FINANCIAL DISTRICT — City schools saw a 10 percent decrease in school-related arrests in the last school year compared to the year before, and a 37 percent decline in summonses issued by the NYPD School Safety Division — capping a 5-year low for major crimes at schools, according to the NYPD.
“Last year was the safest year since we’ve been keeping those kinds of statistics,” Police Commissioner William Bratton said at the Leadership and Public Service High School on Rector Street, where he joined Chancellor Carmen Farina at a class’ restorative justice circle.
There were roughly 500 major crimes in schools last year, marking the first time the number fell below 700, NYPD officials said. Over the past 5 years, there’s been a 35 percent decrease in assault, larceny, sexual attacks and other major crimes at schools, police said.
Department of Education officials credit the drop to a push in restorative justice practices that emphasize helping students learn how to de-escalate situations or fights so they don’t become violent.
The move is part of a bigger shift in changing schools' discipline code to end punitive policies that set the stage for black and Hispanic youth to end up behind bars, advocates say. The city is investing $47 million in school climate initiatives.
There was one category where the numbers increased: confiscation of weapons. Last year, roughly 2,050 weapons were confiscated, up from about 1,670 the year prior and 1,300 in the 2013-14 school year.
But Bratton said that was a good thing.
“We are getting much better at detecting weapons,” he said. “We see it not as a negative, but as a positive.”
Reasons for improved detection might be related to scanners, police officials said, but they also said it might be because of improved relationships between schools and law enforcement.
The emphasis on restorative justice — where everyone in the building is trained on de-escalation practices, including school safety agents — is also a big part of the work to improve relationships, officials said.
“The foundational piece [of restorative justice] is building relationships. When there is damage done to relationships, how do you restore that?” said Philip Santos, the principal at Leadership and Public Service, which has seen a 63 percent drop in suspensions and 51 percent drop in incidents over the past three years. “You can feel the difference in our community as you walk though the hallways.”
In the class focusing on restorative justice, a group of seniors sitting in a circle shared examples of when they got so angry that it erupted in violence while others gave advice on how they could have handled the situations differently. These students are now experts in mindful breathing, for instance, and other tools to help keep them calm in the face of tensions.
“Rather than lashing out, I could have been more productive,” senior Tuson Irvin said recounting an incident. “Use your restorative justice practices and cool down. Use your words because you have words for a reason. If you’re yelling at someone, it will just cause them to shut down. So, speak politely.”
He credited the work he and his peers have been doing the last few years: “More than just feeling safe here, it feels like home.”
Farina emphasized that shifting the climate isn’t easy.
“We need an investment in professional development in teachers and a commitment of time for students in the school day,” she said, noting that different schools are using different tactics including teaching kids how to take a time out and change seats or excuse themselves and go to the bathroom if a situation is getting too heated.
School safety officers have also had an extra two weeks of training in how to talk with students so they’re seen as partners of the school, she noted.
“This is an all-hands-on-deck kind of approach,” Farina said. “It’s one of the reasons you see that over time the number of incidents have gone down.”
But there’s still room for improvement, she added.
The Chancellor said that the DOE is working closely with the NYPD on more training related to bullying — how to recognize it, whether in school or cyber-bullying, and how to de-escalate it — as well as more training on gang violence and how to train parents on how to note signs of gang activity.
The principals and teachers unions have both said they felt their schools lacked the training, personnel and funding to make meaningful changes.
Principals also said that changes to the city’s discipline code making it harder to suspend students were preventing them to take appropriate action against students when they feel a suspension might be warranted.
Some advocates, however, said the changes don’t go far enough to address the pattern of criminalization of black and Hispanic youth in schools.
Black students represent 26 percent of all students but 57 percent of all students being arrested, according to members from the Urban Youth Collaborative.
“The school safety data shows for black students the school-to-prison pipeline isn't going anywhere,” said Brandon King, 15, a youth leader with Make The Road NY and the Urban Youth Collaborative. "We are more likely to be suspended, handcuffed, receive a summons, and arrested.”
He called on the city to stop issuing suspensions for disorderly conduct and eliminate arrests and summons for non-criminal violations.
“In 2016, why are we, black and brown youth still being suspended and arrested for being disorderly? The drop in arrests and summons, and the drop in crime in schools, shows we don't need criminal consequences for schools to be safe,” King said.