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New City Council Bills Question Police's Role in Public Schools - Nicole McNulty

LEYLA DOSS, HOST: Schools are intended to be havens of learning, but when kids break down, police are usually the ones who deal with it. In February, a package of bills was introduced to the city council that would change the way police respond to students having psychological crises. Authors of the bills say that kids in crisis need mental health professionals, not police officers. Nicole McNulty reports.

NICOLE MCNULTY, BYLINE: Diane Robinson remembers the day her son Logan, now 15, was beaten up by three kids in the third grade. She says that school safety agents watched the attack, stood by and did nothing. Safety agents are NYPD officers working in schools. Diane says after that, every time she took Logan to school he had an anxiety attack.

DIANE ROBINSON: He would start to shake, he'd start complaining of stomach aches. He was so afraid. He turned red, he’d start to sweat and he'd hold onto the gate. And refuse to step into that school.

MCNULTY: Her son started running away from school. And then one day, her son reached a breaking point.

ROBINSON: Logan said I'm going to go home and get a butter knife and I'm going to cut myself. The police came, and you know, they, they didn't do anything. Logan actually hit under a table for about an hour.

MCNULTY: The safety agents at the school weren’t able to help, so they called Robinson and she was finally able to coax Logan into an ambulance. Ashley Sawyer is the Senior Director of Campaigns with Girls for Gender Equity. She says the NYPD is a poor choice to handle students in crisis.

ASHLEY SAWYER: We do understand that policing has absolutely nothing to do with preventing students from having those mental health crises.

MCNULTY: The NYPD employs more than 5,000 safety agents in New York schools… it's one of the largest police forces in the country. They do everything from taking kids’ temperatures to handling psychological crises. Sawyer says the schools are relying on police to do too much. She also says police tend to respond more aggressively to children of color.

SAWYER: There is no training that is going to change the inherently violent and racist nature and misogynistic nature of policing. Period. And so, because of that, We have to make demands about investments being made so that students are not in crisis.

MCNULTY: Instead of police Sawyer wants to see more culturally competent social workers and nurses in schools to prevent these crises from happening in the first place. I reached out to the Department of Education, they responded with a written statement saying they’re hiring an additional 150 social workers to serve schools in communities hardest hit by Covid-19. Sawyer says that’s progress, but not nearly enough. A few hundred social workers compared to...

SAWYER: 5,000 school cops. Something’s not right.

MCNULTY: One of the bills introduced last month in the City Council seeks to shift safety agents from the NYPD to the Department of Education. Another establishes new procedures for police responding to students in crisis. It would also require more training in de-escalation and restorative justice techniques. And limit the use of handcuffs. Rohini Singh is a staff attorney with Advocates for Children’s School Justice, and helped the council members draft the bills. She says ultimately, police shouldn’t be in schools at all. But for now

ROHINI SINGH: while, you know, police are still in schools and around schools they should know what they can and can't do when it comes to a student that's experienced an emotional crisis.

MCNULTY: Doctor Jennifer Greif Green, an associate professor at Boston University says there’s barely been any research about how police in schools affect kids. But she says the way things are structured now, everyone gets the short end of the stick: police, school staff and students.

JENNIFER GREIF GREEN: We know that students need better access to mental health services. And we know that police don't really want to be responding to mental health crises in schools.

MCNULTY: Last year, Diane Robinson enrolled her son Logan in a private school. She says he’s doing much better. The package of City Council bills addressing safety agents is being considered in committee. Nicole McNulty, Columbia Radio News.


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