What is non-criminal crime, and why is it skyrocketing in New York City’s schools?
“Our schools are like prisons, with every corner filled with School Safety Agents, keeping students in constant fear of being accused of something wrong,” Nilesh Vishwasrao said at a public meeting six years ago. “[They make] students feel like criminals rather than normal teenagers.”
At the age of 17, Vishwasrao was pushed out of Flushing High School, Queens after being suspended thrice. His ‘violations’ included things like chewing gum or wearing a hat. Eventually, Vishwasrao chose the advocacy route and became a youth leader at Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), a community advocacy organization comprising of immigrant workers and youth from South Asian diaspora communities in New York City. But not everyone is able to get their voices heard.
In the 2016–17 school year, New York City’s public schools reported 9060 incidents of crime to the NYPD, according to the latest NYC School Safety Report released on February 2, 2018. From the 9060 reported incidents, non-criminal crime stood as the most frequently occurring, with a total of 4324 incidents reported.
According to the data dictionary accompanying the report, ‘non-criminal crime’ is an overarching term for actions which are not classified as crimes but are disruptive to the school environment; including disorderly conduct, harassment, loitering, possession of marijuana, dangerous instruments and trespass. In other words, non-criminal crime is the NYPD’s problematic, all-encompassing, categorization of acts of ‘loitering’ or ‘disorderly conduct’ as non-criminal misdemeanors that result in students being suspended or handcuffed and taken to the precinct for wandering in hallways or writing on a desk.
Following the release of the 2016–17 NYC School Safety Report, New York Daily News published a story stating that “crime has spiked in the city’s public schools.” The report went on to quote NYPD officials characterizing “the rise in criminal incidents in city schools between October and December as a bump in the road in the journey to safer schools.”
The graph below indicates that reported non-criminal crime has consistently increased 2013 onwards, while also occupying the largest share in reported criminal incidents. Major crimes and violent crimes, on the other hand, have decreased.
So why is non-criminal crime a ‘criminal category’ to begin with? Why are students in New York City public schools being criminalized for doing kids that kids do, such being unruly or rebellious in the classroom?
Ismanuela Denis believes it’s because NYPD School Safety Agents are brought into minor issues. Denis is a research assistant at New York University’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. “When a student is in trouble or does something wrong, a Safety Agent is called in,” she says. “The type of training the NYPD gives these agents is very different from the type of training that a school teacher is given.”
School to Prison Pipeline
Defined by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), the School to Prison Pipeline is a nationwide system of local, state and federal education and public safety policies that pushes students out of school and into the criminal justice system. The NYCLU claims that schools “directly send students into the pipeline through zero tolerance policies that involve the police in minor incidents and often lead to arrests, juvenile detention referrals, and even criminal charges and incarceration.” Subsequently, over-policing and subsequently being charged for committing an act of ‘non-criminal crime’ results in large numbers of students receiving suspensions for ‘leaving class’, loitering, ‘being insubordinate’ or coming to school late.
“There are examples of students being arrested for things like writing on their desk,” Udi Ofer, advocacy director for the NYCLU told CBS New York in 2012.
“Young students in this country are being led towards prisons as opposed to a supportive and nurturing environment,” says Shoshi Doza. Doza is a native New Yorker and like Vishwasrao, began her journey has a community organizer at the age of fifteen at DRUM. Since 2011, she has been working with the Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC), coordinating their New York chapter. DSC is a coalition of students, parents, advocates, educators and lawyers calling for positive, school-wide approaches to discipline that improve school climate, reduce conflict, and increase learning. They’ve been working to reduce suspensions and other harsh policies that violate students’ human rights to education and dignity.
“We call this phenomenon [of students being led to prisons] school pushout and not dropout. If a student gets suspended once, they’re more likely to get suspended twice, and again and again,” Doza adds.
The School to Prison Pipeline traces its roots to 1998, when the Board of Education (BOE) voted to transfer school safety over to the NYPD. Since this transfer, the number of NYPD personnel in schools in New York has increased from 3200 to over 5200. 50 percent more teens are swept up into the criminal justice system in May, when school is in session, than in August, according to data from the city’s Department of Probation cited by WNYC.
