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New York City and the School-to-Prison Pipeline

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Unfortunately, the "School-to-Prison Pipeline," described in an earlier post, is alive and well in New York City where I live and teach. According to a New York Civil Liberties Report, Criminalizing the Classroom, The Over-Policing of New York City Schools (2007), in 1996 Mayor Rudolph Giuliani transferred control over the school safety program away from school officials to the police department. The NYPD school safety division with over five thousand officers became the fifth largest police force in the country. Semi-skilled low-paid school safety officers now decide when student behavior is criminal and warrants police intervention rather than teachers, guidance counselors, or school administrators. Principals or teachers who question these decisions and intervene are themselves subject to arrest.

Metal detectors at school entrances make many New York City schools feel more like prisons than places where young people want to be and contribute to the sense that these are not a place where people are respected or treated with dignity and fairness. Approximately 100,000 New York City school children pass through a gauntlet of metal detectors every day. Their bags are searched and they are subject to pat downs as if going to school is suspected criminal behavior. Although we live an era of severe financial restraints, since 2002 the city's budget for police and security equipment in schools has increased by 65 percent to more than $221 million.

In September 2011, the New York Post reported that metal detector scanning was being done at 88 Department of Education buildings housing more than 150 schools. This does not include mobile scanning units that circulate between other schools where they arrive unannounced for inspections. At an unannounced scanning at Murray Bergtraum High School in Manhattan in December 2010, police confiscated a reported 500 cell phones, but no dangerous weapons.

Students in schools with large Black and Latino populations are subject to the most searches. The Post reporters observed that at the Martin Luther King Jr. complex near Lincoln Center where the student population of the High School for Law Advocacy, and Community Justice is 93% Black and Latino, students had to remove belts and jewelry and wait on a 20-minute-long line to enter the building. During this operation, their cell phones and open drink containers were confiscated. Meanwhile, students next door at the selective Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Art, a school with a much more middle-class and a larger White (48%) and Asian (20%) student population, students were allowed to simply a swipe an ID card to enter the building.

In testimony before the New York City Council Committees on Education and Civil Rights regarding the impact of suspensions on students' education rights, Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union argued that as part of their "zero tolerance" policy toward student "misbehavior," "school and police personnel meted out harsh punishment in situations that should have been resolved through counseling, conflict mediation, and similar supportive methods." In effect, these policies "push students out of school and into the criminal justice system."

School officials are ratcheting up the level of infraction so that instead of treating a minor violation of school policies such as a dress code infraction as a guidance issue, administrators suspend students for insubordination because they failed to obey an authority figure. Insubordination, "defying or disobeying the lawful authority of school personnel or school safety agents," is considered a Level 3 infraction on the same level as the destruction of school property, fighting, or "engaging in gang related behavior." Students accused of insubordination can be given detention and excluded from extracurricular activities, recess or communal lunchtime. They are also subject to a principal's suspension from school for up to five days.

If these trends continue government and school officials won't have to worry any longer about the school-to-prison pipeline because New York City schools, especially those for Black, Latino, and poor students, will have effectively been transformed into prisons.