Pupils or Perpetrators? How “Safety Officers” Treat Students in US and NYC Schools

by Ellen Isaacs

October, 2021

Young black – and Latin, immigrant, and Native American – children in the US have been chained up and abused for centuries. Today in schools where poor and nonwhite students are the majority, students are targeted and attacked for misbehavior, much of it minor, some of it mere dissention, some of it nonexistent. If incidents have a basis in mental health or other needs of the child, there is little help available. If there is deprivation out of school, such as unstable housing or insufficient food, there is little help available. Because this is the US we live in, a profit-driven society that depends on racism to exploit and divide workers.

Meanwhile the surveillance measures that should be in place to keep students safe in midst of a pandemic are sorely lacking. There should be widespread, free, and frequent rapid Covid testing of all students and staff, mask mandates, good ventilation and distancing in every classroom, and provisions made for those who must quarantine at home due to illness or exposure. Like other practices of safety and excellence, the poorer and more nonwhite the student body, the fewer disease prevention measures are in place.

Schools under capitalism are for the purpose of training workers, as well as soldiers and managers and professionals. Future low wage earners, unemployed workers, soldiers and prisoners are to be schooled in obedience and subservience, not in reasoning, literacy, or independent thought. It is important they believe that their lowly place in society is a result of their own imperfections rather dictated by the needs of capitalists to profit from their labor. Professionals, managers, bureaucrats and other higher paid workers must have access to superior education, not only in intellectual skills, but in the belief that their own talents have assured their status in society. Of course racism, sexism, and nationalism are vital tools in reinforcing social categories and are reinforced by ideology and by segregation on the job, in housing, schools, hospitals, and churches.

Ironically, US education has become so poor for the majority of the working class that it is hard to fill jobs that require technical or literacy skill or even to recruit soldiers able to handle sophisticated modern weapons. For every ten new technology jobs, only six could be filled in 2020.1 20% of recent high school graduates fail to meet academic standards for the military. 2 Despite pervasive inadequate schooling, the solution has been sought more in exporting jobs or importing labor than in improving education.

Racist School Policing

Non-white and poor white students face not only an inferior education, but are regularly treated like criminals – searched, harassed and punished as they go through the school day. Racism dictates that black, Latin, and native students fare the worst, while higher income white students rarely confront a uniform.

School Safety Officers (SSOs) have been in the nation’s schools since the 1950s and are now present in 58% of public schools.3 In the 1960s-70s the emphasis shifted from so-called efforts to build relations between students and the police to viewing youth through a criminal justice lens. In the 1980s schools adopted the broken windows theory of policing, and black youth were labeled “super predators.”4 After the Columbine shooting in 1999, the emphasis shifted even further towards security, and by 2015-6 there were at least 52,100 officers in schools nationwide and over 290,600 students were arrested or referred to law enforcement agencies.

Since 1998, the federal government has invested over $1 billion to explicitly increase police presence in schools, and over $14 billion to advance community policing, which can include SSOs. Only 33 of the nation’s over 13000 school districts have shrunk or eliminated SSOs as of May, 2020.

Meanwhile, the ACLU reports that nationally,

  • 1.7 million students are in schools with police but no counselors
  • 3 million students are in schools with police but no nurses
  • 6 million students are in schools with police but no school psychologists
  • 10 million students are in schools with police but no social workers
  • 14 million students are in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker.

Even schools offering some mental health services are still grossly understaffed. Professional standards recommended a minimum of one counselor and one social worker for every 250 students and at least one nurse and one psychologist for every 750 students and every 700 students respectively.5

SSOs also too often act like criminals themselves. On September 27,2021, an 18 year old high school girl was shot and killed by a Long Beach, California school safety officer while being driven away from the site of a an altercation with another student outside her school. Other heinous over-reactions, like an officer body slamming and using a choke hold on a middle school student in No. Carolina in 2019, often result in dismissal but not in felony charges.6

The Situation in New York City

Nine NYC students between the ages of six and ten were handcuffed in 2019 by SSOs, perhaps better called Officially Sanctioned Abusers. This is just a fraction of 1272 students so treated, 42% of whom were under 16, 91% of whom were black or Latin. 694 students were actually arrested, 50% for misdemeanors, and you guessed it, 90% were black and Latin. Black and Latin students comprise 66% of all New York City students.

Most of these arrests, 80%, in the 2018-19 school year, were carried out by members of the New York Police Department (NYPD), who have no special training for working in schools versus 20% by SSOs,  who have minimal training. 33% of total arrests were for incidents that occurred off of school property.7 The unarmed SSOs are 90% black or Latin and 70% women. However, just as black police are no less likely to kill black suspects than white officers, it is the culture of law enforcement that is primary in determining behavior.

