San Francisco Reins in Police Presence in Schools


While the de Blasio administration and civil liberties advocates continue to spar in court over how New York City schools are policed, in San Francisco the police department and school district are finalizing a memorandum of understanding that would severely curtail what cops can do on public school campuses.

The memorandum, which was unanimously passed by the San Francisco school board last month and is expected to be signed soon by the San Francisco Police Department, requires officers to attempt a series of preliminary measures before resorting to the arrest of a student, mandates training for police who work with children, obliges cops to give parents time to get to school before their child is questioned, and, in an effort to reduce disruptions to the school, limits how arrests can be carried out.

This agreement will expire in five years and replaces one signed after cops broke up a 2002 fight at a San Francisco high school.

“We realize that there is an important role for police officers on our campuses,” said Matt Haney, a member of the San Francisco Board of Education. “But only in very specific, narrow situations.”

Advocates say that the cooperation of both the school board and the police department was critical to their success.

“We are lucky in San Francisco,” said Kevin Boggess, Director of Civil Engagement at Coleman Advocates, one of several groups that campaigned for the change. “We can meet with our chief of police and discuss the issues facing our community.”

So far, New York advocates for reforming the police presence in schools have found the conversation slow to get started with the new administration.

Soshi Chowdhury of the New York Dignity in Schools Campaign said that her group, which advocates for reform of school security, “hope to sit down with the new administration in the upcoming months.”

The memorandum of understanding governing how NYPD school safety agents behave in New York City schools was signed in 1998, under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

The NYPD has interpreted the agreement as granting its school safety officers the ability to not just enforce the penal code but also the Chancellor’s Student Disciplinary Code.

In April 2007, the NYPD released a guide for new recruits, “NYPD School Safety Agent Duties and Responsibilities,” which listed duties that included checking students for hall passes, referring those detained for infractions to the administration, checking for students cutting classes and “search[ing] a student’s possessions and person provided that school officials have reasonable suspicion to believe…that the student has violated or is violating either the law or school rules.”

San Francisco activists say that they began to push for reforms two years ago, after school officials summoned police in response to a 5-year-old throwing a tantrum. After that incident, advocates requested records on who was getting arrested. They found that while 8 percent of city students are black, black students represented 40 percent of the 460 students arrested at schools from 2010 to 2013.

It is still unclear whether special training will be mandatory for officers working with students. The SFPD has said it would like training to be optional.

The San Francisco agreement also includes measures already taken by New York City, such as requiring the police and school district to report, quarterly, the demographic information of who is getting arrested.