School safety agents at a community-run training in the Bronx.
School safety agents participated in a community-run training session in the Bronx earlier this year.

When Lynn Sanchez, a Bronx parent activist, challenged police and education officials to address persistent school climate problems during a public forum on school safety last year, she did not think they would say yes.

And yet just months later, Sanchez was sitting with safety agents during one of their training sessions — which, for the first time, community members and advocates were helping to lead.

She saw a long-standing vision of collaboration coming together in that room. “We have to make sure everyone is on same page — we have to include school safety officers, teachers, principals, paras, students, and parents — in order for a school climate to change,” Sanchez said.

The community-run training sessions represent a striking shift in the city’s strategy for preparing safety agents to work in schools, where their role has historically been fraught. While the Bloomberg administration has famously considered principals to be the CEOs of their schools, principals’ authority does not extend to safety agents, who since 1998 have been under the authority of the New York Police Department in an arrangement that advocates say breeds tension.

The quiet shakeup so far has taken place only in a corner of the Bronx, where community groups were able to persuade the police department to let them play a role in the training of 450 agents, and its future is far from certain. But students, educators, and advocates say they are confident that the approach could go a long way toward easing some of the tensions that have plagued city schools, and a small-scale expansion of the first round of trainings appears to be in the works.

A guidance counselor or handcuffs

The city’s 5,000 safety agents together make up one of the largest police forces in the country. They man metal detectors, patrol the halls, and provide security at school events. City officials say their presence has helped reduce crime in city schools.

Bronx Defenders Attorney Cara Suvall, who represents students in court, said safety agents are many students first contact with the criminal justice system, so there’s a lot at stake in the way agents respond to student behavior.

“The trainings they receive on how to de-escalate situations and change situations can very easily guide the situation one way or another,” she said. “It’s their reactions that can steer the misbehavior towards a guidance counselor or towards handcuffs.”

Advocates say safety agents too often reach for handcuffs even when school officials would rather handle discipline issues without getting the police involved.

And even as the number of arrests and summons issued in schools has fallen in the last year, students of color and students in the Bronx continue to make up a disproportionate number of those arrested or cited. While the Bronx enrolls only 21 percent of city students, 28 percent of arrests and 45 percent of summons took place in its schools.

It was against this backdrop that Sanchez challenged top NYPD and Department of Education officials at a local hearing on school safety to work with community members to put into action solutions that local parents, students, organizers, and lawyers had proposed.

“One by one the people on the panel said yes,” said Dinu Ahmed of the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, who helped community members organize the hearing.

The challenge gave rise to the Bronx School Justice Working Group, which includes several community groups, the NYPD, and the Department of Education. The working group has met regularly to discuss school climate issues, and the Department of Education invited members of the group to meet with several school principals in January. But the centerpiece of its work so far has been the school safety trainings.

Designed by New Settlement, the Children’s Defense Fund, and the Bronx Defenders, all nonprofits that work on school safety, the trainings have so far reached more than 10 percent of safety agents city-wide. Agents at the September and February trainings came fresh out of the NYPD’s 15-week introductory course and were then dispatched to schools around the city. Three other sessions held over spring break in March brought together new and veteran agents — including one longtime agent who had worked at a new agent’s high school when the new agent was a student.

Breaking down stereotypes

One of the trainings’ main activities asks both safety agents and students to brainstorm conclusions to the sentence-starters “we are …” and “we are not …” in an effort to shatter stereotypes about the role school safety agents are supposed to play.

“Ideally we have the school safety agents speak about what they think the students see them as and what we shouldn’t see them as,” said Christopher Pagan, a sophomore at Mott Hall Bronx High School who has participated in the trainings. “They might say, we are safety, we are parents, we are caring. Some might say they’re not babysitters, they’re not social workers.”

Pagan, who so far has been the only student to participate in the trainings, said the value of the trainings is evident in his own changing perspective.

“I see past the badge, because I’ve met with the safety agents,” he said. “These people are not bad people.”

The activity underscored the fact that, at least in the eyes of the agents, most students don’t share Pagan’s perspective (Pagan said the same thing).

“[Agents] came up with all these things that they’re not,” said Ahmed, who remembered hearing “jerks” as one of the words to end the “we are not” prompt. “That comes from a place of, ‘We know how people see us sometimes.’ And then we asked, ‘Where do you think these ideas come from?’”

