By Jon Schuppe
MANHATTAN — The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit on Wednesday claiming that the city's school police officers have overstepped their powers by arresting students for minor classroom violations, such as having a cell phone in class or drawing on desks.
“Aggressive policing is stripping thousands of students of their dignity and disrupting their ability to learn,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in a statement.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Manhattan on behalf of five middle- and high-school students who were arrested by members of the New York Police Department’s School Safety Division at their schools in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.
The arrests resulted from accusations that the students drew on desks, argued with others, would not comply with security searches, had a cell phone in class, or were in hallways when they were not supposed to be.
The confrontations got physical, and several of the students say they were handcuffed and assaulted by the officers, according to the NYCLU.
Those cases represent “a larger pattern” of abuse throughout the city’s school system, the lawsuit says. The NYCLU blamed poor training in dealing with incidents that are not criminal offenses and should be handled by school administrators.
By putting more children in contact with the justice system, the NYPD is contributing to a “school to prison pipeline,” the NYCLU said.
The NYPD took control of school safety operations in 1998, and currently assigns more than 5,000 unarmed officers in the schools, according to the lawsuit.
A city lawyer said the law department, which represents the NYPD, was reviewing the lawsuit.
"However, it goes without saying that the city's school safety officers handle a very difficult job with professionalism and dedication," said Celeste Koeleveld, executive assistant corporation counsel for public safety.
"Maintaining a safe environment for our children is paramount, and it's impossible to ignore the important balance — protecting children while keeping order — that they strive to meet every day."
The NYCLU said it filed the suit to press for changes in the way the city handles student infractions. The lawsuit seeks better training for school officers, an improved system to file complaints against the officers, stricter discipline for abusive officers and more power for school administrators to handle non-criminal infractions.