Where School Meets Prison

Illustration by Carolina Moscoso

Rockaway Park High School for Environmental Sustainability is in many ways a typical New York public high school. Like other small, co-located schools, it is only one part of a larger organism: Its 350 students share the halls, cafeteria, library, gymnasium, and sports fields of the Beach Channel Campus with six other schools, including an Outward Bound prep school, a charter school, and a school for youth temporarily involved with the legal system. A visitor to Beach Channel will find the halls filled with students, lockers, bulletin boards, and trophy cases. They will also find School Safety Agents, police officers, and physical security infrastructure — this is also typical.

In the past — or in schools with higher proportions of white students — a student acting out might garner an intervention by their principal, or a concerned teacher’s phone call to parents. But today, throughout the US, discipline in many schools has become a matter of law enforcement, rather than education. In New York, the majority of school guards — 5,000 School Safety Agents patrolling 2,300 public and private schools — are civilians employed by the School Safety Division of the NYPD; though unarmed, they can issue summonses and arrest and handcuff students. There are also roughly 200 armed, uniformed NYPD officers who are permanently stationed in schools and report to local precincts. But even in schools without permanently assigned cops, police officers working for local precincts may be summoned into the school at any point. For them, the school building is just another part of the beat.

In the 1990s, national anxiety about drugs and shootings in (mostly suburban) schools combined with cities’ growing emphasis on “order maintenance” policing to create a “zero tolerance” standard for school discipline. Federal funding hung in the balance, so states including New York agreed to adopt the standard, under which small infractions could bring law enforcement into schools. The NYPD absorbed the School Safety Division, formerly run by the Department of Education, officially taking over school discipline in 1998. As police through the next decade used CompStat to identify neighborhoods with high reported crime rates which they’d target with more police, a program called SchoolSafe worked similarly, designating “Impact Schools” where increasing numbers of armed officers could be deployed for years at a time.

Now, despite the current administration’s promise to deescalate, the legacy of that time persists. In New York City public schools, anything from outright fighting to “disorderly conduct” and “insubordination” can land a student a criminal summons or arrest. And even if the police aren’t involved immediately, they might be later: Rates of suspensions and expulsion have gone through the roof since the institution of “zero tolerance,” and evidence suggests that while these measures are ineffective at addressing behavioral issues, they do increase students’ chances of dropping out or landing in jail down the road. According to Andrea Colon, a 17-year-old Rockaway Park senior and the Community Engagement Organizer at the Rockaway Youth Task Force, the presence of police in school makes the distance between schools and prisons, especially for low-income Black and Latino students, shorter and shorter. Advocates who rail against the school-to-prison pipeline nationally agree.

When Andrea describes her school as having a “prison-like feeling,” she means something beyond a typical high schooler’s sense of being trapped in class. Even if armed police are absent from the school building, students feel their presence on the walk to and from school, and in the form of metal detectors and X-rays that they must pass through daily, often to intimidating or humiliating effect. Citywide, 51 high schools including the Beach Channel Campus schools have permanent metal detectors and security scanners on loan from the NYPD; the Department of Education has spent $100 million on video cameras and other safety devices. As school administrators and local governments turn to security personnel and technology in the wake of crises like the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida last February, parents and students have instead called for a final moratorium on police and policing in schools, arguing that technologies like metal detectors in fact make schools less safe. Voices from over-policed schools and communities (Andrea and the Rockaway Youth Task Force among them) say the time has come instead to invest in restorative justice practices that keep students in school and set them on a path not to prison but to learning and growing in peacefully shared space.

I think every campus has “the best school.” In ours it’s called Channel View. It’s actually an Outward Bound school. They get a lot more funding, and they have about 15 percent white students. It’s just seen as the better school. There’s two entrances to the campus, and Channel View goes through their own entrance and we go through another one with the “bad” kids. But they still deal with the same problems of being harassed by the School Safety Agents. They still have to go through metal detectors. We all get our phones taken in the morning.

They have what you see at the movie theaters, those standing poles and the stretchy ropes. They create a uniform line. They don’t want us just everywhere. Since freshman year, we had two scanners at the main entrance, and then two scanners at the side entrance, which is where Channel View goes through, so four metal detectors in total. About a month ago, one of them broke. It slows us down in the morning, because three schools go through that entrance and it slows down the line, you end up late to class. It’s sort of annoying now, that we only have one, but then I don’t want the second one because I don’t want them at all.

On a good day, the line isn’t that long, I just swipe my ID card, I wait, I put my bag through the X-ray, I go through the metal detector, I don’t go off, and I go to class.

