NYPD disproportionately restrains students of color during crises in City schools, agency data shows

Mayor Bill de Blasio holds a media availability with Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza. City Hall. Thursday, December 10, 2020. Credit: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office.

NEW YORK — In 2017, a disabled eight-year-old Latino boy was sitting at his school lunch table with other students. These students were playing with a spork and poking each other. The boy, who was being excluded, decided to poke the other children anyway, causing school staff to take it away. The staff became frustrated and called in school safety agents to diffuse the situation.

The agents were unable to calm the child down and instead called the police. NYPD officers came to the school and handcuffed the eight-year-old for a few hours, ripping his pants in the process. Even after the boy had calmed down and his parents arrived at the school, he was not released into their custody. Instead, he was transported to the emergency room in an ambulance while handcuffed for a psychiatric evaluation.

The boy was released by doctors, who said he posed no threat to himself or others and that it was not medically necessary for him to be at the hospital, according to a data brief from Advocates for Children of New York.

Similar incidents happen at New York City public schools across the five boroughs. Over 1,500 students were restrained by school safety agents/members of the NYPD from the first quarter of 2019 through the first quarter of 2020, according to data released by the agency. On average for the analyzed year, 89% of those restraints were of non-white children.

Why are children restrained in school?

Students can be restrained for multiple reasons including their imminent arrest for allegedly committing a crime, school disciplinary intervention for offenses like fighting and child-in crisis incidents.

A child-in-crisis incident is when a student is displaying signs of emotional distress and staff determine they must be removed to the hospital for psychiatric evaluation. A wide range of incidents can fall under this definition, including a mental health crisis, refusing to return to class or yelling and kicking teachers and classmates. Usually, the NYPD and school safety agents deem these children to be a risk to themselves or others and restrain them.

Johanna Miller is the director of the Education Policy Center at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). She has been advocating in New York City for changes to school safety for over a decade.

Miller has been outspoken about school safety and culture in the past, criticizing the use of force on students when she believes it was unnecessary. She spoke about school safety agents’ use of force before the City Council in 2017, but in 2020, not much has changed.

“Nine percent of child-in-crisis incidents involved handcuffs. Child-in-crisis is like you’re having suicidal ideation or you’re like, you know, disassociating from reality or having a breakdown of some sort. In 9% of those cases, kids were handcuffed. That to me is a scandal.”

That restraints are used in a small minority of cases is, she indicates, far less significant than the fact that they are used at all on young children.

Restraints the NYPD uses

The NYPD, which oversees school safety, releases data to the public each quarter on incidents in schools, including if restraints were used in each interaction.

Metal restraints used on students are simply regular handcuffs and velcro restraints, which are strips of cloth almost two feet long with velcro fasteners that can be adjusted to the size of a person’s wrist. The velcro cuffs are meant to be a substitute for the metal ones and are supposed to be used on children under age 12.

The NYPD first approved the use of velcro cuffs on students under 16 in 2009 when the department started a pilot program allowing their use at 22 schools in Northern Queens. An article from the Daily News in 2009 said that the cuffs were to be used to subdue “disturbed or unruly children.”

“We would prefer never to use restraints of any kind, but in those rare instances where it may become necessary, we want a softer alternative to conventional handcuffs,” said Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne in the 2009 article.

The rules about handcuffing those under 16 changed in a new memorandum of understanding approved in 2019. The memorandum of understanding, which establishes the relationship authorizing school safety to be overseen by the NYPD, dates back to September 1998. A new memorandum is created every few years, outlining the agreement between the agencies.

“Metal handcuffs should not be used on students younger than 12 years of age without prior approval of the precinct school safety sergeant, patrol supervisor or school safety supervisor, whenever possible,” the 2019 document reads.

But, Miller says that this clause in the document is unclear.

“It says, metal handcuffs are not supposed to be used if you’re under 12, without prior approval, and then it says whenever possible. So it’s like it’s a ‘should not be used’, not a ‘must not be used’. And then it’s ‘without prior approval,’ and then ‘whenever possible,’” Miller said.

In plain English, if a student is under 12, metal cuffs should not be used on them — but data from the last year shows that this guideline is not always followed.

In the first quarter of 2019, a Black six-year-old was restrained with metal cuffs. In the second quarter, metal restraints were used on students aged 5 to 10 five times. In the last quarter of 2019, three students aged 10 and under were restrained with metal cuffs.

All of these restraints were during child-in-crisis incidents.

Schools with the most child-in-crisis incidents

Some schools throughout the city are impacted more than others, with a majority of the schools with the most incidents located in the Bronx.

Students in District 75 schools or programs are also greatly impacted. Students in this district require a specialized education as they may have autism spectrum disorders, sensory impairments, emotional disturbances, significant cognitive delays or multiple disabilities. Out of the eight schools listed above, four are considered to be District 75.

These schools also reflect other findings that show students of color are disproportionately impacted in these cases. For example, the JM Rapport School for Career Development is only 3% white, according to the Department of Education. The schools with the most child-in-crisis incidents are on average 2.7% white.

Children of color are disproportionately affected

In the 2018–2019 and the 2019–2020 school years, which encompass the dataset analyzed, only 15% of students in the public school system were White. Both school years, 41% of students were Hispanic, 26% were Black, 16% were Asian and 3% of students identified as having multiple ethnicities.

