The Right To Remain Silent

Jan 31, 2013 by

Ron Isaac

by Ron Isaac –

When a student commits violence that may endanger the school community, and its nature and severity may constitute a crime, who should be in charge of determining what action, if any, to take: educators or law enforcement authorities?
In the case of extreme felonies, the answer is, or should be, more or less self-explanatory. But most situations do not fall into that category, and many dicey implications lurk in day-to-day judgment calls.
Educators know their kids. They have insight that comes from specialized training and experience. They understand the dynamics and see the big picture.
Law enforcement personnel are also professionals. Arguably they are, in their own way, uniquely though differently equipped and prepared for these circumstances. They too undergo professional development. Some of it, such as how to defuse a volatile crisis, overlaps what educators receive. Other aspects deal with interrogation and investigative techniques and mandates ( including liberties and constraints) of the law.
So when potentially arrest-worthy events occur, whose power should trump whose? Is it the turf of educators, which in practice invariably means the principal?  Or is it the proper jurisdiction of law enforcement ( which may involve police officers in addition to school-based safety agents, who also are hires of the Police Department?
 Allowing for coordination of duties and ideas, either one or the other must ultimately be in charge. Ideally, of course, collaboration and common sense should rule. But in reality, there are other elements that come into play. Typically they are driven by competing egos and sometimes incompatible agendas.
Until quite recently, New York City school safety agents had a slightly different title and were employees of the Board of Education, like other school workers. As such, they were subordinates of the principal and could buck the chain of command only at their peril. For the sake of their career, they might be obliged to obey illegal  orders, although nobody in the bureaucracy would admit to that.
Although they got invited to school safety meetings and enjoyed a modicum of autonomy,  they still got their marching orders from the principal and might pay dearly for failing to toe-the-line. Conflicts between top school management and security personnel were few, because it was understood that the safety officers were directly accountable to the principal and were essentially their pawns.
Then a change was made. These newly-dubbed “safety agents” were separated from the Board of Education and attached to the Police Department instead. Assaults on them fell as their prestige and clout rose.  They seemed to assume a greater position of legitimacy in the perception of the school and broader community.  And above all, it appeared to achieve for them a license to be totally honest.
Why?
Ever since the takeover of the school system, principals are under pressure to get high grades on their personal evaluations and school report cards. Included among the criteria for their ratings is data related to school safety.  Reported incidents of violence can ruin a school and even provide a pretext as a tipping point to shut the school down.
The irony is that a splendid school and its brilliant principal may suffer because the principal in actuality observed the theoretical duty to be forthright about problems. And a cynical, failed school “CEO”, whose integrity is exceeded by her ambition, may be credited for running a superior school based on suppressed or fraudulent data.
Courage is just as uncommon among principals as it is among the general population.  Submitting to temptation , they might ( and have) drafted their school’s safety personnel into their unofficial but no less active, cover-up squad.
They must not get away with it!
That’s why it’s crucial that school safety agents be independent of their principals. Especially in the area of data collection, submission and preservation. There may be room for compromise in other areas.
In reporting major violence, no safety agent should face disciplinary action for defying a principal’s gag order. And no principal should be able to boss around or overrule a police officer who carries out an arrest in school for a rare but not unprecedented narcotics transaction or similar conduct.
In police matters, the police must not be subordinate to school principals. Unfortunately, the difference between the School Safety Agents being answerable to the PD rather DOE employees (principals) may prove merely technical and illusory. Sometimes an SSA, for a number of reasons, may act as a de facto subordinate of a principal and lose his/her independence and, therefore, effectiveness.
But regardless of their chain of command and the prerogatives associated with their position and title, there is never a justified excuse for the abuse of authority. They are never above the law or immune to it. Peace officers should not and do not have a blank check to take matters in their own hands and mete out justice as they see fit. Their response options must be spelled out within clear parameters. And there must be reasonable acceptance that law-enforcement, like education, is not a perfect science.
Advocates who prefer the more flexible and fluid judgment of educators, to what they view as the more solid and unmovable tactics of non-educators, claim that non-educators are more prone to overreaction and tend to be arbitrary and biased. This is illustrated by the alarming and telling racial disparity among students subjected to police action. It suggests the same targeting of Black and Hispanic students within school as exists outside it, they note.
These concerns are voiced by civil liberties groups and countless non-affiliated folks of conscience. Their speculations, accusations, and evidence, such as it may be, must never be glossed over or dismissed.
Checks and balances are vital to keeping institutions clean. Nowhere is this more historically proven than the school system. So let’s use the “best practices”  after we discover them!) of both education professionals and law-enforcement professionals to make schools less dangerous for all.
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