And reporting on suspensions, broken down by age, gender, race, grade and English language proficiency only became mandatory for the NYPD in 2011, when the Student Safety Act was passed by the New York City Council. The Act focuses on transparency and accountability, mandating public quarterly reporting by the NYPD on arrests and summonses issued by School Safety Agents in the NYPD School Safety Division.
“School environments have worsened, over time,” Doza claims. “Several years ago, an incident like talking back to a teacher or writing on the desk meant going to the principal’s office, but we’ve seen a 12-year-old girl arrested — handcuffed! — for writing on her desk. We know that adolescents are likely to talk back or be rebellious, but they need support, not harsh punishments.”
“Broken Windows” Policing
In 1969, Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo abandoned two cars: one in a poor, crime-ridden section of New York City and another in a rich Palo Alto neighborhood. Unsurprisingly, the car left in NYC was vandalized within ten minutes. The car in Palo Alto remained pristine for over a week. But once Zimbardo smashed the latter, passersby took it apart, just as they had in New York. The idea behind his study was that neglect becomes an easy target for vandals.
Thirteen years later, in March 1982, The Atlantic Monthly published a groundbreaking article that drew correlations between ‘disorder and crime’. Writing about Newark in the eighties, the authors — political scientist James Q. Wilson and criminologist George L. Kelling, both working at Harvard — picked up Zimbardo’s theory and applied it to an entire population. The article claimed that ‘order’ could be achieved if neglect and subsequently disorder was curtailed. And that disorder was perpetuated by not criminals but by “unpredictable people”: panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed. In other words: arrest disorderly people, in order to keep criminals at bay.
Wilson and Kelling called this phenomenon “Broken Windows” policing, built upon the idea that one broken window will lead to all windows being broken. Or, that mass disorder leads to mass crime.
And in the 1990s, this was adopted by the NYPD, under the purview of Mayor Giuliani and NYPD Police Commissioner William Bratton. Subsequently, the NYPD would no longer leave the “little things” ignored and would arrest individuals for minor violations, misdemeanors and other low-level crimes or — bringing us to why this caveat bears importance here — non-criminal crimes. They began arresting marijuana smokers, turnstile hoppers and random loiterers in an attempt to decrease the occurrence of more serious crimes.
Doza claims policing influenced by Broken Windows Theory is applied to NYC schools as well. “But we need to remember that disorderly conduct is subjective,” she adds. “And arrests for non-criminal behavior need to be eliminated.”
Another caveat to broken-windows theory is the idea that certain locations are more susceptible to crime than others. Subsequently, officers tend to zero in on the same locations, over and over again.
The charts below compare levels of non-criminal crime and violent crime, focusing on ten school locations with the most counts of non-criminal crime for the academic years 2013–14 and 2016–17.
The same locations are recurrent. And while levels of violent crime decrease, levels of non-criminal crime increase.
The Bronx, in particular, has seen a disproportionate impact in terms of school-based arrests and suspensions, particularly for acts of non-criminal crime.
Esperanza Vasquez is a public-school parent and a member of the New Settlement Parents Action Committee. At a public meeting in 2011, she spoke of how public schools in her area of the south Bronx have the highest rates of suspensions and arrests of students.
“Our students cannot learn if they don’t feel safe,” she said. “We need a school culture that is not just positive, but also diverse — one that actually makes conflict go away and prevents violence altogether. We want dignity for our students.”
In 2012, the New Settlement Parent Action Committee protested outside the Bronx Borough President’s office against shocking rates of school-based arrested, suspensions and student summonses, and demanded positive disciplinary alternatives.
At the press conference that followed the protest, Frank Rivers, then an 18-year old Bronx high school student and a member of advocacy group, Sistas and Brothas United, began with a plea for change. “We know low-income students of color are being criminalized by being suspended and arrested in our classrooms. Discipline should be handled by school staff, not NYPD cops.”
But not much has changed since then. The visualization below — also using data from the NYPD School Safety Report dataset — maps out reported incidents of non-criminal crime by borough and reveals that schools in the Bronx have been reporting the greatest levels of non-criminal crime.
“It is urgent that we get police and ‘safety’ officers out of our schools,” Jessica Hall, executive director of Prison Writes told Huffpost in June 2017. “When I worked at a school in the South Bronx, I had an officer follow one of my students into my office, where she was fleeing from his harassment. She sat in my office and he stood over her threateningly and said he was going to arrest her. ‘For what?’ I asked. ‘Attitude,’ he said.”
