There is a common refrain that Legal Aid Society attorney Melinda Andra hears from students she works with who have been caught carrying weapons to school: They felt unsafe going to and from school and wanted to protect themselves. That was the case for one girl Andra represented a couple of weeks ago, who faced suspension after bringing pepper spray to school. The girl told Andra that her mother had bought the pepper spray for her after hearing about violence in the community, so that she would be safe while taking the bus to school. Others have expressed similar sentiments.
“We hear them say, ‘Well I’m afraid. I have to get on the subway to get to school and you hear about all of these incidents right?’ Every time there is an incident – I’m thinking of what happened in Nashville (last month) – it increases the fear and anxiety that our young people are feeling throughout the city,” Andra said.
New York City schools Chancellor David Banks recently told the New York City Council that he’s seen “a very serious uptick in violence” close to school grounds. “What’s happened is the number of incidents happening across the street from the school, around the corner,” Banks said during an education budget hearing on March 15. “The kids are telling us they’re bringing these weapons to school … to protect themselves as they’re going to and from school.” The day before Banks addressed the council, three Manhattan schools were forced into lockdown due to a series of nearby shootings.
Recent data from the New York City Police Department suggests an increasing number of students are bringing weapons to school. Between July 1, 2022, and March 12, 2023, the NYPD recovered 4,468 “weapons/dangerous instruments” from schools. That’s a 21% increase from the same eight-month period last year, when the NYPD recovered 3,687 weapons. But it’s not the case that guns are flooding into schools. The vast majority of the seized weapons were knives; only 10 of the more than 4,400 “weapons/dangerous instruments” recovered so far this year were firearms.
School safety in New York City is multifaceted, and what exactly it should mean and look like has long been the subject of fierce debate. For decades, the city has invested in technology like metal detectors, which have primarily been installed in schools with a majority of Black and brown students, and hired thousands of school safety agents – unarmed NYPD employees who monitor building entrances, operate metal detectors and respond to student behavioral issues.
More recently, City Council members have called on the Department of Education to address the root causes of youth violence – the reason that students feel they need to carry weapons to protect themselves. In response, the department has hired more social workers and guidance counselors. It has also explored restorative justice approaches to conflict, which let students collaborate with staff to solve conflicts on their own rather than resorting to punitive measures.
As the Department of Education faces budget cuts, these differing approaches to school safety have been pitted against one another. Republican City Council members and Teamsters Local 237, which represents school safety agents, insist that the city must hire many more school safety agents to patrol schools and confiscate weapons. But much of the council, along with educators and student advocates, want the department to continue investing in restorative justice programs, counseling and other initiatives that address the root causes of youth violence.
A community’s responsibility
Adams launched his own take on restorative justice this school year with Project Pivot, a $9 million initiative that’s now operating in 144 of the city’s roughly 1,600 schools. In March, Adams also announced a sweeping plan aimed at bolstering children and youth’s access to mental health support – something that historically, many schools have struggled to provide due to a lack of resources. A spokesperson for the Department of Education said the city is “focused on continuing to work towards a shift in school discipline” and continuing to prioritize restorative justice in a “separate vertical” from Project Pivot.
This investment in nonpunitive approaches to school safety has coincided with a drop in the number of school safety officers. The number of school safety agents assigned to schools fell more than 20% during the COVID-19 pandemic – a drop that Adams doesn’t intend to fully reverse, according to a report from the Independent Budget Office published earlier this month. As of the end of February, the city employed about 3,900 school safety agents. Adams’ preliminary budget for next fiscal year includes funding for nearly 4,000 agents – a slight increase, but still a significant decline from the roughly 5,000 individuals employed pre-pandemic. Both Adams and the IBO attribute the decline solely to cost-saving measures.
Gregory Floyd, president of Teamsters Local 237, said that the shrinking number of agents has hampered their ability to patrol outside of schools and stop weapons from being taken inside. According to Floyd, the school safety division used to participate in a “safe passage” program with the NYPD in which school safety agents and police officers would escort children from school to the subway, where transit police would take over and monitor them for the rest of their trip.
“Since the pandemic, the school safety (division) doesn’t have the staffing to create this passage,” he said. “I warned the city that the policy of not hiring school safety agents would work until schools open. Let schools open and once you fall behind, you’ll never catch up. That’s the position New York City finds itself in.”
In January, Banks declared a “state of emergency” in response to an increased number of violent incidents near schools. The chancellor said a “much greater degree of intervention” is required to stem the violence. In February, Banks announced that principals would begin meeting weekly with local NYPD leaders to discuss safe passage programs to and from school and how police could best respond to violent incidents. The NYPD also moved to increase the number of youth coordination officers from 350 to 460, according to the New York Post.
Banks has called on parents to help students get to and from school safely. “Give us a little bit of time before the school day begins. Come out at the end of the school day if you can and just be outside,” he said during an interview with PIX11 on March 21. “Work together with the school leadership. Be a block away from the school. Keep your eyes open. Ensuring the safety of our kids is not just the responsibility of the police or the schools – it’s the entire community.”