Over 1,500 students were restrained during the five quarters analyzed, with only 5.3% of those students being White. Out of those 1,500 incidents, 386 of them were for child-in-crisis incidents.

The remaining 1,100 or so students were restrained either because of arrests, summonses or behavior that resulted in them getting in trouble at school. Out of the 386 restrained students, 360 were non-white.

Breaking down the data, it becomes clear that students of color are restrained more frequently. On average, 89% of students restrained were students of color.

When asked about this disproportionate impact on students of color, the Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment. The NYPD also did not respond to multiple requests regarding restraining students.

2015 sees changes to laws, DOE rules

After a 2013 court case, T.H. et. al v. Farina et. al, which focused on students being transferred to hospitals during child-in-crisis incidents by emergency services, changes to laws and DOE rules were made.

The court case resulted in changes to Local Law 93, which amended the city’s administrative code to include more mandatory reports on student discipline and emergency transports, and a new Chancellor’s Regulation on May 21, 2015.

These changes were made in an attempt to improve school culture and the behaviors of school safety, increasing transparency and allowing for greater scrutiny of the agency.

In the stipulation and settlement of the court case, the city stated that a Chancellor’s Regulation would be created with an effective date of August 1, 2015. The regulation, known as A-411, added a new clause to existing rules within the Department of Education. The new rule stated: “If the parent requests that his or her child not be transported to the hospital, the on-scene 911 responders will obtain relevant information from DOE staff, the parent and others as appropriate and determine whether the parent’s request may be honored in accordance with FDNY policies and procedures for Refusal of Medical Assistance.”

The rule took effect just in time for the 2015–2016 school year and is still in effect. Even with this change, students can still be transported against both their and their parents’ wishes.

Another clause in the Chancellor’s Regulation says that 911 should not be used as a disciplinary measure because of a student’s behavior or as an alternative to de-escalation strategies.

Data from July to December 2019 shows a decrease of 13.1% of transports for psychological and emotional conditions citywide compared to the same time frame in 2018.

Students in District 75 programs see the highest number of transports citywide. These students accounted for 529 transports in a six month time frame, 113 of which were because of psychological and emotional issues.

Local Law 93 was also changed in late 2015 with a new section, 8–1104, requiring a citywide report on emergency medical service student transports. The change went into effect in 2016.

What is New York City doing about school safety?

In 2021, school safety is supposed to move back to being overseen by the Department of Education. Organizations are working to make sure this actually happens.

Miller said that the NYCLU is working to make sure that the transition is not just a transfer, but a transformation of school safety practices, including changing the culture of the department.

“Right now, we have more school safety agents than we have guidance counselors and social workers combined,” Miller said. “And that’s just a completely wrong prioritization system.”

Dawn Yuster and her organization, Advocates for Children of New York, are calling for a mental health continuum to be established in schools with high rates of child-in-crisis cases. This model was developed by the Mayor’s Leadership Team on School Climate in 2016, who urged the city to adopt it. Last year, the City Council and other advocacy groups recommended it for high-needs schools but there was not enough money in the budget to adopt it.

This model includes a team of clinicians working with students and school staff to determine the appropriate level of care. It helps to coordinate with schools to respond to students in crisis while working to enhance each school’s capacity to respond to students’ mental health needs.

Currently, school staff is trained in de-escalation tactics but the training is extremely limited.

The previously mentioned Chancellor’s Regulation says that each school’s crisis intervention team must complete a crisis de-escalation plan as part of its consolidated school and youth development plan, which must include strategies for de-escalating behavior. The plan must also identify in-school and community resources that are available to the school and parents, such as mental health clinics, mobile crisis teams and facilities that provide urgent or same-day mental health assessments.

Bridge to School plan: a great start?

For the 2020–2021 school year, the city announced a targeted mental and emotional health plan, triggered by the pandemic. Approximately 13,000 people were trained throughout the spring and summer in a Trauma 101 series focused on grief and loss, bereavement and self-care in a crisis, according to the Department of Education.

The city touts moving away from a punitive approach to school safety and instead has increased access to social-emotional learning support, expanded restorative justice practices, provided support and training for educators and administrators and hired school response clinicians to provide immediate clinical support to students in crisis.

First Lady of New York, Chirlane McCray, has made mental health her focus during the de Blasio administration. She worked on ThriveNYC, which promotes mental health for New Yorkers, and worked on the Bridge to School plan.

“When we brought social and emotional learning to every New York City classroom last year, it was built on a simple concept: Children learn best when they are healthy and have a sense of emotional well-being,” McCray said. “This expanded approach integrates social emotional learning into the curriculum to reach students, provides trauma-informed training for more teachers and resources for teachers and principals to manage blended learning.”

Yuster, who called for increased training and access to mental health resources with other organizations back in April, called this plan a great start.

“That’s what this is all about. I mean, the benefits, the rewards, are just intangible, because they’re exponential. Because it means that you’ll have people who will be able to really negotiate conflict and interpersonal relationships in a really healthy way,” Yuster said.

But, much is still up in the air. School safety is still run by the NYPD and will be until a new plan is created. So, what are people looking for in a new system? Miller, who is working to develop a plan, knows what the NYCLU wants.

“A school culture where the students are respected, where they’re part of a city that cares about them, where they have trusted relationships with adults, and it’s hard to have a trusted relationship if you’re not sure if you’re going to get handcuffed.”

I’m a journalist from Staten Island, focusing on policy and how it impacts people.

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