In NYC, school safety authority was transferred from the school system to the police in 1998 by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. There is now a plan to move the program back to the Department of Education in 2022, but the presumptive new mayor, Eric Adams, opposes this move. In any case, the personnel and rules guiding SSOs would not change. Currently the $431 million budget supports 5322 school safety agents and 189 uniformed police in the School Safety Division, which is larger than the police departments of Washington DC or Dallas. Even if plans to increase the total number of social workers and guidance counselors go into effect, the total will be 4,832.8 In addition, many student arrests are carried out by additional police who patrol near school. 

Another security measure introduced in the 1980s was metal detectors, which were present in 10% of schools by 1994. Data from 2015, however, found that for every 23,034 students scanned in 2015 only one dangerous item was found. 35% of public high schools in NYC had scanners in 2015, impacting nearly half of all black students, and only 14% whites. Studies have shown that these detectors increase students’ perceptions of violence and disorder and students often miss some of their fist or even second period classes.9

The NYCLU has long endorsed alternative means to insure student safety and dignity and has brought law suits opposing school policing. In one paper in 2007 they outlined the essential features of a school that relies on its own staff to maintain a safe and nurturing school environment:

  • dignity and respect for all members of the school

  • authority and responsibility for discipline residing
    with educators rather than police personnel;

  • strong and compassionate leadership;
    clear lines of authority and open lines of
    communication between administrators, teachers,
    police personnel and students; and

  • unambiguous, fair rules and disciplinary procedures.

Other recommendations called for the principal being the clear authority figure, conflict resolution rather than discipline be enacted, students’ voices heard and reduced police personnel be responsible for reacting only to severe crimes.10

 NYC Students Fight Back

There have been many struggles by NYC parents and students, as in other cities, to undo the harm caused by school security systems. At Park Slope Collegiate , a grade 6-12 school in Brooklyn, students have long objected to metal detectors, and signed petitions and demonstrated to remove them. They have become especially enraged as the long lines at a single door make social distancing impossible while Covid is still among us. A recent inspiring struggle against racism has also been led by these students in the larger complex of four schools in the John Jay building, one of which has 75% and mainly wealthier white and Asian students. This year the sports program for the four schools was unified, but students have won a battle to keep varsity teams from being limited to the better trained white athletes and instead integrated by race and experience levels.

In 1997, the Julia Richman High School, once known as the worst in Manhattan, was divided into smaller schools. The educators refused to allow metal detectors and insisted upon being responsible for knowing and disciplining their own students. SSOs could only deal with external threats, and the NYPD was banned. Both the educational attainments and peaceful atmosphere mushroomed.11 In 2006 Eastern District High School in Brooklyn became another of the few schools to remove scanners at the behest of its principal who said,

           “The answer is not the machines, the answer’s the relationships. The answer’s giving kids options in the school. Weapons will get into the building without metal detectors. Weapons will get into a building with metal detectors. The idea is what do you do. What programs do you do. What’s the trust and values you have in your school.”12

In April, 2021, 1500 NYC students representing 16 organizations wrote a letter to Mayor de Blasio demanding police-free schools. Saying they do not make students feel safe and engender fear of racist harassment, they asked the Mayor not to hire 475 more SSOs at the cost of $20 million. About 200 students also demonstrated at the Board of Education.13

As schools get back in session, students, parents and teachers are again beginning to organize against racist security measures. Groups such as Sisters and Brothers United, New York State Alliance for Quality Education, and DSA’s Committee to Remove Police From Schools are just a few of these organizations. Let us know what you are doing and let’s keep up the struggle. EXCELLENT EDUCATION, END RACIST POLICE HARASSMENT, ENHANCED STUDENT SUPPORT SYSTEMS, HUMANE AND RESTORATIVE DISCIPLINE.


 1. https://www.zdnet.com/article/us-companies-facing-a-huge-tech-talent-deficit- in-2020/ 

2.  https://edtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/ASVAB_4.pdf  

3.  https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/030419-           acluschooldisciplinereport.pdf   

5. https://www.aclu.org/issues/juvenile-justice/school-prison-pipeline/cops-and-no-counselors 

4. https://www.stanfordlawreview.org/online/race-school-policing-and-public-health/

6. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/deputy-who-slammed-n-c-middle-school-student-floor-fired-n1103211 

7. https://www.nyclu.org/sites/default/files/ssa_2019_full_year.pdf

8. https://www.cityandstateny.com/policy/2021/08/nyc-moving-almost-5000-school-safety-agents-out-nypd-will-help-calm-fears-about-policing-schools/184973/ 


10. https://www.njjn.org/uploads/digital-library/resource_1265.pdf 

11. https://www.nyclu.org/sites/default/files/publications/nyclu_pub_criminalizin g_the_classroom.pdf 

12. https://www.propublica.org/article/nyc-school-children-face-airport-style-security-screening-every-day   

13. https://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/education/2021/04/24/student-        activists-ask-mayor-not-to-hire-more-nypd-school-safety-agents   

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