ACLU: Racial element present in creation of 'school-to-prison pipeline'

A lawsuit filed Wednesday by five students in the New York City school system against the NYPD paints a picture of school officers who routinely abuse students and arrest them for non-criminal activities.

The lawsuit (PDF), brought by the American and New York Civil Liberties Unions on behalf of five students aged 13 to 18, says that school safety officers "have a long-standing pattern of abuse, unlawful arrests and excessive force against minority students who commit even minor infractions like talking back, being late for class or having a cell phone in school," Courthouse News reports.

"Aggressive policing is stripping thousands of New York City students of their dignity and disrupting their ability to learn," Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU said in a statement. "Despite mounting evidence of systemic misconduct by police personnel in the schools, the NYPD refuses to even acknowledge any problems with its school policing practices. We are confident that the courts will compel much-needed reform."

One of the plaintiffs in the suit was 11 years old when she says she was "handcuffed and perp-walked into a police precinct for doing nothing more than doodling on a desk in erasable ink," a lawyer for the students said.

Another plaintiff, identified only as Daija, says she was threatened by two adult strangers outside her middle school in the Bronx. A school officer came by and ordered her back into the school, where the two adults had gone. Fearful of going into the building where the adults were, she refused. The officer "grabbed Daija by the arm, handcuffed her, forcefully threw her down and pinned her to the ground. Daija sat handcuffed at a desk until her mother managed to find her. No charges were filed against her. Daija required medical attention as a result of the assault," the ACLU says.

"I feel unsafe at school," said Daija. "I'm afraid that School Safety Officers could attack me again for no reason. I just want the school year to be over so I can be a normal kid again. I shouldn't have to be scared of school."

The ACLU argues that aggressive policing of relatively minor behavioral problems in schools is contributing to a "school-to-prison pipeline" that funnels students "out of the public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. These children tend to be disproportionately black and latino, and often have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect."

There are some 5,000 NYPD officers patrolling the hallways of New York City's schools, with some 200 of them armed. Since the NYPD took over school policing in 1998, "the number of police personnel assigned to patrol New York City public schools has grown by 73 percent, even though school crime was declining prior to the 1998 transfer and even though student enrollment is at its lowest point in over a decade," the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit wants to see control over "disciplinary decisions" taken away from the NYPD and returned to school administrators. It also requests better training for school officers, noting that they are given only 14 weeks of training, versus six months for regular officers. The lawsuit asks the court to mandate a proper process for dealing with complaints against school officers. According to the ACLU, 500 complaints yearly are lodged against school officers.

The NYPD said Wednesday it had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment.