School Discipline Settlement Underscores Harm to City Students and Importance of Reform
NEW YORK — The New York Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm of Dorsey & Whitney LLP today agreed to a settlement in a lawsuit on behalf of six New York City public school students who were punched, thrown, handcuffed for hours, verbally abused and wrongfully arrested at school by the NYPD School Safety Division. The settlement, which grants thousands of dollars to the students who sought damages, comes weeks after video of a Columbia, South Carolina, law enforcement officer throwing a black high school girl to the floor of her classroom brought the epidemic of police abuse in schools to national attention.
“Aggressive policing in schools victimizes our city’s most vulnerable children and hurts all students by creating an environment of fear instead of learning and support,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “Treating students like they are criminals instead of nurturing them will not make our schools safer. For these six schoolchildren and countless others who have been thrown to the ground and physically attacked by police in their schools — places that should have been their havens — New York City must have the courage to make its commitment to reform a reality.”
The lawsuit, Bruno v. City of New York, filed in 2010, alleged that officers of the NYPD School Safety Division repeatedly violated students’ civil rights through wrongful arrests and the use of excessive force. The lawsuit initially challenged the practices of the Bloomberg administration and sought system-wide reform in New York City’s middle and high schools, as well as damages for several of the individual plaintiffs.
The de Blasio administration has since recognized the need for reform, which it is undertaking through its Leadership Team on School Climate and Discipline, a task force that includes NYCLU’s Lieberman. Today’s settlement leaves such reforms to the Leadership Team and provides damages ranging between $5,000 and $24,000 to the students who sought them. The settlement also gives the students the opportunity to meet with the commanding officer of the NYPD’s School Safety Division and share their experiences.
“In New York City and across the nation, children too often find themselves targeted by officers in schools, not protected by them,” said Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. “Parents, and all New Yorkers, expect our children to be safe when we send them off to school each day. This settlement guides us closer to that goal.”
The role of police in schools is a troubling nationwide issue that contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline, a disturbing national trend where students, especially black and Latino students and students with disabilities, are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The Justice Department recently announced an investigation into an incident where a young student in South Carolina was wrenched from her desk by a police officer, hurled to the floor and dragged across a room.
This lawsuit identified numerous incidents in New York City where young students were allegedly handcuffed, arrested, and physically assaulted by members of the NYPD School Safety Division. One incident involved a 13-year-old middle-schooler, “D.Y.,” who required medical attention after being handcuffed, tripped, forcefully thrown down and pinned to the ground by a school safety officer. Another incident involved “L.W.,” 16 at the time, who was punched by a school safety officer more than five times, until his face was swollen and he was spitting up blood. Destiny Bruno, the lead plaintiff in the case, was 14 when she was punched approximately seven times on her head during an altercation with a school safety officer, and then placed in a headlock, handcuffed and arrested. She was detained overnight in a juvenile detention center and had to wait for hours before getting to speak to her mother.
“I was so scared, I’d never been away from home before and I remember crying with my mom on the phone,” said Bruno. “It didn’t seem to matter that I listened to the police and that I didn’t do anything wrong. What happened changed my whole outlook. I used to think police were in school to protect us, not physically hurt us. But afterwards I stopped feeling comfortable walking in the halls. I hope that things get better in schools and the police stop being so violent.”
By expressly acknowledging the work of the Leadership Team, the settlement underscores the need for a citywide commitment to reforming school disciplinary practices involving the participation of diverse stakeholders. Last July, the Leadership Team issued recommendations for improving school climate, many of which were adopted earlier this month as part of Mayor de Blasio’s roadmap to school discipline reform, including providing additional training for school safety officers in de-escalating conflict, expanding access to behavioral health treatment, clarifying when law enforcement is necessary and supporting the use of positive and non-punitive disciplinary methods.
Last month, the mayor also signed into law amendments to the Student Safety Act, which will require for the first time regular reports on the use of handcuffs, metal detectors and enforcement activity by NYPD officers not part of the School Safety Division.
“Children in New York City go to school to be nurtured, supported, educated and protected,” said NYCLU Supervising Senior Staff Attorney Alexis Karteron. “Excessive policing has stripped many public schools of this purpose, and treated children of color like criminals just for behaving like regular kids. Today’s settlement acknowledges the promise that New York City has made to its students to give them the education and support that each one of them deserves.”
Among those who worked on the case are Lieberman, Karteron, Colangelo-Bryan and Parker, as well as Arthur Eisenberg, Larry Schwartztol, Adriana Piñón, Udi Ofer, Johanna Miller, Brooke Menschel, Susannah Karlsson, Robert Hodgson, Jonathan Montcalm and the ACLU Racial Justice Program.
“It’s not just South Carolina where school discipline has been out of hand — our lawsuit documented the arrests of students who engaged in minor misbehavior, like writing on a desk with an erasable marker,” said Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, of counsel at Dorsey & Whitney and co-counsel on the case. “We hope this settlement brings closure to the students who were traumatized by police practices in their schools and that New York City continues on the path to reform.”
Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.