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Civil liberties union accuses NYPD public school patrols of bullying students

Monday, March 19, 2007

NEW YORK -- The uniformed police department employees who patrol New York City's public schools are too quick to bully students over minor infractions, a civil rights group charged in a paper issued Sunday.

The New York Civil Liberties Union said that in recent years it has received hundreds of complaints from both students and teachers about foul language, rough treatment and unwarranted arrests by the NYPD's 4,827 school safety agents.

The safety agents are civilian employees of the police department and don't carry firearms. About 70 percent are women.

The group said the agents, whose duties include breaking up fights and operating metal detectors, have also improperly taken on the role of enforcing school rules -- like the district's unpopular ban on iPods and cell phones.

Donna Lieberman, the group's executive director, said too many safety agents go about their job with an authoritarian zeal more appropriate for guards screening prisoners.

"They are treating our children like suspects," she said. "Whatever its merits as a strategy for policing on the streets, it is entirely incompatible with education."

Police Department spokesman Paul Browne called some of the report's allegations insulting and baseless.

"The NYCLU has compiled a collection of uninformed and unsupported allegations about police presence in public schools," Browne said in a statement.

Jonathan Clark, a 17-year-old junior at Aviation High School, said he soured on the police presence in the schools after a run-in with safety agents during an unannounced weapons screening in October.

The agents operating the metal detectors were abrasive and rude, he said, and confiscated items that had little to do with school safety, including cell phones, metal rulers, the camera of a photographer for a student publication, soft drink bottles and a student's cupcakes, "which they ate," Clark said.

"When things like this happen, it just causes kids to be resentful," Clark said. "It makes them not respectful of authority anymore."

The city is among a number of school districts around the country that have turned to a bigger police presence to get control of unruly students and crack down on serious cases of school violence.

Other cities have rejected the idea that police officers, especially armed ones, should have a presence in school corridors.

Since the police department assumed responsibility for school safety in 1998, Browne said, violent incidents in the schools are down 20 percent and major crime is down 33 percent.

The civil liberties group's report documented several instances where minor disputes between safety agents or in-school police officers had escalated into arrests of students, and even of some school staff.

In one case, the principal of a Bronx high school was arrested on charges that he tried to stop a police officer from arresting a 16-year-old girl who had mouthed off in a hall.

The city Department of Education said such clashes are extremely rare.

"During the past three years we have restored safe teaching and learning environments to many of the city's most disorderly schools, and our strategy has become a national and international model," spokeswoman Dina Paul Parks said in a statement.


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