Syracuse, N.Y. — In 2008, a police officer assigned to Corcoran High School broke a 15-year-old girl’s nose after he punched her in the face.
The officer said the girl hit him first and couldn’t be subdued. So he hit her in the shoulders, then in the chest, then, finally, in the face. He arrested her and charged her with menacing an officer and attempted assault. She ended up in the Family Court system.
The fight started after the student was found skipping class in the girl’s bathroom, according to police reports from the time.
That incident sparked backlash from parents and civil liberties groups. They held heated meetings where school officials and students both decried and defended the officer’s actions. Parents questioned why a police officer needed to be involved in enforcing something as harmless as truancy.
The police chief deemed the violence justified, but the superintendent removed the officer from the school.
For many city activists, that use of force was the spark that ignited a 12-year struggle to remove police officers from the city’s schools. That struggle has found new urgency and new support in the wake of police reform protests gripping this city and the nation.
Now, as it nears a tipping point, activists are cautiously optimistic they’ll see their demands met, while school and city leaders weigh options for new ways to handle safety and security in the schools.
Over the past month, activists met with the mayor, superintendent, police chief and school board president to demand officers be removed from the schools. It was one of nine demands activists made regarding police reform.
The school board met to discuss the issue, even as members wrestled with the more immediate issue of whether and how to reopen schools. And protesters held a public forum to outline their experiences and perspectives on school policing.
Mayor Ben Walsh pledged action to reform school safety, in response to the specific demand from protesters, though he has not said whether he plans to remove officers. His police chief, Kenton Buckner, said he supports having cops in schools but only if they’re wanted. Otherwise, he could use more officers on the streets.
Walsh will meet with school officials Monday to discuss options for a new plan.
The arguments for removing the officers are complex and involve deep-rooted issues of race and criminal justice. There have been high-profile cases of violence among students in recent years, as well as cases of extreme force by officers.
Two years ago, a 17-year-old stabbed two students at Nottingham High School. The year before that, a student stabbed a substitute teacher. An officer also broke a 14-year-old student’s elbow in 2017 while arresting the boy. That officer was later removed from the school.
But people on both sides point to those cases as outliers. It’s the day-to-day interactions they say justify removing or keeping the cops.
The most frequent complaint from activists is that officers’ presence has led teachers and administrators to rely on them too heavily. Cops are called for behavioral issues that shouldn’t require a gun and a badge, they say, but rather a social worker or a mental health expert.
For some, the violent arrests epitomize what activists refer to as the school-to-prison pipeline, setting children up in an environment that’s prepared to criminalize actions that should be mere disciplinary issues. Trouble at school, then, becomes a gateway to the court system, rather than a suspension or a trip to the principal’s office.
But many school officials and teachers say the officers inside the building provide a necessary layer of safety in a city where gun and gang violence are harsh realities, even among kids.
Tamica Barnett, a school board member, said in a meeting last week that the school resource officers help young people establish positive relationships with police. And those officers are sometimes necessary when violence occurs.
“I’m inside the schools,” she said. “I would encourage anybody that’s really pushing for the SROs to be removed to spend days inside the schools.”
Barnett also said she’d like the board to have oversight of SROs, allowing education commissioners to pick which officers are in the schools and help define their role.
The school district spends about $1.6 million on policing every year. There are 10 detectives assigned to the city’s five high schools, and three supervisors.
Last year, officers recovered 39 weapons from the city’s five high schools and handled 95 criminal cases, according to the department’s annual report.
Cjala Surratt is a co-founder of the Black Leadership Coalition. She’s also a parent who is helping lead the movement to remove the officers. Her daughter spoke during a public forum this month about the experience of having drug-sniffing dogs search her backpack when she was in eighth grade. She described it as a traumatic event, and Surratt said the school never notified her that anything had happened.
Surratt said police are too often used to deal with students whose behavior should be a disciplinary matter, not a criminal one.
“The primary reason SROs are called in is for non-violent disruptive behaviors,” she said. “…they’re being used to criminalize our children—kids with mental health problems and dealing with puberty…What they need is what they’re not getting: Mental health workers; mentors in those classrooms who look like them and teachers who look like them.”
Various proposals suggest redirecting money for police toward hiring more of those kinds of social workers who can help kids deal with their struggles and trauma, not simply punish or arrest them.
Twiggy Billue, director of the local chapter of the National Action Network, has been fighting to remove cops from schools since 2008. That issue was one of the factors that motivated her to run for school board last year (she did not win).
Billue said despite hyperbole from opponents, activists don’t want to abandon safety in the schools. They just don’t want officers patrolling the schools’ hallways alongside students, she said.
