As they have sought to remake the nation's largest public school system, New York City officials have portrayed their efforts as a civil rights struggle. But despite such rhetoric, the city has created an obstacle course for its students, especially black and Latino boys, and the barriers these young men must navigate have little or nothing to do with academics.
The record offers a sharp counterpoint to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's launching last summer of a wide-ranging initiative to "tackle the broad disparities slowing the advancement of black and Latino young men." Under his administration the city has stepped up policies that many believe have increased those disparities, suspending or even jailing black and Latino students for transgressions that a generation ago might have ended with a sharp talk in the dean's office. Last week provided still more evidence of this as advocacy groups released figures from the New York City Police Department on the numbers of arrests in city public schools for the last three months of 2011.
Every day, on average, police arrested more than five students in city middle and high schools; another nine per day received summonses. Of the arrested students, 60 percent were black in a system whose enrollment is about 31 percent black. Whites, who account for 13 percent of city students, made up 3 percent of those arrested. Some of those arrested were as young as 11.
A number of the alleged offenses are serious. By one count, about 11 percent involved possession of weapons. But critics charge that many of the others targeted conduct that in earlier days would have been handled by educators, not law enforcement officers. About 6 percent involved obstructing government administration, and a whopping 63 percent of the summonses, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, were for disorderly conduct. A student may receive a summons for talking back to a teacher or writing on a desk, according to Shoshi Chowdhury of the Dignity in Schools Campaign-NY.
"Small incidents that are school discipline matters are getting escalated," Chowdhury said. For example, she said, wearing a hat in school does not rate as an infraction worthy of suspension, let alone arrest. But if a student refuses to take off the cap, he could find himself with a summons for disorderly conduct -- or worse.
The arrest figures do not, of course, stand in isolation. Over the last 20 years, said Judith Browne-Dianis, co director of the Advancement Project, schools -- including New York's -- increasingly turned to zero tolerance as fear grew of a "super predator kid who is a danger to society." Caught up in that move were students who guilty "of minor misconduct that does not impact school safety" including "things we would never arrest an adult for."
At a rally last week protesting the arrests, Nilesh Viswashrao, a member of Desis Rising Up, told the crowd about his experiences. "When I was a student in high school," he said, "every day I was harassed by [school safety agents] and NYPD officers... Me and my friends were threatened, frisked and discriminated against, to the point where most of us never made it past high school."
New York City's budget for police and security equipment in schools has increased sharply. The number of armed police and school safety agents now tops 5,000 -- an increase of 64 percent from 1998. One report calculated that the New York's Police Department School Safety Division is larger than the entire police forces of Washington D.C., Detroit, Boston or Las Vegas. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has made it clear, said Johanna Miller, assistant advocacy director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, that those officers are "there to remove disruptive student from class."
At the same time, the city's schools, like many others around the country, have turned increasingly to removing students from school -- via suspensions or expulsions -- not only for dangerous behavior but for talking back, say, or being rowdy. Earlier this year, the city released data on suspensions. Black students accounted for more than half of all suspensions and special ed students for a third. (About 17 percent of New York City public school kids get special education services.)
A single, albeit large school -- Lehman High School in the Bronx -- gave out more than 2,000 suspensions in the 2010-2011 school year. And kids as young as 5 were suspended, with three schools suspending 10 or more of their littlest students.
Overall suspensions have gone up sharply in the past 10 years, reaching 73,441 in the 2010-2011 school year. While one in 25 students was suspended in 1999-2000, that number reached one in 14 in 2008-2009, the Civil Liberties Union.
And these figure only account for what goes on in school grounds. Once on the streets, students in city schools are often treated by police and neighbors as personae non gratae, told to hurry along, disperse and get out of the neighborhood. Several years ago, as I stood on a sidewalk a block from Washington Irving High School in Manhattan interviewing students, police told us to move, at one point activating the siren and light on the police car to make sure we got the message.
Back in their own neighborhoods, this same group -- black and Latino men, particularly young men -- bear the brunt of New York's stop and frisk policies. In 2011, the New York City Police Department once again broke its own record for stopping people on the streets of their city, with 684,330 stops -- a 600 percent increase from when Bloomberg took office. Of those people, 85 percent were black and Latino.
Browne-Dianis sees the suspensions and stops as inextricably liked. The arrests in schools, she said, "are a extension of stop and frisk. This is an extension of how we treat black and Latino young people and adults."
The city argues that its show of force in schools and on streets has made all New Yorker safer. In response to the suspensions figures, the administration cited improvements in school safety. The department has reported a 4.8 percent decrease in major crimes committed in schools in 2010-2011 and says suspension for serious offenses may show a decline this year.
Meanwhile the policies take a toll. In schools, suspended student lose out on classroom time. A study of suspension in Texas found that students who are suspended or expelled are five times more likely to drop out than students who have not. According to the report, Having a record of suspension or expulsion, let alone arrest, can undermine a student's chances for future employment of college admission.
Whatever the policies' success in reducing crimes in school, "this is not the right tool to insure every student gets educated in the right way in a safe environment," said Miller.
Outside of New York, some cities have stepped back from the police approach to student misconduct. Browne-Dianis praises Baltimore and Denver for reworking their discipline codes and, in the process, reducing violence. In Clayton County, Ga., Miller said, a judge got tired of seeing his docket packed with disorderly students and brought key players together to draw up a list of things kids did that, though they might be wrong, do not merit arrest.
So far, New York seems set in its ways. But a growing number of politicians have begun to speak out against the city's treatment of its own residents, particularly its black and Latino ones. Criticism of the once sacrosanct NYPD and Commissioner Kelly has mounted. Students have started to speak out.
With black, Latino and low-income students generally less likely to excel in school or graduate than other young people, few could dispute that improving public education is indeed a civil rights issue. What the Bloomberg administration seems to forget, though, is that so is making sure that young black and Latino can go to school and walk their city's street streets without fear of punishment, harassment and arrest.