On a bad day, I’ll walk in, and the ID machine isn’t working so I have to stand there and I have to wait. If you don’t swipe in, it counts as if you’re not there for the day. Let’s say they think a kid is skipping, they look you up in the system: Did this person swipe their ID card, is this person in class?

Or maybe I swipe my ID, I go through the line, I put my bag through, and I get stopped. Once I brought in a little glass ketchup bottle for my food, because the food in the cafeteria sucks — which is a problem of its own — and they told me, “You can’t bring glass.” I’m like, “What am I gonna do? Break it and stab someone? That’s not my mindset.” I’m convinced that’s actually why Snapple changed their packaging to plastic.

You can’t bring liquid. Students, mostly seniors, they’d bring alcohol in an Arizona bottle, because you can’t tell the difference in the X-ray. But now you can only bring a water bottle if it’s completely sealed or empty and you fill it in school. Towards the last day of school, they start physically checking people’s bags for water balloons. Or sometimes when they have a scandal… they start going through everyone’s bag. That holds the line up.

If I go through the metal detector and I have my keys, or a bracelet, earrings, it goes off. Or sometimes, my friend who wears wigs has a lot of bobby pins or clips, it would go off and they would go crazy. At that point they’d ask me to go through again and if it still goes off I’d get wanded. Before, when they used to not let us bring our phones to school at all, you had to either leave it at home or leave it at a truck across the street that charged you a dollar a day. Some people used to put their phones in the sole of their shoe if it fit. So they make you lift your foot up to see if you went off because of that. I know everything I’m saying seems so petty and so not important, but it traumatizes students.

There are maybe 30 School Safety Agents in the campus, for about 1,000 students. In the middle of periods, when people are switching, all you hear is, “Go to class, go to class, go to class.” You go through the scan, and it’s like, “Take your belt off, take your keys out your pocket.” This is what I had to experience when I went to visit my cousin in jail. I shouldn’t be experiencing this here. It’s just a very prison-like feeling when you’re in school.

I’m the community engagement organizer here at the Rockaway Youth Task Force. Last week I was putting up flyers around school for a meeting on Monday. I got permission, and scissors and tape from my assistant principal because she saw the flyers, she knew I was going to put them up. Next thing I know the School Safety Agent just starts yelling, “Where did you get those scissors from? Give me those scissors.” And I’m like, “Seriously? You’re seeing me use them.” He’s like, “You need to give them to me.” I’m like, “No, I’m not even halfway done, you’re not going to take them.” And he’s like, “Who gave them to you? Who gave them to you? Oh, you shouldn’t have those, you shouldn’t be carrying them like that. Put them into your bag, I don’t want to see them.”

Some of them are nice. I think they just get placed at certain schools and it’s not really up to them. But some of them have their days and they take it out on the students. And it’s one of those jobs, you can’t do that. A doctor can’t have a bad day and go around misdiagnosing patients.

Usually, the only way you can leave before dismissal is if someone picks you up or if you’re 18 and you sign yourself out. Because I leave after fourth or sometimes fifth period for my internship, I always feel the need to be like, “Bye, I’m leaving!” If not, they’ll be like, “Oh, code blue, code 321, this girl just walked out of the school.” One day in the beginning of the year, I walked out and there were actual police officers. I was running to the bus, I was about to miss the bus, so I’m in a hurry, and they stopped me. I tried to tell myself, they’re not about to stop me, it’s not me, it’s not me. They’re like, “Why are you out of school?” And I’m like, “I have an internship program, I can show you my schedule if you want.” That’s why I always carry my schedule with me, because you never know. And they’re like, “No, it’s fine, but we need to get your mother’s contact information.” It was the weirdest encounter ever. It’s just this feeling of being constantly watched and surveilled.

After what happened in Florida, I realized there were police vans parked outside — actual police officers. And then they were inside the school, in the cafeteria, looking at the students, talking to the administration. And they try to smile at you and act like everything’s cool, and I’m like, “No, you shouldn’t be in my school. I can see you outside — that’s a whole problem of its own — you can harass me and patrol the neighborhood as much as you want, but not in my school.”

When things go bad, students can get arrested. Not by the School Safety Agents but by the nearest precinct. One day, I was in English class — this is fourth period, around 10:30 — and we start hearing a ruckus outside. And in schools like ours, we’re just always like, “Oh, I haven’t seen a fight in a few days.” We sort of make it comical to cover the trauma of the fact that we’re fighting and even killing each other: “Oh, let’s go see what’s happening.” And just doing this work, I want to be able to advocate on behalf of them and say, “This happened, and it’s not right.” My teacher wasn’t letting us go outside. Once you leave the room, they lock their doors. They are terrified of the students fighting. So I get out into the hall, I see that there’s five boys fighting, mainly Black and Latino. The School Safety Agents, because they’re on every floor, they’re already there holding back some of the students. There were teachers; the Dean had blood on his shirt because somebody was punched so hard in the lip, and he was holding him back. One teacher, he actually goes back and forth between teaching and the military — he grabbed one of the students by his neck and choke-slammed him to the floor to stop him from fighting. One of them escaped from a hold and went down to the stairs — because he knew this was getting bad, they were going to call the cops — and I heard my Dean say, “Get him! Cuff him, cuff all of them!”