She and others developed a multi-pronged model of safety and social work to replace cops in the buildings. It includes posting police officers at the entrances to school grounds. If there’s a need for police, then, officers are still nearby.
The schools could then rely on existing anti-violence resources like the Trauma Response Team or OGs Against Violence to be community aides inside the buildings. Those programs are operated by people who are a part of the communities they work within, Billue said.
“These are the people who are already on the ground stopping stuff from happening,” Billue said.
The plan also involves more extensive training for teachers assistants, who could be trained in de-escalation techniques. The police would still be called into the buildings for any serious crimes or violence that might occur, Billue said, but they wouldn’t be patrolling the halls.
Yusuf Abdul-Qadir, director of the Syracuse chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said there are also legal reasons for removing officers. He pointed to a state law that requires a school board to have specific policies in place establishing protocols for a school security force. Syracuse, he said, flouts that law.
“You’re talking about wanting to keep law enforcement in schools, but you don’t have a job description for them,” he said. “You’re talking about wanting them to be involved in discipline, but the law says that they can’t be involved in discipline.”
The people who prefer to keep the cops in schools argue that the school resource officers give students a role model, a positive authority figure and a chance to know police in a non-confrontational setting, according to those who support their presence.
Det. Containa Black has spent six years as the school resource officer at ITC High School. Before that, she worked in Nottingham and in Henninger. She’s been an officer 17 years.
When the topic of keeping officers in schools arose again, she sent a letter to the board, asking them to consider keeping the SROs. She sees her role as a positive influence on the kids she works with daily.
Black is a city graduate herself — she went to Fowler. She’s also a mother.
To her, the students in her school are like family. Her role and her experience give her discretion when kids break the rules or break the law, she said.
She shared an example of a student who gets caught with a knife in his backpack. A student would often have an excuse, like he didn’t know the knife was in the bag, or he needed it for self-defense. In a case like that, Black said she would let school officials handle discipline rather than arrest the kid.
“As a police officer are you going to arrest this child? Or are you going to allow officials to handle that matter on a school level? …Personally, no…this is a child we’re talking about, and we’re going to charge them with possession of a weapon? No.”
Black also said having an officer in the school saves precious response time in case there is some kind of violence.
Billue knows Det. Black and called her “one of the good ones.” But she said Black’s experience and attitude isn’t shared by all the officers in the schools.
“You’re talking about a Black mother with Black children,” Billue said. “She has a different rapport with children because she comes from the same neighborhood and the same psyche. She can network with the kids in different ways.”
According to the district, most teachers favor keeping officers in the schools.
In response to the activists’ demand, the district conducted an online survey, which officials said was distributed to teachers, parents and students in the high schools. They presented the results to the school board.
More than 85% of respondents wanted to keep officers in the schools.
But board members were critical of the survey, arguing it was rushed and inadequate. Only two dozen students took the survey. It also did not include the opinions of the middle school community — parents and students who would soon be in the high schools. It was mostly made up of responses from teachers, almost all of whom wanted to keep the cops.
Activists, including Billue and Surratt, roundly rejected the survey, arguing it didn’t at all reflect the opinions of Black and brown members of the school community.
Billue said activists conducted their own survey of about 700 students and the results overwhelmingly showed those students wanted officers out of the schools.
Bill Scott is president of the Syracuse Teachers Association. He said he’d welcome an invitation to hear from activists who want the officers gone and to be at the table as decisions on SROs are being made.
He, too, said many teachers he’s heard from favor keeping officers, including many teachers who have participated in recent police reform protests and rallies. Scott said it’s important to hear and understand the concerns about officers, and that the current model is broken. But the solution, he said, shouldn’t involve removing those officers altogether.
Scott, like many of the school board members, said there needs to be more selectivity and oversight from the public on who is assigned to the schools and how the officers’ role is defined.
“We’ve got a broken system and we need to work together to fix it, but I don’t think removing officers from the buildings is the right approach,” he said. “It’s about identifying the right persons for the job and making sure the district has a say in who are SROs, then making sure they’re properly trained.”
If Syracuse does decide to remove the officers, it wouldn’t be the first city to do so. In Rochester, the city council voted earlier this summer to remove officers from the schools, among other cuts to the department’s budget.
Rochester, then, became the first major New York city to remove officers from its schools.
It’s unlikely any decision on the issue will be made before the school year starts, according to School Board President Katie Sojewicz. The district is frantically trying to figure out details for re-starting education amid a pandemic that shut down schools statewide in March.
Sojewicz said solving the policing issue is a priority. But talks among school officials have primarily focused on reopening and public health.
“It’s a real complication, because while we take this very seriously, we have this other looming decision that has to be made about schools,” she said. “I think it’s safe to say that a decision will not be made” before the school year starts.
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