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Handcuffs in Middle Schools, A Shock to the Conscience

Joshua David Riegel,
Racial Justice Program
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January 21, 2010

D.Y. 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 D.Y.'s mother dropped her and a friend off at school. D.Y. and her friend were confronted by two strangers who were being rambunctious, yelling, and acting threateningly toward them. Scared and panicked, D.Y. texted her mother.

Observing the threats, a school safety officer (SSO) instructed D.Y. to go into the school building, but D.Y. insisted on waiting outside for her mother. Incensed by D.Y.'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 D.Y. into school. Once inside, D.Y. was tripped onto the floor by a SSO who then put her knee into D.Y.'s back, pinning her to the ground, while taunting her to "get up."

D.Y. 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 D.Y., but she sustained injuries severe enough to require medical attention. This all happened simply because D.Y. 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.

D.Y.'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 D.Y.'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 D.Y., four other students, and all New York City public school students similarly at risk of abuse and wrongful arrested by NYPD officers.

This lawsuit follows years of advocacy concerning the unchecked and aggressive policing of the city's public schools. In March 2007, the ACLU and the NYCLU released a joint report on this very issue called "Criminalizing the Classroom: The Over-Policing of New York City Schools." Additionally, NYCLU has been tirelessly lobbying the New York City Council to pass the Student Safety Act, a bill that would provide much-needed transparency and accountability to school security practices.

With over 1 million students under its care, the NYC Department of Education faces the unique challenge of providing a safe learning environment for the largest student body in the country. Keeping schools safe is our shared priority. No one can dispute the salience of the need for safety in schools, but there is simply no evidence that draconian policing in schools does the job. More often than not, aggressive schooling undermines efforts to create a learning environment rooted in mutual respect and intellectual curiosity and instead leads students to feel like criminals.

Not surprisingly, studies show that being arrested has detrimental psychological effects on children. An arrest nearly doubles the odds that a child will eventually drop out of school. Coupled with a court appearance, an arrest nearly quadruples the odds of dropping out and increases the likelihood of future interaction with police. Arrests and police interactions also disproportionately affect low-income schools with large African-American and Latino populations. In essence, being arrested in school robs children of their access to educational opportunity.

The issues raised in this lawsuit are not limited to New York City alone. Nationally we have seen the growing trend of the school-to-prison pipeline, wherein "zero-tolerance" policies push youth out of classrooms and into the criminal justice system. These policies act to marginalize our most at-risk youth and deny them access to meaningful educational opportunities and the opportunities for success later in life.

In order for us to impart the lessons of democracy and citizenship upon our youth, we must return the role of educating to educators and appropriately train school safety personnel. I think we can all agree that our youth deserve the best education possible. Our nation's futures depend on it.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this post gave the first name of one of our plaintiffs. Due to a protective order entered into in March 2010, the plaintiff is now referred to by her initials.

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