A push to hire school safety officers awakens an old debate

NYPD’s deputy commissioner of public information said school safety agents are integrated into the school community.

“The NYPD and School Safety Division have ongoing open dialogue with child advocacy groups, students, and other stakeholders in order to respond to concerns, while maintaining a balance between the safety of the entire school community and the importance of not criminalizing our youth,” the NYPD statement said.

Filling open public safety officer positions has been a struggle in recent years, according to Greg Floyd: the president of the union representing school safety agents. Many agents have retired or found other work since the height of the pandemic. Some left or were terminated after they did not turn in their required proof of the COVID vaccination. About 500 new agents were hired last year, but as many jobs still remain vacant.

In this year’s city budget, public schools are losing an estimated $370 million due to declining enrollment according to an analysis by New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, with an average reduction of $400,000 per school. Many principals have already cut staff and programming because of the decreased budget. Several councilmembers have said they regret voting for the spending plan.

A group of parents and teachers filed a lawsuit seeking to nullify the City Council’s vote to approve the budget as a whole. On Friday, the judge in the case ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, granting a preliminary injunction and returning the education portion of the city’s budget to the City Council and the mayor for reconsideration.

The NYPD’s School Safety Division’s adopted budget was also cut by roughly $23 million compared to the adopted budget from last year, in part because about 560 of the staff vacancies were permanently cut from the budget. Still, the budget is $13.5 million more than the estimated spending for school safety for last fiscal year, which was updated this June, according to Elizabeth Brown of the Independent Budget Office.

Critics say the education cuts come at a time when schools need more funding to combat academic learning loss caused by the pandemic and a rampant youth mental health crisis following the pandemic.

In fiscal year 2022, the DOE invested $18.9 million in restorative justice practices and social-emotional learning practices, $12.1 million of which was provided using federal relief funding, according to a statement from the education department. Some school counselors and students said addressing students’ emotional needs and teaching them skills in conflict resolution will save money on enforcement and violence prevention on the back end. In some cases, social workers were among those notified that their positions would be eliminated due to funding cuts. A DOE spokesperson said the amount of money that will be spent this fiscal year for mental health, restorative justice, and social-emotional learning is still being solidified.

Jason Javier, a school counselor in Manhattan, said that in general, there is tension between students and the NYPD in schools, especially with Black and brown students, who Javier says face more of the negative, aggressive interactions.

Javier said, “students do not want to be policed; they want to be heard, accepted, understood.” He said school safety agents generally respond and react to conflicts in school rather than prevent them.

Javier said relationship building is at the core of a school counselor’s duties, which he thinks school safety agents don’t offer.

“We offer a space for students to be themselves and to feel comfortable, to feel safe, and to talk about what issues are going on,” Javier said.

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