It’s the cop way or the highway

April 18, 2018

Carlos Perez and Ellie Hamrick report on the efforts of some New York City politicians to get armed cops put in every school--by ramming it through a highway repair bill.

THREE STATE senators have sponsored a bill that will allow New York to fast-track the repair of crumbling highway infrastructure--on the condition that armed police be stationed in every school in New York City, public or private.

Democrat Simcha Felder joined Republicans Martin J. Golden and Andrew J. Lanza to propose Senate Bill S7867, which has a stated purpose of changing the contracting method for construction on the Bronx-Queens Expressway.

While there are many problems with the design-build method, it has broad support among politicians because it saves money and expedites the repair process.

Stipulating more cops in schools as part of an unrelated highway repair bill is a cynical political maneuver to pass a potentially unpopular measure. In essence, Felder, Golden and Lanza are holding necessary infrastructure repair hostage--to be traded for the safety of Black and Brown youth.

Two of the bill's sponsors, Golden and Lanza, have benefited from significant donations from police unions throughout their political careers.

Armed police on patrol at a public elementary school in New York City
Armed police on patrol at a public elementary school in New York City

Golden has accepted $199,050 from the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, the New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association and the NYS Court Officers Association. Lanza has taken $97,700 from the New York State Trooper Police Benevolent Association, the New York State Correctional Officers Union and the Nassau County Police Benevolent Association.

With political allies like these, perhaps Felder, who is one of a handful of Democratic state senators who caucus with Republicans, is hoping for a piece of the meaty cop union pie himself.

It is important to note that these figures include contributions from prison guard and court officer unions alongside police unions. While these unions historically formed tight reactionary blocs in New York and around country, the donations to Golden and Lanza strongly suggest that these politicians and their benefactors are aware that more youth will end up in the criminal justice system as a result of the plan.

S7867 IS a calculated move by Republican politicians whose bills are paid by cop unions to callously sell Black, Brown, working class and queer youths' physical safety, freedom and futures in exchange for a fat campaign check. Not surprisingly, Felder claims that their motivations are far more heroic:

In the post-9/11 world, even schools are not safe from the threat of attacks against the safety and security of our children. New York's Police Department have earned the title of some of the bravest and most dedicated public servants in the nation. Requiring an NYPD officer to be at every school in New York City during the instructional day, as well as before and after classes are in session, will ensure that students are more protected in the event that a threat or the need for law enforcement intervention arises in New York City schools.

In other words, the same gang with a long ugly history of profiling, harassing and brutalizing Black and Brown people across New York City should be deployed to monitor all of the city's largely Black and Brown school population--because of terrorism.

Putting more cops in schools will have the opposite effect of the stated purpose of school safety, since assigned school resource officers (SROs) deal with minor, everyday disciplinary issues as if they were criminal activities. Police in schools have incredible leeway to criminalize minor incidents involving students by employing the catch-all charge of "disorderly conduct."

There is the case of Lelani Pacific-Jack, a 15-year old sophomore whose mother and teacher gave her permission to leave school early because of severe menstrual cramps.

But Pacific-Jack was arrested by cops right outside of her Brooklyn school--despite the pleas of her mother over speakerphone not to take her daughter away--and handcuffed to a pole in the 70th Precinct for seven hours. Pacific-Jack says the officers grabbed and dragged her, then taunted her with threats and slurs while she was in custody.

Or take Danesiah Neal, an eighth-grader in Houston who became the subject of a police forgery investigation after she tried to pay for her chicken nuggets in the school cafeteria with a $2 bill.

Or take Kyasia and Nyasia Sorrells, twin high school students in New Jersey. Video shows a police officer attacking the sisters while they were simply standing in line for pizza, grabbing one by the hair and throwing the other to the ground.

Police also ticketed a school board staff member who tried to intervene, and charged both twins with obstruction and resisting arrest, and one with aggravated assault. Hundreds of their classmates walked out in protest.

A 2013 report commissioned by the New York State Unified Court System uncovered some startling facts about the connection between increasing police presence in schools and the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately targets Black students.

Black students made up 63 percent of all school arrests in New York City for the 2012 school year, and half all suspensions, while making up only 28 percent of the student body. National numbers available for 2009-2010 show that Black girls were suspended at a rate 18 percent higher than male students of all other races.

Girls are overrepresented among youth who are incarcerated for low-level crimes, such as status offenses and technical violations. These are behaviors that would not be considered illegal if committed by an adult, such as skipping school or running away--precisely the kind of activity students are criminalized for when cops are in schools.

The report establishes the connection between school suspensions, court involvement, dropout rates and incarceration rates, acknowledges the extent to which students of color are ensnared by the criminal injustice system, and makes a number of recommendations for reforms.

What it does not do is recommend the removal of police from schools altogether, instead advocating for "defining the role of the school safety agents and police officers and supporting the special skill sets they require to do their work well."

But it should be clear by this point to those who have been paying attention that no amount of trainings or policy recommendations will prevent police from criminalizing, harassing and harming Black and Brown youth as long as they are in schools.

FELDER, GOLDEN and Lanza are dismissing and insulting the youth movement against gun violence in schools that has broken out since the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. One of the demands emerging from many students of color who have taken part in the protests is an end to armed policing in schools.

At a press conference called to bring attention to the too-often overlooked perspectives and demands of students of color in the anti-gun violence movement, Tyah-Amoy Roberts, a Black student at Douglas High, demanded that police violence in schools be considered alongside other school violence.

"Black and Brown men and women are disproportionately targeted and killed by law enforcement based on population. These are not facts I can live with comfortably," Roberts said.

Sneaking a more-guns-in-schools provision into a highway bill in an attempt to avoid debate or any semblance of democratic process is a slap in the face to Tyah-Amoy Roberts, her fellow students of color and all those who want Black, Brown and all students to be free from deadly violence at school.

It is also insulting to the educators who are protesting and striking in several states and Puerto Rico for better working and learning conditions for themselves and their students.

Activists against racism, incarceration, police brutality and gun violence and for better resources in schools should be alarmed and outraged. Felder, Golden and Lanza are pushing to spend state money not on teacher wages and pensions, not on more classes and resources for students, not on school infrastructure repair, but instead on criminalizing and abusing students of color.

David Edgar and Bri Guzmán contributed to this article.

Further Reading

From the archives