Public School Lockdown: The Politics of School Safety in New York City

Public School Lockdown: The Politics of School Safety in New York City


According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, New York City Police Department’s (NYPD) School Safety Division (SSD) is the 5th largest police force in the country, larger than the police force in Washington, D.C., Detroit and Boston. In 2008-2009 there were more school safety officers (approx 5,000) in NYC schools than guidance counselors (3,155). Although the majority of NYC schools have overcrowded student populations, the majority have permanent metal detectors.

New York City schools are increasingly becoming prisons, with young people being confined to buildings where they are surveilled and treated not as students, but as potential felons. Most insidious is that a deputized school safety unit of the police department is occupying more schools while school budgets suffer. For instance, the city of New York spent less per pupil ($9,000) in schools with permanent metal detectors, compared to the city per pupil average (approx $11,000), an evident shift to a priority of school safety, rather than on education.

At first glance, it would seem that extra school safety would be warranted if crime in schools was up. But in fact, crime is down in schools, and was falling before the city of New York implemented aggressive policing and zero tolerance policies in schools, first under Mayor Rudolph Guliani in 1998 and reinforced by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2002.

So why more security when crime is down? It’s the same reason prisons and prison populations have increased despite the fall in crime in the country. It’s about the development of a New Jim Crow, and schools are not exempt.

Now, close to 100,000 students pass through permanent metal detectors each day, with exhaustive lines to enter schools that would rival the departure gates at JFK airport. Students are late for classes and penalized because they are held up by school security, and many times harassed by officers as they enter the school buildings.

In fact, high schools with permanent metal detectors issued 48% more suspensions than schools without metal detectors, with a number of documented suspensions occurring for less serious infractions, such as possessing “suspicious” hairpins or unlabeled medication.

The saturation of security in public schools has led to a revolt of sorts. Over 100 young people and advocates rallied in front of city hall this past week to push for more transparency and accountability in disciplinary practices by the NYPD and Department of Education in NYC. The Student Safety Act was introduced in City Council and is building momentum among elected officials.

And rightly so. Under the present system of NYPD controlled schools and mayoral control, there is little to no accountability to the public. Decisions tend to be made behind closed doors and made public only when they are being implemented.

There is little to no public deliberation or discourse on how school safety policies will affect young people and their learning.  And elected officials concerns for “student safety” are not sufficient excuses to preclude dialogue with young people, parents and the community about the conditions of schools, and proposed remedies.

Public schools are (for now) one of the few remaining public institutions serving the public in communities. Let’s not continue to turn them into places where the daily lessons regard new methods of violating young people’s rights and transforming students into prisoners before their lives truly get started.