Through Project Pivot, the city has partnered with community organizations to deploy violence interruption programs, mentorship, recreational activities and counseling to students. In addition to educational services, organizations like Elite Learners Inc. also provide safe passage programs to students in the mornings and afternoons.
Camara Jackson, founder of Elite Learners Inc., said the group stations violence interrupters and other trusted messengers around school perimeters to prevent fights and robberies, and mediate conflicts in the morning and afternoon. According to Jackson, the work has already prevented many violent incidents from happening, even saving lives. “It’s been rewarding work, and we’ve seen a change. I have attendance rates that are doubling now because the kids want to come to school because they know their mentors are there during the day. They know they are safe coming home, and I’ve been able to alleviate issues with parents and families,” Jackson said.
“We know what actually drives violence and crime and shootings, it’s poverty,” said Dana Rand, the director of social work and program engagement at the violence interrupter program We Build the Block. “It’s not like these kids are inherently violent or criminal, it’s that they are so deprived. If we want to make a true investment in safety and get to a place where kids don’t shoot each other anymore, it really is getting them and their families the things they need.”
Council Member Rita Joseph, a former teacher who is now chair of the Education Committee, takes a similar view. She believes that the city must take a “holistic approach” to school safety, which means focusing both on big initiatives like expanding restorative justice programming and the number of counselors in schools, as well as smaller details like paint, lighting, fencing and “cafeteria enhancements” that at first glance might not make a difference, but together create a more welcoming space for kids. “My goal as a forever educator is to make schools a utopia. Despite what’s going on as the child enters through the door, this should be the safest place, the most ideal palace for them to learn, to grow, and to thrive,” she said. “Environment determines a lot.”
Joseph said that she does not want school safety agents – most of whom are women of color – to lose their jobs, but she does want them to dress and act less like police officers. She’s urged the city to retrain them in restorative justice and de-escalation tactics geared towards young people, so that they can play a different role in schools.
Joseph’s Republican colleagues want to double down on policing. When the Common Sense Caucus – a group primarily composed of Republican council members – met with Banks last month, they urged him to keep school safety agents in schools and implement a new magnetic locking system on the front doors of schools. The Panel for Education Policy quietly approved a $43 million contract for that system in February.
“We emphasized how we need to take an all-hands approach to keeping our children safe while they are in school, and while they are traveling to and from school – whether that means ensuring we have an adequate number of school safety agents, locking front doors and employing a camera and magnetic buzzer system, or making sure we have the proper protocols and NYPD available at school dismissals,” Council Minority Leader Joe Borelli said in a statement.
Borelli has also blamed the state’s “Raise the Age” law, which prevents teenagers from being charged as adults for most crimes, for the increase in students carrying weapons. Floyd, the head of the school safety union, said that young people have been taking advantage of the Raise the Age law, which ensures “they don’t really get punished” even if they are caught with a weapon.
But Rand said that such complaints miss the point. “The question should not be how do we lock them all up? How do we roll back Raise the Age?” she said. “The question should be why is it in the city of New York, do kids feel so unsafe in their neighborhood that they are carrying guns in the first place and feel like they have to take them to school?”
Schools as a refuge
Nile, a Brooklyn high school senior who asked only to be identified by his first name, is one of several students from the Urban Youth Collaborative who testified in front of the City Council last month, imploring members to divest funding for school safety agents into hiring more restorative justice coordinators, social workers and counselors.
Like the rest of his peers, Nile follows a similar routine each time he enters school. Stepping up to the security checkpoint, he’ll remove his bag and belongings, take off his belt and any keys looped around his neck, then step through the metal detector as school safety agents look on. Entering school can be intimidating, he said.
“If I were to see a school safety officer and a cop walking down the street, I would not be able to depict the difference,” he said. “As you stay longer at the school you can get to know them and you start to learn about their character, but overall it’s not really pleasant to see school safety officers the moment you walk in the building.”
Part of the anxiety of going through scanners, he said, comes from the fact that school safety agents sometimes view daily items like nail clippers, tweezers, scissors and other common objects as potential weapons. He was taken to the school safety agents’ office for questioning after the metal detector was triggered by a laser pointer he used to play with his cat and accidentally left in his backpack. The agents later sent a report to the NYPD about what they found.
“What they call a weapon is also extremely suspect,” said Johanna Miller, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Education Policy Center. “We have tons and tons of anecdotal evidence that silverware in a kid’s lunch box, or a keychain that’s like big, heavy or a weird shape, or a belt buckle are the type of things they call weapons and get confiscated all the time at metal detectors.”
According to the NYPD, the 4,468 weapons confiscated from students so far this school year include 10 firearms, 14 BB guns, 236 Taser/stun guns, 496 box cutters/razors, 1,799 knives and 1,913 ”other weapons.”
Much will be worked out between now and when school budgets are finalized for next school year. Battles over program funding will be waged. Youth violence will probably be politicized. Miller said that throughout all this, it’s all the more important that the city ensures schools are a place where students can seek support in an environment “safe from the outside world.” She believes students see schools as a refuge and the city should lean into that instead of making buildings feel like a place of punishment.
“The school is a closed community,” Miller said. “It should be much easier to create that type of culture than it is in even the neighborhood or in the whole city where there’s so many other variables.”