I didn’t want to go back into the classroom yet because I knew this was going to end badly and I wanted to be a witness. I was fine. I was safe. No one was touching me, they were just fighting with each other. Another boy escaped and started fighting someone else and that’s when my Assistant Principal and Dean — who are both white males, who don’t live in this community — were like, “OK, you know what. I’m tired of this. Call the precinct. They’re getting arrested.” At that point, my teacher literally dragged me into the class. I remember hearing my Assistant Principal say, “Anyone who’s still out here, you’re going to get arrested too.” I started just ranting, “Had this been CJ and Mike,” the two white kids in my class, “they would have just been put in separate rooms. But because it’s them, 30 seconds later there’s five cops walking down, holding their guns, ready to cuff them.” That’s institutional racism, that shouldn’t be happening in our school. You shouldn’t be arrested, you shouldn’t be seeing police. You shouldn’t go through metal detectors when you’re in school, which is an environment where you’re supposed to learn and feel safe and supported.

The cops don’t care that we’re in school. They can come into our school whenever they want.  We’re actually fighting to get the mayor to sign an operations order, like the one that said not to arrest people for small amounts of marijuana. This would basically tell the Police Commissioner that he has to tell all of NYPD, which includes School Safety Agents, to not arrest or give summons to students in New York City public schools. It seems pretty common-sense. You shouldn’t be arrested or given a summons in school.

A lot of people look at our restorative justice work and say, “You’re too radical, how can you get rid of metal detectors, how can you get rid of School Safety Agents?” And that’s not what we’re saying. We realize that we can’t just automatically fire every single School Safety Agents. But what we can do is stop spending money on them. So basically, however many school safety agents there are right now, cap that, and as people retire, start taking that money and investing it in restorative justice, in the mental health continuum, in guidance counselors, which many schools don’t have enough of, in social workers, in culturally responsive education, whether that’s through the curriculum, whether that’s through having teachers and administrators that look like you. That’s what we need to see and that will take years, obviously.

That’s what we’re really advocating for: to invest in young people and their mental, emotional, social health and wellbeing, and divest from these horrible, harmful, traumatic practices that aren’t effective. Suspending a student over fighting or because they were chewing gum or didn’t take off their hat, that’s not effective. You need to get to the root of the problem, and that’s what restorative justice does. It’s going to take community-building, it’s going to take trust, it’s going to take changing the entire school culture but it can and it should be done. But I don’t think the city, the mayor, anyone is really listening and understanding that.

The narrative for school safety, a lot of people think, is arming teachers. Having armed guards outside. But as students of color, we’re saying, that’s not what safety looks like. Safety looks like guidance counselors, like mental health support, like restorative justice coordinators. Like my friends, my family. It’s not guns, it’s not police officers, it’s definitely not metal detectors. And there’s actually no proper process to get rid of metal detectors in your school.

Rockaway’s very segregated. If you go past our school, on the western end, it’s predominantly white and affluent. There’s actually one community that is completely gated and 98 percent white. They’re the ones who say, “You can’t just not have School Safety Agents, metal detectors. You guys are animals, you guys are criminals, you’re dangerous.” But they don’t say that for the schools on the Upper West Side. They don’t call police officers on their students, they don’t have metal detectors.

Like with the five students who were fighting in the hallway — obviously, it would take physical restraint to stop them from fighting. But I think simply putting them in different classrooms, allowing them to calm down, speaking to them, reassuring them, “Everything’s OK, everything’s fine, you’re safe now.” Then bringing them together in a circle, having a restorative justice coordinator who is trained in this talk to them to find out, “Why were you fighting? Why were you angry at him? Were you even angry at him? Were you just upset because you didn’t have food to eat last night? Was it because you’re homeless, or was it because you worked a twelve-hour shift and you came straight to school because you have to provide for your mom?” Getting to the actual root of the problem, making sure that they come up with their own resolution. I think that’s how it should be handled. And that’s how it would’ve been handled if it was a group of white boys.

Andrea Colon is a resident of Far Rockaway and, as of June 2018, a graduate of Rockaway Park High School for Environmental Sustainability. She is Community Engagement Organizer at the Rockaway Youth Task Force, and will attend Baruch College in the fall.

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