Sunday, January 24, 2010

ACLU: Handcuffs in Middle Schools, A Shock to the Conscience

(Courtesy of Laura W.)

Handcuffs in Middle Schools, A Shock to the Conscience
by Joshua David Riegel
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

Daija is a 13-year-old girl from the Bronx who dreams of one day being a veterinarian and has always enjoyed school. This changed on the morning of October 7, 2009, when Daija's mother dropped her and a friend off at school. Daija and her friend were confronted by two strangers who were being rambunctious, yelling, and acting threateningly toward them. Scared and panicked, Daija texted her mother.

Observing the threats, a school safety officer (SSO) instructed Daija to go into the school building, but Daija insisted on waiting outside for her mother. Incensed by Daija's refusal to follow an order, the SSO grabbed her and began pulling her into the building. Struggling and upset, additional SSO's were called to assist in handcuffing and dragging Daija into school. Once inside, Daija was tripped onto the floor by a SSO who then put her knee into Daija's back, pinning her to the ground, while taunting her to "get up."

Daija was eventually brought to an empty room and forcefully thrown into a seat, where she sat in handcuffs for nearly an hour until she was released to her mother. No charges were ever filed against Daija, but she sustained injuries severe enough to require medical attention. This all happened simply because Daija wanted to wait for her mother.

When I was in middle school, refusal to follow an order would have landed me in the principal's office or in after-school detention. I certainly wouldn't have been handcuffed, roughed up, taunted, and humiliated. There is no rational reason or necessity for this sort of brutal, unnecessary, and illegal use of force against schoolchildren.

Daija's incident did not take place in vacuum. In 1998, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) took control of school safety in New York City's public schools. This change effectively gutted the authority of educators to handle minor disciplinary issues, such as talking back, carrying a cell phone in school, or being late to class. Since then, more than 5,200 SSOs and 200 armed police officers have been assigned to New York City's public schools. To put this in perspective, the NYPD's School Safety Division is the nation's fifth largest police force. It is larger than the police forces in Washington, D.C., Detroit, Boston, Dallas, or Las Vegas. New York City has twice as many school safety officers per student as San Antonio, Texas, has police officers. Given that SSOs are charged with ensuring safety in our schools, it's not unreasonable to assume that SSOs receive appropriate levels of training and supervision tailored to their supervisory role in schools and daily interaction with children. This is not the case. While NYPD police officers must complete a six-month training course before being deployed, SSOs receive only 14 weeks of training before being assigned to schools, and they do not receive proper and meaningful guidance on what their role in schools should be: do they enforce school discipline or enforce criminal law?

When compared to the 3,000 guidance counselors employed by the NYC Department of Education, the message is clear: our schools are less committed to providing enriching educational experiences for our youth and more interested in acting as punitive institutions. This is a world where second chances are rarely given.

As utterly shocking as Daija's incident is, incidents like it are hardly anomalous in New York City public schools. Yesterday, the ACLU Racial Justice Program, the New York Civil Liberties Program (NYCLU), and the law firm Dorsey & Whitney filed a class action lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Daija, four other students, and all New York City public school students similarly at risk of abuse and wrongful arrested by NYPD officers.

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