of Bronx schools to turn school safety agents into the equivalent of beat cops. The city was asking 63 of the agents who work in 30 high schools to walk the hallways in search of wandering students, meet with principals to discuss brewing conflicts between children, and wish every child a good morning before first period.

That will be a new job for many of the agents who currently spend their entire days at a school’s front desk,sometimes curtly asking for identification from visitors. And it will require parents, and especially students, to look at their safety agents in a new light. To highlight their new role, the agents, who work for the Police Department and are not armed, will be known as school coordination agents.

As I read the article about the “new” program, I had a flashback to 1970-72 when I worked as a math teacher at Shaw Junior High School in Philadelphia. Because of gang violence in the neighborhood (that in some instances spilled into the school), Shaw Junior High School had its own policeman, Officer Black, and a cadre of Non-Teaching Assistants, or NTAs, who effectively teamed with Officer Black and the Vice Principals in the school to maintain order in the school while the teachers were in the classroom. Officer Black not only worked in the school, but he also was assigned to the beat outside the school during the daylight hours, which meant students and parents had an out-of-school connection with him. I also recall that the students in the school knew most of the NTAs, who tended to be drawn from the neighborhoods or at least from similar city neighborhoods. I also recall that some of the NTAs and, in some cases Officer Black, spent time engaged in informal conversations with some of the biggest troublemakers in the school, conversations that some teachers felt undercut their ability to maintain order. As an idealistic neophyte teacher— and now as an idealistic progressive— I saw the conversations as a way for the “enforcers” to build relationships that would afford them a means of preventing violence in the school and MAYBE connect the trouble-makers to some people in the community who might be a positive influence on them.

When I read about the role of the “school coordination agents” I saw them fulfilling the same role in a more formal fashion. Instead of relying on the kinds of informal networks  and relationships Officer Black and the NTAs cultivated, NYC intends the “school coordination agents” to link troubled and struggling students with existing agencies:

During a recent training session at the Police Department’s hangar-like facility in Flushing, Queens, …agents with years of experience said they often did not know how to bring issues they observe in their schools to the right person.

Two Education Department officials at the front of a brightly lit classroom ticked off the alphabet soup of acronyms that represents the city’s various resources for parents, principals and teachers. The several dozen agents were encouraged to attend meetings and build relationships with groups they didn’t know existed.

“We were like, ‘We don’t even know what the hell you’re talking about,’” Maximino Acosta, an agent with 14 years of experience in Bronx schools, said of the session.

In reading the article it was evident that there were two big differences between NYC in 2017 and Philadelphia in the 1970s. First, there was no “...alphabet soup of acronyms that represents the city’s various resources”. Schools had to rely on their own resources, and in the 1970s they were woefully understaffed in terms of psychologists and services for children with emotional and mental health issues. Indeed, 94-142 had not been passed at the Federal level which meant that children waited months to be screened for services and schools were not mandated to provide them. Secondly, the NTAs were school district employees and Officer Black clearly took his orders for his work in the school from the administrators. At a time when Frank Rizzo led the force this was a blessing for the students. But even with a more progressive chief of police in NYC, the fact that the “school coordination agents” are agents of law enforcement poses a problem:

Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said she does not believe neighborhood policing in schools is the solution she has been waiting for. While Ms. Lieberman praised the school safety division for its focus on driving down unnecessary suspensions, she said there were still “pathetically low” numbers of guidance counselors and social workers in schools.

“What would have been welcome news as we open a school year would have been an announcement that the Department of Education has identified and hired educators to be walking the hallways,” Ms. Lieberman said.

It will be helpful to see how the introduction of “school coordination agents” works in the high schools. My belief is that money spent on linking students with pre-existing services will yield far more positive results than using law enforcement tactics. Based on my experience as a teacher and school disciplinarian “troublemakers” are almost always troubled in some way, and dealing with their troubles is far more effective than punishing them because of their troubles.

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