Lessons in Fear

Nat Hentoff

Schools Under Surveillance: Cultures of Control in Public Education (Rutgers University Press) is a new book that should be of interest to at least some public school students and their parents. Its publication performs a ne eded public service. In this anthology, editors Torin Monahan and Rodolfo Torres and other academics around the nation ask: “What are the long-term effects upon students of routine scrutiny, social sorting, and unequal treatment?” The authors expose and probe, for example, “advanced surveillance technologies that are used to subject students to constant monitoring.”

This article is not a review of the book, although I strongly recommend it. One of its concerns, “the effective interlinking of public education and criminal justice systems,” relates to my recent extensive reporting on what the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) has described in one of its reports as “Criminalizing the Classroom.”

New York City’s self-described “Education Mayor,” Michael Bloomberg, and his schools’ chancellor, Joel Klein, have been much praised throughout the country for their “reforms” of the system. I will not focus here on students’ dubious advances in standardized tests, except to note that black male graduation rates remain low, around 40 percent. (Like most big-city school systems, New York’s is largely segregated—de facto, not de jure—by neighborhood and by white preference for private schools.)

What I reported on for years while at the Village Voice was dramatized last November—though not reported in New York’s press or around the country—in the settling of a lawsuit, Carlos Cruz, as Father and Next Friend of Stephen Cruzv. The City of New York, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, Department of Education Commissioner Joel Klein, and School Safety Agent Daniel O’Connell, Shield No. 2816. The case cost the City of New York taxpayers $55,000.

O’Connell is one of the twenty thousand School Safety Agents (SSAs) hired and supposedly trained by Police Commissioner Kelly to secure safety in the schools. These agents are not in uniform but have the power to arrest, and both Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have ceded all responsibility for the conduct of these SSAs and the smaller number of uniformed police in schools to the Police Department. The result: under “the Education Mayor,” as the NYCLU documents, SSAs “often intervene in minor disciplinary violations, handcuffing and arresting students for such infractions as talking back, writing on the desk, refusing to show identification and refusing to turn over cell phones” (that parents have instructed them to keep on their persons). I have covered a number of stories about these “students of interest” handcuffed for what used to be dealt with by trips to the principal’s office but now may result in the malefactors being beaten, strip searched, and winding up with a police record. In Schools Under Surveillance, the NYCLU reports: “Fighting in the hallway is classified as assault; swiping a classmate’s pencil case can be classified as a property crime; and talking back to an SSA or being late to class is disorderly conduct.”

Stephen Cruz—a student at Robert F. Kennedy High School in Flushing—was in a restroom stall when SSA O’Connell, without provocation, kicked in the door, cutting Cruz below his hairline, and walked off without offering to help the bleeding youngster—or revealing what he wanted of the student. Said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman: “This outrageous incident underscores the glaring need to bring transparency and accountability to the NYPD’s presence in our city’s public schools.”

There were no outraged editorials in The New York Times, the other dailies, or on radio or television (broadcast and cable). Nor did any of the City Hall press corps seek a reaction from Mayor Bloomberg, who “has spent more of his own money in pursuit of public office than any other individual in U.S. history” (Reuters, October 24, 2009—he bought his third term for at least $110 million). I could not get a comment from the widely celebrated Chancellor Klein (Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, is a fan) because he stopped taking my calls when I began reporting on what I regard as his complicity in criminalizing the city’s classrooms. Before that, we had a number of amiable conversations; in one he praised a book I wrote about a Harlem principal who was turning the students in his school into lifelong learners.

Although the NYCLU persists in pressing the City Council to make Bloomberg, Klein, and Kelly accountable for teaching schoolchildren to fear police, the NYCLU has joined such other groups as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Education Fund, as well as the Children’s Defense Fund, in distributing palm cards titled “Know Your Rights with Police in Schools” to students at selected schools (those with disproportionate numbers of black and Hispanic students, who are the more frequent victims of the SSAs). I have not covered police presence in other cities’ school systems, but I would not be surprised if some of those students would also benefit from such questions and answers on the palm cards New York students now possess as:

“Can I be arrested in school?”

“Yes, but only if police personnel think there is probable cause to believe that you committed a crime. . . . ‘Probable cause’ means that police personnel have enough facts to believe that you have committed a crime.”

The palm card for New York City students also provides this essential information for those who are arrested: “Write down everything you remember as soon as you can (like the SSA’s badge and name) and remember to tell your lawyer what happened.” The NYCLU provides a phone number for a lawyer.

One of the schools where students are learning to palm their constitutional rights—and finding out what they are (civics classes are rare in the city’s schools)—is Louis D. Brandeis High School. I wonder if the principal or any of the teachers there know that Justice Brandeis warned: “The greatest menace to freedom is an inert people.” Students must not be inert when their liberties are summarily discarded. As adult active citizens, they must be able to act on the conviction that their ultimate loyalty is to the Constitution—not to any government, Bush’s or Obama’s, that is violating the Constitution.

In Bloomberg’s re-election campaign last year, a widely circulated ad—with a photo of the mayor and the police commissioner on top—proclaimed: “Under Mike Bloomberg and Ray Kelly’s Leadership, New York is the safest big city in America.” There are New York City schoolchildren who have been manacled and strip searched by their police protectors and are eager to differ—and they have no respect for the police. How could they?

Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff is a United Media syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and the author of, among other books Living the Bill of Rights (University of California Press, 1999) and The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance (Seven Stories Press, 2004). His latest book is At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene (University of California Press, 2010).


Schools Under Surveillance: Cultures of Control in Public Education (Rutgers University Press) is a new book that should be of interest to at least some public school students and their parents. Its publication performs a ne eded public service. In this anthology, editors Torin Monahan and Rodolfo Torres and other academics around the nation ask: …

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