Policing the Classroom

For South Bronx residents, surveillance and policing are part of one’s public life from a very early age. Law enforcement is increasingly present inside of public schools. Chaney said he feels fortunate to have attended Catholic School in Harlem explaining, that, “The quality of schooling here is horrible like the public school system here is horrible, the schools are horrible, the books are horrible, the furniture is horrible so if you’re forced, if that’s your only option, you’re probably not going to succeed.” Chaney sends his daughter to an all girls charter school that happens to share a building with a public school. He said that the difference between the children and atmosphere at each school is noticeable. His daughter receives a more structured education, with field trips to museums and colleges. At the public school, children are made to walk through metal detectors and fifth graders are policed inside of their classrooms.

What does police presence in schools say to students? Perhaps it suggests that the classroom is dangerous place, that they themselves are dangerous, and that the expectations set for them are horribly low. Zero-tolerance policies inside the classroom are an extension of the broken windows policing implemented under Mayor Giuliani. In 1998, responsibility for school safety  was transferred from the Board of Education to the NYPD, further setting the tone for security in the city’s public schools. The broken windows theory concludes that punishing minor crime will deter major crime. In 2006, Mayor Bloomberg instituted a policy requiring the use of metal detecters in  public school buildings [9]. Through this policy, the omnipresent surveilling of in New York City’s most vulnerable neighborhoods is reinforced. Similar to broken windows policing, zero-tolerance in schools is “intended primarily as a method of sending a message that certain behaviors will not be tolerated, by punishing all offenses severely, no matter how minor" [10]. The federal mandate for zero tolerance refers to weapons, to drugs and alcohol, fighting, threats, and swearing however, at the municipal level, the scope of punishable offenses can be adjusted.  The type of punishment a student receives seems to also have room for interpretation. Whether it takes the form of suspension, expulsion, or arrest, punishment leads to time out of the classroom. In Studies show that, “Children who are removed from the learning environment, even for a few days, are more likely to drop out, use drugs, face emotional challenges, become involved with the juvenile justice system, and develop criminal records as adults” [11]. Public schools in the South Bronx are the lowest performing in the city. Only 10% of elementary and middle school students are proficient in reading, and the high school graduation rate is 54% [12]. With these odds against them, children cannot afford days out of the classroom. Additionally, it was found that 40% of Bronx students suspended in the had special needs Instead of addressing the underlying causes of misbehavior such as learning disabilities or instability in a child’s home life, school take a one size fits all approach to discipline. As Chaney suggested, education is essential to improving one’s life and the South Bronx. It is clear that, in order to better educate, New York City public schools need to reorient their priorities to supporting students as opposed to policing them.

[9] Lynette Holloway, Board Votes to Give Police Control Over School Security. New York Times, 17 September 1998.

[10] Skiba, Russel J. and R. L. Peterson. The dark side of zero tolerance: Can punishment lead to safe schools? 1999.

[11] Skiba, Russell J. and Kimberly Knesting. Zero Tolerace, Zero Evidence, an Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice. 2001.

[12] Ryley, Sarah. Parents in South Bronx school district, NYC's worst, struggle to find promising options. Daily News. 15 March 2015.

[13] Ofer, Udi. Criminalizing the Classroom:The Rise of Aggressive Policing and Zero Tolerance Discipline in New York City Public Schools. 2011-2012.

Policing the Classroom