Safety will be a top priority as about 900,000 students return to New York City classrooms this week, Department of Education officials say. Chancellor David C. Banks shared his multipronged plan to protect students both “physically and emotionally” at a press conference Wednesday morning.
“We heard from students over and over again that they see the school as a place of real refuge, a place of safety,” Banks said. “We must ensure that our schools continue to be the safe havens for all of our children.”
The announcement comes amid heightened concerns about safety in city schools, which saw a spike in confiscations of “dangerous instruments” like pepper spray, knives, and Tasers last year, as well as an increase in violent incidents outside of schools, according to Banks. Mass shootings at schools across the country have also prompted officials to ramp up emergency response training and bolster mental health services.
The department’s new safety program will include support from law enforcement and community groups, along with technology and facilities upgrades to keep students secure. Here are some of the highlights:
More school safety agents
About 200 new school safety agents recently completed training, and the city hopes to hire an additional 650 in the coming year, according to the DOE. Gothamist recently reported that about 500 positions were vacant a month before the start of the school year. The NYPD said the current head count is approximately 4,300 agents.
Some students, educators, and parents have asked the city to pull safety agents — who are employed by the NYPD — out of schools altogether.
“I find it very unjust that I have to go back to school to find new cops instead of counselors and social workers and someone to talk to,” said Caroline Ramirez, 15, a youth leader with Urban Youth Collaborative who is starting their sophomore year at a high school in Staten Island. “But I have to come to school to see someone that criminalizes me and makes me feel very unsafe.”
Banks, who worked as a school safety agent before becoming a teacher, said he would not apologize for keeping agents in schools.
“School safety agents are part of the fabric of the school, just like the English teacher, just like the people who work in the school cafeteria, the maintenance workers who make sure that the floors shine and the building looks good, they are all part of the puzzle that makes up a great school.”
The department has tested door locks, alarms, panic buttons, and PA systems at 1,400 buildings to make sure that everything is working properly for the start of the school year. Those assessments turned up 1,300 issues, which the DOE said it’s been working to resolve by the start of the school year.
Banks said the department is considering locking schools’ front doors, but will keep them open for now and post school safety agents at entrances. He said he wants to maintain easy access to school buildings for first responders, as well as for children who need to run inside to escape danger on the streets. The chancellor also noted that schools without clear glass doors would need to install cameras to see who’s outside before deciding whether to let them in — which would run up a hefty price tag at a time when schools are already grappling with slashed budgets.
Banks hopes to one day install upgraded metal detectors that would be able to more easily detect weapons without requiring students to empty their pockets. “I don’t want students to have the feeling as though they are going to jail every day,” he said. But for now, he said, the technologies “have not been fully developed.”
The city has rolled out new messaging platforms that will allow schools to send push notifications to staff and families during emergencies. The department said they’ll be used to provide real-time updates if there’s a lockdown or evacuation and that information will be shared in multiple languages.
Fears began to spread this summer that the DOE was cutting funding for restorative justice, which aims to resolve conflicts in schools without suspending or arresting students. The City Council had approved a $21 million budget for the program, which the former administration had pledged to expand to every public middle and high school. But just a few weeks ago, a DOE spokesperson would not confirm whether that allocation would be honored, telling Gothamist in mid-August that the department was “still in the process of setting priorities for the upcoming school year.”
Dozens of organizations sent a letter to the mayor and the chancellor, imploring them to continue funding the program. On Wednesday, Banks said the department had reviewed all of its initiatives to see which ones should be improved or taken “off the table.” But he said the DOE ultimately decided not to make any cuts to the restorative justice budget.
Violence interrupters in schools
Organizations that are already working to prevent violence and support young people in their communities will be invited into school buildings this year to work with students. The initiative, called Project Pivot, will launch in 138 schools, which the DOE says were selected “based on a combination of data that includes the number of incidents and suspensions.”
Banks did not provide many details on the program and a spokesperson declined to answer questions about which schools and organizations would be participating, whether groups had to apply and how their performance would be assessed. The department said it would be sharing more information in the coming weeks.
At a public safety town hall in the Bronx last month, Banks said more than 100 groups would be working “on the front lines with our kids.”
As shootings like the one in Uvalde, Texas continue to stoke fears in schools across the country, the DOE has partnered with the NYPD and Louisiana State University to provide updated emergency preparedness trainings, including for active shooter events. The department said principals, assistant principals, building response team leaders, and early childhood providers have attended the courses.
“It’s unfortunate that we have to be in a place where even early childhood providers, those who are working with our babies, have to receive a level of training to be prepared for the potential of an active shooter in the facility,” Banks told reporters. “But that is the reality we are facing.”
Additional student support
The department shared several other plans to support the well-being of students, including with continued use of social-emotional learning materials at all elementary schools and expansion of the city’s community school program to 100 more schools this year. About 5,000 social workers and guidance counselors will also be available to help students in need. The DOE said every school would have “access” to a social worker or school-based mental health clinic, but did not specify whether each school has its own.
Enrico Denard contributed reporting.