Plan To Put NYPD in Charge of School Force Is Revived
Two years ago, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani announced a plan to put this city's police force in charge of school security. He hoped the 1 million-student system could match the dramatic drop in crime in the city, and he sought to end the embarrassment of a school security force in which hundreds of officers have been arrested.
But school leaders, students, and civil rights groups criticized the plan, and other matters eventually drew the mayor away from strained negotiations with the board of education.
Now, with the appointment of a new board member, there are signs that Mr. Giuliani's unconventional plan to wrest control of school safety from the district may be resuscitated.
The mayor, the police chief, and New York City Schools Chancellor Rudy F. Crew are weighing a compromise that would allow the New York City Police Department to manage the security force in as many as 200 of the city's most crime-ridden schools.
If this pilot proved successful, the plan could eventually expand to all of the district's 1,100 schools.
Such an arrangement--in which a city agency hires, fires, and ultimately oversees school security workers--is believed to be a first.
More than 100 cities, from Atlanta to Los Angeles, deploy police officers at schools. But apparently no district has a police department that has assumed full responsibility for the administration of security personnel on campuses, said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.
Mayor Giuliani's proposition is as controversial as it is unconventional. School leaders critical of the plan worry that police oversight of the security force would muddy the lines of authority and hamper principals' ability to keep their campuses safe. And local civil rights groups say a police-run security force might make some students feel more threatened than protected.
But Mayor Giuliani says the ineptitude and corruption exhibited by the district-run security force in recent years warrant city intervention.
District records show that between 1990 and 1995, 320 of the 3,100 security officers who patrol the city's schools were arrested. The officers have been charged with crimes including sexual abuse of students, loan sharking, carrying weapons, selling narcotics, and attempted murder, according to a 1995 investigation by Edward F. Stancik, the special commissioner of investigations for the New York City schools. Most of the offenses occurred while workers were off duty and away from schools, but officers also have been disciplined for school-based offenses ranging from nepotism to stealing supplies.
"I'd like to see the police in charge," Mr. Stancik said in an interview in his Manhattan office last month. "The NYPD has experience hiring thousands of officers, and they'd know who is serious about law enforcement."
Compared with city police officers, school security officers generally have less education, are paid less, and have fewer opportunities for advancement in their field, Mr. Stancik said.
The city's school leaders have admitted that there were problems in the past, but they say their hiring and training practices for security officers have greatly improved.
"We know that prior to two years ago, a lot of inappropriate people came through here," said Lewis H. Spence, the deputy chancellor in charge of safety for the public schools.
But, he said, 100 officers, most of them arrested on criminal charges, have been fired in the past two years. Also, the district has intensified its screening procedures by conducting more-thorough background checks, including the fingerprinting of candidates.
The district now seeks security workers with at least some college education instead of hiring officers on "a first-come, first-served basis," Mr. Spence said. The district also has contracted with a local college to improve the training of new security recruits.
"The quality of the officers has dramatically changed," the deputy chancellor said.
Who's in Charge?
While local teachers' union leaders say it's too soon to tell how the reforms have improved the crop of security officers, they say a complete police takeover of a district function is unnecessary.
But one area where police ought to be involved, union leaders say, is in the collection of crime statistics. Principals, some teacher officials argue, have a vested interest in underreporting school crimes.
"Schools have historically tried to hide things," said James Baumann, the director of school safety for the United Federation of Teachers, the 100,000-member affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "There's no incentive for principals to report [crimes] because it makes them look bad."
Local school administrators dispute that charge and say they do not suppress crime figures to paint a rosier picture of their schools.
Some principals worry that such an argument is being used to build support for police oversight, which they argue would undermine principals' authority on campus.
Meandering through a hallway jammed with students at John Adams High School in Queens, Principal Jerry Beirne said he favors security workers who have a rapport with students and who can effectively keep order in the three-story building that houses the school's 4,000 students. Mr. Beirne worries that the mayor's plan could cut him out of important decisionmaking.
"The principal has to be involved in the supervision and the evaluation of the officer," Mr. Beirne said. "I don't think it's good if the police department is the final word."
Marilyn Bates, the principal of Public School 40, an elementary school in Manhattan, fears that police control might lead to criminalization of minor student infractions.
"I have a clear vision of what's appropriate in a school environment," Ms. Bates said as she greeted a pair of 2nd graders on their way to the nurse's office last month. "I have a problem with 'kids just being kids' being turned into an incident," she said.
Ms. Bates acknowledges, though, that security officers should be better screened.
Several years ago, she said, an officer who had been arrested five times for crimes ranging from possession of drugs to carrying a weapon, was assigned to her 500-student school where he was discovered stealing food intended for an after-school program. Still, Ms. Bates considers the incident an aberration that shouldn't necessitate such a dramatic security overhaul.
In addition, Ms. Bates asserted that the mayor is unfairly targeting the entire school security force in order to bring another branch of the city's bureaucracy under his control.
Aracelis Cintron, a rookie officer dressed in a blue uniform, sits in the foyer of PS 40, checking visitors' identification as they enter the sun-filled room.
Only nine months on the job, Ms. Cintron is proud of her position and feels that officers are getting blamed for others' transgressions. "Just because one person's a bad seed doesn't mean they all are," she said.
Students throughout the sprawling school system have been vocal on the subject of the police running the security squad on campus.
"This is a school, not a prison," said Makeda Younger, a 16-year-old student selling cake and cookies at a recent bake sale at John Adams High School. "What we have is adequate. A lot of officers would make me uncomfortable," she said.
Local civil rights groups have been equally ill at ease with the idea. They contend that minority students could be put at risk by a police force routinely accused of racial discrimination.
"If the police officers function in the schools the same way they do elsewhere, that could be a problem," said Nona Smith, the director of education for the New York state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP has sent fliers to parents in New York City urging them to remember Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant who was reportedly beaten and sodomized in police custody last year.
"These things happen out on the street with grown people. What leaves me uneasy is what could happen to kids in a school if school officials aren't in charge," Ms. Smith said.
But Howard Safir, the city's police commissioner, said the assertion that oversight by city police would cause racial unrest is unfounded.
"They think we are going to come in and be the Gestapo," Mr. Safir said in an interview at police headquarters. "But we are professionals who understand how to administer safety."