De Blasio’s NYPD in court combat with civil liberties advocates

The mood was jubilant as leaders of the New York Civil Liberties Union and the de Blasio  administration jointly announced the settlement last week of a long-running legal battle over the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices. But the advocacy group and city remain locked in another heated fight in the courts, this one over alleged abuses by NYPD-employed safety officers stationed in the city’s public schools.

The lawsuit, B.H. v. City of New York, alleges widespread violations of students’ constitutional rights by NYPD school safety officers, which the plaintiffs say include intrusive searches, excessive force, and arrests of students for non-criminal violations of school rules.

New school safety agents are sworn in, in this ceremony from 2009. Photo: NYPD

New school safety agents are sworn in, in this ceremony from 2009. Photo: NYPD

The NYPD stations more than 5,000 unarmed officers in city schools, as well as nearly 200 armed officers.

On Friday, lawyers for the city asked Magistrate Judge Steven M. Gold of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York to sanction the NYCLU for destroying surveys of students that the civil liberties group relied on in producing a 2007 report, called “Criminalizing the Classroom.”

The NYCLU represents some of the plaintiffs, who allege that city officials had received copies of the report and therefore were aware of the abuses it describes. Officials’ failure to act, the plaintiffs charge, constitutes “deliberate indifference” in the training and supervision of the NYPD school safety officers.

The NYCLU says it based the report findings on more than 1,000 surveys of high school students and educators in New York City. But last year, with the case already underway, the filled-out survey forms went to the shredder.

If the court agrees to impose sanctions in connection with the destroyed surveys, plaintiffs could be inhibited from relying on the report in their case. A plaintiff needs to prove deliberate indifference in order to hold a local government responsible for civil rights violations.

The city is also demanding that the NYCLU release the names of non-student interviewees for the report and wants to question former NYCLU attorney Udi Ofer in connection with the project.

The NYCLU has asked the court to order reforms, including the creation of a process for filing complaints against rogue school safety agents, mandated communication between NYPD and school staff in connection with student incidents, and training for officers on working with children.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment. A spokesman from the city’s Law Department said, “The case is in discovery and we can’t discuss legal strategy.” The motion was filed by an attorney for the city just a day before new Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter reported for his first day of duty.

The NYCLU did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

In contrast to his vocal stand for reforming stop-and-frisk — which with son Dante’s help played an important role in his election — Mayor de Blasio has taken a quieter tone on the school safety fight.

While on the campaign trail, de Blasio told The Nation that he “wouldn’t necessarily change the jurisdiction of the school safety agents away from the NYPD” but “would change the way decisions are made in the school.” He has not gone into detail about what reforms he would seek.

Black students are disproportionately affected by the NYPD’s presence in city schools: While African Americans only make up 30 percent of the student population, they made up 61 percent of those arrested by NYPD school safety officers.

Even before de Blasio took office, the number of arrests and tickets given to students by NYPD school officers had declined significantly. Arrests dropped by nearly a third between the 2011-’12 and 2012-’13 school years, from 882 to 579. Criminal summonses, which require students to make a court appearance, were down by over half to 788 during the same period.

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