Students Sue NYPD Over Alleged Mistreatment

fromWNYC

A class action federal lawsuit has been filed against New York City and its police department claiming school safety agents use excessive force against the students they're supposed to protect. The suit was filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union and it follows years of complaints that disciplinary actions that were previously handled by educators have now been taken over by police.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Lets turn now to a lawsuit in New York, claiming students are being hurt by the schools safety agents who are supposed to protect them. It comes after years of complaints that disciplinary actions, once handled by educators, are now managed by the police. Brought by the Civil Liberties Union against New York City and its police department, the lawsuit claims excessive force is being used against the students. Beth Fertig of member station WNYC has more.

BETH FERTIG: 13-year-old Dijah(ph) says she was walking into her Bronx middle school one morning last October when she and a friend were verbally threatened by two adults they didn't know. A school safety officer assigned to the building saw the exchange and tried to bring the girls and the adults inside. But Dijah says she was afraid and called her mother. She claims that prompted the officer to drag her inside where she was handcuffed.

DIJAH: When got into the building, the same officer tripped me and I fell face down on the ground. The officer put her knees on my back and taunted me, telling me to get up while she was pinning me on the ground.

FERTIG: Dijah spoke about her case at a press conference. Shes one of five middle and high school students named in a class action lawsuit against the city. The suit refers to her by the initials D.Y. to protect her identity. The New York Civil Liberties Union says conflicts like these seem to be on the rise.

Ms. DONNA LIEBERMAN (Executive Director, New York Civil Liberties Union): We get complaints all the time.

FERTIG: Executive director Donna Lieberman.

Ms. LIEBERMAN: Students are pushed and shoved, knocked to the ground, beaten up for doing nothing wrong. And even if they were doing something wrong, if theyre violating school rules then thats a matter of school discipline. It shouldnt be a matter for arrest.

FERTIG: The city declined to comment on the allegations because theyre still under review. A police spokesman calls them hyperbole. The Civil Liberties Union and the police department have tangled for years over allegations of aggressive force.

School safety used to be handled by the citys school system, but in 1998 it was transferred over to the police department. There are now more than 5,000 unarmed safety agents assigned to the citys 1,500 schools, plus another 200 police officers. And metal detectors are routinely deployed in high schools.

Mayor Michael Bloombergs administration says this approach is working. Major crimes in schools went down by more than 44 percent over the past nine years, and the head of the union that represents school safety agents defends his members. Gregory Floyd is president of Teamsters Local 237.

Mr. GREGORY FLOYD (President, Teamsters Local 237): Theyre up against physical attacks. They break up fights and they often get hurt. Theyre often punched, scratched, kicked. Theyre subject to verbal abuse.

FERTIG: Almost 600 weapons were seized in schools between July of last year and the middle of January. Floyd says safety officers are only supposed to arrest a student whos out of control, and in most cases its sufficient to call the principal.

Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union says she hopes the civil rights lawsuit forces the police department to turn discipline back over to educators. She also wants the city to give school safety officers more training. They currently receive 14 weeks, although regular officers get six months.

Ms. LIEBERMAN: Its not just about adequate training, its about proper training. Its about instructing any police who are in the school that they must, in the ordinary course of events, defer to the educators. Lieberman says whats happening in New York is part of a national trend as schools beef up security, and she says its important to protect students rights while protecting their schools.

For NPR News, Im Beth Fertig in New York.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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