When the “Who I am” activity flipped and the focus turned to students, agents saw a list of responses compiled by teenagers in advance.

“Some of [the students] might say, ‘Smart, dedicated, not troubled, respectful,’” said Pagan, who led the student section at the trainings he attended. “We’re not gangsters, we’re not criminals. We’re not lawbreakers. We get characterized for a lot. So the point of this workshop is for the agent to get a sense of what we feel as students and what’s the tension we have on our backs.”

Breaking down stereotypes was just one part of the training. Facilitators also discussed the ways that a wide range of approaches to discipline, from suspensions to peer mediation, affect the school environment. And attorneys from the Bronx Defenders spoke with agents about the consequences faced by students who enter the criminal justice students at an early age, as well as the positive effect a skilled agent can have in a school.

“When [agents] are making a positive difference it’s because they get to know the students, know the problems before they happen, and are in a position to make referrals in the school,” Suvall said.

A productive conversation

Pagan said the trainings with agents felt like a conversation. “It’s a good opportunity because you sit there literally and you listen, and they listen — that’s what I love about this,” he said. “In these meetings, they listen. They want to hear your opinion.”

As for the agents, Ahmed said, “It felt like they were having a conversation about the work in a way they don’t always get to have.”

Agents said in surveys after the trainings that the experience was valuable. Many wrote that they were surprised to learn about the city’s school arrest and suspension rates and the relative costs to the city of paying for a year of prison versus a year of school. They also said they appreciated hearing from community members.

“It was good to hear from a non-school and police view,” one agent wrote.

Agents had criticism, too. Certain parts of the training, one agent wrote, needed to take into account “student retaliation towards school safety officers who are law enforcement and sometimes our hands are tied.”

But overall, the trainings were well received, according to Sanchez, who helped facilitate the trainings after getting the ball rolling back at the hearing in June. Sanchez is now running for city council in District 14.

“At the end of the day, we asked them, ‘Now, knowing everything that you know, what will you do differently?’” she said. “That was really powerful because a lot of them said, ‘We’ll talk to them differently. We’ll try to build a relationship with them.’”

In their written feedback, many agents asked for more community-run trainings. One wrote,“I think there should be some sort of workshop for SSAs and school administrators to work more with each other.”

Institutionalizing the experiment

For most of the year, it was unclear the trainings represented the beginning of a sea change in the relationship between police and schools or merely a blip in an otherwise tense climate. Now, mounting evidence suggests that the NYPD plans to continue including community members in safety agents’ training.

According to minutes from the most recent meeting of the Bronx School Justice Working Group, the NYPD plans to continue allowing community members to run trainings for new and veteran agents.

At the same meeting, the Department of Education expressed interest in having community members run part of a new Bronx-based summer training on restorative justice for principals and other administrators.

“This idea of having a training for principals and staff is carrying off the success of the School Safety Agents,” Ahmed said. “We’re thinking, how do we take this model and bring it to other people in the school community that can benefit from it?”

The department’s openness to expanding the model marks a shift in the department’s approach to the working group. Since organizing the principal roundtable early this year, the department had not joined in the school safety trainings, and while a department spokeswoman confirmed the department’s participation in the group, she referred all questions about it and the safety agent trainings to the NYPD.

Whether the city supports community involvement in school safety issues in the future is likely to depend on the next mayor and his or her picks for chancellor and police chief.

Most mayoral candidates have been silent on school discipline issues so far. Anthony Weiner, the former congressman who has indicated that he could enter the mayoral race as soon as next week, has said “the process to remove troublesome students” is a top priority, drawing criticism that discipline policies that he favors might be even more punitive than the Bloomberg administration’s.

But several Democratic candidates have signaled their support for changing the way that schools handle discipline given that black and Latino students are arrested in disproportionate numbers. Their statements have bolstered advocates’ optimism that the community-led trainings will continue.

“I want to make sure the [the trainings] are institutionalized,” said Jaime Koppel of the Children’s Defense Fund, who helped design and run the trainings. “Who knows what’s coming down the pike with a new mayor?”

Alexis Karteron, an attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union, cautioned that elected officials shouldn’t see community involvement as a substitute for broader changes that the NYPD and Department of Education should make to the way safety agents are trained.

“It’s important for [agents] to hear from parents and community members, but ultimately it’s the responsibility of the city to make sure they’re trained well and able to be a positive force in schools,” Karteron said.