Too many agents and officers, not enough counsellors
“Any rise in the number of New York City students with police involvement is deeply concerning, especially for lower-level, non-violent offenses,” says Maya Brodziak. Brodziak is a Skadden Foundation Fellow and Staff Attorney at Lawyers for Children in New York City. “Punitive responses fail to address the reasons underlying students’ behavior, which can be triggered by issues at home or mental health challenges, learning disabilities, or trauma. Guidance counsellors, families, and community organizations are far more effective in finding out where the child’s behavior is coming from and addressing those root causes.”
But Doza believes there is a severe dearth of guidance counsellors in schools to tackle these problems, while numbers of School Safety Officers and armed police officers in schools are increasing steadily. And of course, as Brodziak stated, rampant arrests don’t address the root cause of why students are being unruly.
“There are currently 5200 School Safety Agents and 200 armed police officers deployed in schools, compared to just 3100 guidance counsellors,” Doza claims. “Policing is creating a prison like environment that is pushing students out of schools. When students trust their school staff, they’re more likely to reach out to them for help. Relationships create safer schools — not the police.”
“Not only are guidance counsellors few in number, they are also overworked,” adds Denis. “One study has shown that there are more School Safety Agents in New York City Schools than the entire police departments in Connecticut and Massachusetts, combined.”
Denis and Doza’s remarks gesture towards a growing trust deficit between students and their parents, and NYPD School Safety Agents.
This trust deficit has been amplified by new NYPD records leaked by BuzzFeed News earlier this month. The records revealed data regarding 1,800 NYPD employees who were charged with misconduct between 2011 and 2015. For advocates of increasing police involvement in schools, here’s an interesting caveat: of the 319 NYPD employees allowed to keep their jobs — despite committing offenses that should’ve resulted in them being fired — three were School Safety Agents. School Safety Agents Rufus Felder, Lydia Goodwin and Timothy Wheeler lost only five vacation days after using excessive force against students.
“We know that adolescents are rebellious,” Doza adds. “We know that they’re likely to talk back to their teachers — but they need support and not harsh punishments. We need solutions that invest in their education, and not prison.” But with the NYPD patrolling hallways, more students are likely to end up in the precinct for unruly behavior, than the principal’s office.
For students in foster-care, Brodziak adds, the situation is much worse. In their representation of children in foster care, Brodziak’s organization — Lawyers for Children– has also worked with clients who have dealt with police involvement as a result of a non-criminal crimes. “We know that through national data, young people in foster care are disproportionately suspended,” she says. “Student behaviors that police or schools label as ‘non-criminal crimes’ like ‘disorderly conduct’ are often responses to past or ongoing trauma. For instance, what the police may see as ‘loitering’ in the hallway may be a student’s inability to handle the demands of a classroom because they’re focusing on coping with issues of violence, deprivation, and loss.”
While groups such as the Dignity in Schools Campaign and the New Settlement Parents Action Committee have been rallying to decrease police presence in schools, a new Quinnipiac University poll dated March 29 reveals that 56 percent of voters support having police officers or armed security officers stationed in every New York City public school. In addition, the poll reveals that 51 percent of voters prefer armed officers.
“It because mass shootings incite fear in people,” Denis says. “One incident creates fear and subsequently spikes parents’ demands for more policing.
What does the road ahead look like?
“The NYPD School Safety Department has done training sessions, collaborative sessions and workshops for new recruits. But training is not enough. Our schools need more counsellors and more social workers,” Doza asserts. “The Department of Education spends over 400 million dollars on school safety per year — why can’t they invest in mental health or increase the number of counsellors in schools?”
Nancy Ginsburg, attorney and the director of the Adolescent Intervention and Diversion Team at The Legal Aid Society in New York City, echoes Doza’s assertions. “We, and a larger coalition of groups in NYC, have spent the last decade advocating for a reduction in the criminalization of normative adolescent behaviors in school,” she says. “Young people in schools should not have to feel that they enter a police state when they enter their schools. When they do things that are wrong or inappropriate, in almost all cases, they should be addressed with a response that helps them to build the skills they need to improve their behavior or to address the issues that prompted the incident to occur.”