Our Education Mayor remains silent about police abuses of students in public schools
By Nat Hentoff
published: December 31, 2008While Joel Klein was among those being seriously considered by Barack Obama for Secretary of Education—Chicago Superintendent Arne Duncan won out—a civil rights complaint, demanding a jury trial, was filed in U.S. District Court here. The defendants include Chancellor Klein, Police Commissioner Kelly, the City of New York, and School Safety Agent Daniel O'Connell. The plaintiff is Carlos Cruz, father of Stephen Cruz, an 11th-grade student at Robert F. Kennedy Community High School in Flushing, Queens.
Klein is a defendant in the lawsuit, which was filed by attorney Jeffrey Rothman, because he "is and was at all times, the Commissioner of Education . . . and is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation . . . and enforcement of the policies and practices . . . herein. He is sued individually and in his official capacity."
I have reported often here on the documented abuses of students, and even some teachers, by the School Safety Agents deployed in this city's schools under Kelly, Klein, and Michael Bloomberg (the latter two praised around the country as champions of "school reform"). Since the 1950s, I've written in columns and books on our schools—and their chancellors from the worst to the best. But not until the Bloomberg/Klein regime have I seen such flagrant dereliction of accountability at the very top of the school system for frequent abuse of students by police agents. This Stephen Cruz case will be followed in next week's column by the even more outrageous treatment of 16-year-old Rohan Morgan at Hillcrest High School in Queens.
Teaching fear of the police is part of the curriculum in the school system—of which Bloomberg is so proud that he is striving (with the help of the City Council) to control the schools permanently.
On September 19, 2008, Stephen Cruz entered one of the stalls in the second-floor bathroom of his school and, as he leaned over to unbuckle his pants, School Safety Agent Daniel O'Connell—known as "Robocop" by the students—smashed open the door without any warning, let alone justification, cutting Stephen's head below the hairline. Bleeding, dizzy, the lump on his head swelling, Cruz showed his blood to the attacker, who said, "That's life. It will stop bleeding"—and left to do his safety rounds. A fellow student in the bathroom helped Cruz to the principal's office to get medical help. Cruz's parents were called to the school and told by the principal that since "Robocop" was an employee of the NYPD, he had no power to discipline the SWAT man.
But why had O'Connell knocked down the door? Stephen's father kept trying to find out, but was told that the Safety Agent didn't even have to submit a report to school officials. His immediate boss was School Safety Agent Supervisor Anthony Pelosi at the 107th Precinct. The impotent principal did schedule a meeting at the precinct to discuss the violence, but Pelosi abruptly canceled it—with, of course, no explanation.
Rothman said (as reported by the New York Civil Liberties Union, which has been trying to teach Klein and Bloomberg the Bill of Rights for years, concerning these cases): "It is appalling that the system is so broken that the only way for a parent to stand up for his son—and to prevent the same things from happening to other children—is to file a lawsuit and an Internal Affairs complaint." He added: "We shouldn't need attorneys to hold this man accountable for his shocking misconduct."
But not only Robocop should be held accountable. (Place your bets on whether he'll even be chided in an NYPD Internal Affairs "investigation.") Where was the chancellor of this city's public school students? Where was the Education Mayor? Not shocked—and not heard from.
If there are civics classes in our schools, then teachers—despite any fear of retaliation from the chancellor—should be reading to students from Rothman's suit during the testing-for-tests time of the No Child Left Behind Act: "School Safety Agent Daniel O'Connell, acting under color of law and without lawful justification, intentionally, maliciously, and with a deliberate indifference to—or a reckless disregard for the natural and probable consequences—caused injury and damage in violation of the plaintiff's constitutional rights . . ."
As for the creepy cover-up, the lawsuit continues: "By their conduct and actions in covering up the conduct and actions of the School Safety Agent," the other culpable defendants include "Raymond Kelly and Joel Klein," who also scorned the constitutional rights of Stephen Cruz. This lawsuit—and others are coming—also focuses on the failure "to properly train, screen, supervise, or discipline" O'Connell and others in that chain of command. Most clearly accountable for that failure is, of course, Police Commissioner Kelly. Aside from what your flack may conjure up, what say you directly, Commissioner?
Even more ultimately responsible for not bringing accountability and badly needed discipline to all of the potential defendants in this and other such lawsuits is the New York City Council leadership.
As I've detailed in previous columns, the Student Safety Act, which has long been before the council, would finally compel transparency and accountability for these and other police practices in the schools. Only 28 of the 51 council members support the Act, but there has yet to be even a hearing. Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito, a co-sponsor of the Student Safety Act, emphasizes: "What happened to Stephen is a disturbing reminder of the deep flaws in our Student Safety model. Ensuring students' safety is not a controversial matter. We all want safe schools, and this bill helps us meet that goal."
Of all big school systems in the country, only in New York does student safety also have to be protected from agents of the police. Why is there no hearing on the bill by the City Council? In the past, I've blamed Speaker Christine Quinn, but I now know that blocking this peril to the safety of students, especially in mainly black and Hispanic schools, is Queens Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., chairman of the Public Safety Committee, a majority of whose members support the Student Safety Act. Mr. Vallone has yet to respond to my calls to him and to his aides.
An assistant has told investigative reporter Vladic Ravich of the Queens Chronicle that there aren't enough funds for the Civilian Complaint Review Board to handle the additional casework of parent complaints about the Robocops among the Safety Agents. To hell with these parents and their children?! Vallone has two daughters in the public schools. I guess they're safe, too.
School Safety Agent O'Connell is now patrolling a middle school nearby.