we’d love to hear from you! take our short survey >

Protect & Strengthen Democracy

Monumental Gains for New York Students

In schools across the state, students are treated like suspects in their own classrooms. Police patrol the halls, many operating with little or no accountability for their actions. Research demonstrates that when police are in schools, more children get arrested. It is imperative that we create a healthy and safe public school system for New York’s children.

In January, the NYCLU launched our Education Policy Center, formed to advance a civil liberties platform in schools and other institutions that serve young people, and to ensure public schools in New York fulfill their potential as incubators of democratic ideals. It is directed by Johanna Miller, formerly advocacy director of the NYCLU. Miller is a nationally recognized public policy expert on issues including police reform, education, and privacy and technology.

The Center has already secured landmark wins in its short existence: In May, legislators passed a law requiring school districts and school resource officers in New York state to develop a joint “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) detailing the role that the police play in schools. This will ensure limitations on the role of police in schools so that only educators are responsible for school discipline. This win is especially remarkable in our current cultural moment, as school shootings put pressure on districts to purchase weapons, grant law enforcement access to student records, and spend limited education dollars on high-tech surveillance.

Immediately after this law’s passage, we helped secure a landmark agreement between New York City’s Department of Education and the NYPD. Limiting the role of police in schools and sharply curtailing the length of suspensions, the agreement also ensures millions of dollars in funding for real alternatives to reduce suspensions and policing in schools. While the NYPD still has control over school safety, this agreement is a sea change for the nation’s largest school district. The era in which even the youngest children were routinely arrested for breaking any rule — having a cell phone, bringing a banned sugary drink to school, or refusing to remove a baseball cap — has ended.

“We work hard to overcome the notion that teenagers don’t know what’s best for them. We also learn from them,” said Johanna. “Schools can be such a black box that without young people working with us, we don’t necessarily know what is happening. Their input improves our communication and helps build our credibility.”

The state’s MOU requirement represents a crucial step in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. Based on our experience working directly with students, the NYCLU created a model MOU centered on protecting and promoting student rights and creating a supportive school climate. Our policies aim to help school districts craft guidelines for common misbehavior and unexpected or emergency situations, so educators can take care of all their students in any given circumstance.

“This is a huge moment to turn back the really destructive presence of police in schools,” said Johanna. “We’re now working on what those school policies actually say. Is a seven-year-old punching another seven-year-old assault, or is there a different way to say that? We’re pushing school districts to adopt policies that are the most protective of young people.”

In addition to this historic win, we made significant progress on other issues in 2019. We submitted testimony outlining our recommendations to increase integration in New York City schools in a joint City Council committee hearing, supported efforts to address racial and economic equity issues in the City’s elite public high schools and gifted programs, advocated for increased transparency around police presence in schools using the release of the ACLU’s Cops and No Counselors report, and hosted a series of town halls across the state focusing on metal detectors and other elements that fuel the school-to-prison pipeline. We are also deepening our youth engagement to help elevate even more young voices in the civil liberties majority, rapidly expanding our youth organizing work to engage middle school and college students.

In 2020, we continue to advocate for progressive policies and programs that will transform New York’s system into a model for the nation, including school desegregation, prohibition of biometric surveillance technology, and required comprehensive sexuality education. Progress on these issues will ensure every child has access to a safe, empowering and quality education.

Photo: Students line up at the Bayard Rustin Educational Complex in Chelsea, waiting to go through an unannounced metal detector screening before school while an NYPD officer looks on. The school accepts students who are struggling to get by in other schools, including students who have been incarcerated. More than 90 percent are Black or Latinx. Across the city’s public schools, more than 100,000 young people are subjected to these screenings every day of their high school careers.

< Back to Strategic Initiatives

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised new obstacles for public education. Read our letter to the New York State Education Department demanding that every student have equal access to remote learning technology and our response to Governor Cuomo’s decision to task the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with “reimagining education”. You can also hear from TAP members about students’ needs in the pandemic.