About a month before the first day of the new school year, police officials are still struggling to fill nearly 500 open school safety officer positions.

They are jobs that Mayor Eric Adams, who spent 22 years in law enforcement, and school and police officials say play an essential part in keeping children safe. At a press conference after the Uvalde, Texas school shooting in May, NYPD First Deputy Commissioner Edward Caban told reporters that school safety agents had recovered 5,546 “dangerous instruments” in schools so far this year – a 124% increase over the year before the pandemic.

“The people who work in schools every single day recognize that they want to be safe. School safety agents play a vital part,” Schools Chancellor David Banks said at the same press conference. “They don't play the entire role, but they play a vital part.”

But the push to beef up the safety officer ranks has also reawakened an age-old debate about whether hiring more of the unarmed guards is really the best way to keep children safe. Some students, staff, and advocates say school safety agents disproportionately target students of color and can actually make them feel less safe at school. Critics argue that the Department of Education’s finite budget would be better spent supporting students’ social and emotional needs with more school counselors and social workers, smaller class sizes, and after-school programs – all measures they say would help staff address students in distress before they become violent.

“To keep students safe, we need to invest in resources and relationships that help students feel supported rather than criminalized, like counselors, nurses, psychologists, and social workers,” said Kenny Nguyen, youth programs manager for the Education Policy Center at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Enduring metal detectors, scanning, arrests, and targeted discipline is enormously distressing for students, especially students of color who feel criminalized in a place where they're supposed to feel supported and cared for.”

Students, teachers, and other activists march in June to protest school safety officers.

Students, teachers, and other activists march in June to protest school safety officers.

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Students, teachers, and other activists march in June to protest school safety officers.
Julian Roberts-Grmela / Gothamist

New York’s school police force is already the largest in the nation by far. There are currently 4,451 employed school safety agents, according to the NYPD – or about one for every 230 students. Los Angeles, the second-largest school district in the nation, employs about 236 agents – or about one for every 1,800 students.

Some Black and Latino students said encountering school safety agents and going through metal detectors can be traumatizing for people like them. Research from the US Department of Education shows Black and Latino kids are disproportionately impacted by school policing nationwide. According to an analysis of school policing in NYC from 2016-21 by the Urban Youth Collaborative — an advocacy organization that aims to end school policing — Black and Latino students made up 66.2% of the student population but accounted for over 90% of school arrests. The New York Civil Liberties Union argues that school policing contributes to the “school-to-prison pipeline”: educational policies that expose students to the criminal justice system in their youth.

Sage Morris, a youth leader with civic groups Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative and a rising 11th grader from Staten Island, said he feels unwelcome and threatened every morning that he has to enter school through a metal detector, under the watch of school safety agents. Ever since eighth grade, when Morris says he was pushed to the ground and held down by a school safety agent after the agent assumed Morris was going to get into a physical altercation, he’s felt intimidated by the unarmed NYPD employees that monitor NYC schools.

“As a Black gender nonconforming student, every time I go through a metal detector at my school I feel intimidated, threatened by the officers,” Morris said. “Schools are supposed to be welcoming, but police in school don't make us feel safe.”

In an emailed statement, the DOE said school safety agents are trained in de-escalation. All NYC schools have, at minimum, access to a social worker, guidance counselor, or school-based mental health clinic, according to the DOE statement.

Students, teachers, and other activists march in June to protest school safety officers.

Students, teachers, and other activists march in June to protest school safety officers.

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Students, teachers, and other activists march in June to protest school safety officers.
Julian Roberts-Grmela / Gothamist

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.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the date of the protest photographed in this story.