High School Student Vigilance Committees

On Friday March 27, high school students from a number of schools gathered outside the John Jay Educational Complex in Brooklyn, New York. They were protesting because the day before a student at the Park Slope Collegiate school was handcuffed twice and nearly arrested because school safety officers decided a pin holding together his broken glasses was a security threat. They confiscated his glasses and when he tried to take them back he was tackled to the ground, pinned to the floor, and handcuffed. The school principal brought the young man to her office to secure his statement, but police officers, called by the security team, entered and handcuffed the student again. The student was eventually released but issued a summons for disorderly conduct.

Since 1998, security guards in New York City schools are a division of the police department. Guards report directly to police and not to school personnel. The security guards are minimally trained and educated. They must have a high school diploma or GED, be at least 21 years old, and receive fifteen-week of training. Starting salaries are about $32,000 a year or about $16 an hour.

According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, "At the start of the 2008-2009 school year there were 5,055 school safety agents (SSAs) and 191 armed police officers in New York City's public schools. These numbers would make the NYPD's School Safety Division the fifth largest police force in the country." New York City has twice as many SSAs per student than the city of Houston has police officers per citizen.

Feyisola Oduyebo, a student at the school, told reporters "I feel like they're just trying to be mean and bully us. It's training us to be ready for prison. In an open letter Parent Teachers Association members called the incident part of a "culture of mistrust" of students and called for the removal of the school's metal detectors. "Our student did nothing wrong -- he was just trying to go to school in the morning, just like all of our students, yours and mine, do every day." Demonstrators included the teenage son of New York City's mayor.

New York City Councilmembers Vanessa Gibson (D-Bronx) and Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan) are demanding that the police and school officials be required to report whenever students are handcuffed in schools. They also want school officials to report when ambulances and medical personnel are called to deal with students and which schools use metal detectors. According to Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union "For over a decade, students in New York City schools have been getting arrested, summonsed, handcuffed, suspended in school for just minor misbehavior. There are still huge gaps in the reporting that we get about what's going on with school discipline." A big step in making schools less prison-like and in decriminalizing students would be to once again place school security personnel under the direct authority and supervision of school principals.

These are important proposals but not enough to protect the civil liberties of students. In the 1830s, David Ruggles was an African American conductor on the Underground Railroad in New York City. Ruggles helped over four hundred fugitives escape slavery including Frederick Douglass. Ruggles was secretary of the New York Committee of Vigilance, a radical organization founded in 1835 that sought out enslaved Africans brought to New York City by Southerners and helped them secure freedom. Vigilance committees in New York and other Northern cities provided freedom seekers with legal assistance, food, clothing, money, employment, and temporary shelter. They also assisted Blacks, both free-born and self-emancipated, who were seized on the streets slavecatchers, accused of being runaways, and threatened with being shipped down South in chains. Because of his prominence as a Black abolitionist, Ruggles was physically assaulted and his print shop was burned down. There were also at least two attempts to kidnap Ruggles and sell him into slavery in the South.

As African Americans and abolitionists discovered in slavery days, reporting and even legal changes are not always enough. Sometimes the situation demands action. Students need to consider forming their own vigilance committees to protect civil liberties in schools.

Students have the right to form student clubs that encourage active citizenship and responsible action. Student Vigilance Committees can meet with school officials to ensure student rights are understood and respected by security personnel. Members can be trained to be witnesses if an altercation takes place between students and security team members and act as advisors to students who are questioned about disciplinary infractions. They can also help to calm tense situations.

A student challenged by security personnel can simply state:

"I did not intend to violate any school disciplinary codes and I will voluntarily comply with all legal requests, however I want a member of the school Student Vigilance Committee be called as a witness to all proceedings."

School officials may be nervous about chartering and working with Student Vigilance Committees. But the project is clearly aligned with the National Council for the Social Studies and New York State social studies frameworks. Both emphasize the importance of engaging students in citizenship projects to promote an understanding of democratic values and a commitment to active involvement in society. The NCSS College, Career, and Civic Life 3C Framework "encourages the development of state social studies standards that support students in learning to be actively engaged in civic life. Engagement in civic life requires knowledge and experience; children learn to be citizens by working individually and together as citizens. An essential element of social studies education, therefore, is experiential--practicing the arts and habits of civic life."

Student Vigilance Committees can become models for community-based Vigilance Committees. Given recent events in North Charleston, South Carolina, Baltimore, Maryland, and Tulsa County, Oklahoma, Black and Latino communities need to form Vigilance Committees to monitor police. The South Carolina video, taken by a bystander, showed a White police officer shooting a Black man, Walter Scott, in the back eight times. The Baltimore video, also taken by a bystander, shows five White police officers dragging a Black man into a van. Freddie Grey later died in police custody. The Oklahoma video was taken by a police webcam. It showed a volunteer deputy, also White, killing Eric Harris, another Black man.

Prior to posting, I sent the proposal to organize Student Vigilance Committees to teachers and students in predominately minority high schools in the New York metropolitan area to learn their views. At Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School in the Bronx students are already involved in a campaign to have metal detectors removed from their building. Some of the student responses are included below.

Dennis: "A Vigilance Committee is something that I highly recommend be placed in inner city schools. Authority figures will be intimidated at the thought that minority students actually have the ability to critically think, given the fact that they want to take that ability away from us. I believe that they want to turn inner city schools into rubbish. This has an exacerbating effect on minorities. If we can start a Vigilance Committee that focuses on allowing justice to be brought into school we can influence our education. Students can promote an important way of teaching known as critical pedagogy. I would love to start a vigilance committee in my school to see how effective this can be. It worked in the 1830s and during the Civil Rights Movement."

Nephtali: "Those types of groups would bring more students from communities like ours to join and have some type of knowledge of what rights they have. It could be a self-esteem boost as well knowing that we are not alone and we have students to help one another. This is something I would be interested in being apart of or creating. We can address other things that have been a problem with our schools and communities such as medal detectors, x-ray scanners, problems with school security, and law enforcement as well."

Miguel: "Students do indeed need 'Vigilance' Committees. The way our school system is set up, it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to have rights we deserve, especially minorities. Students are treated as criminals and basically as if we are in prison. With metal detectors running our schools, it is almost impossible for us to be trusted by anyone. I get my baseball bat taken away every morning for 'student safety,' then I have to get it at the end of the day. How are us students going to gain trust if every time we bring something in they confiscate our property? Student Vigilance Committees would ensure things would not happen just because a teacher or a security guard is having a bad day and denies your rights as a student."

Adalberto: "Schools should start having vigilance committees so students can have the opportunity to present their point of view on any problem they are involved in. It is not fair when a decision is made to suspend a student if the dean doesn't like you or if you are having a bad day because of a problem at home. There should be meetings of teachers, deans, principal and students discussing the problem and the punishment should be decide by agreement between all of them."

Jeremy: "Having Vigilance committees would not be a bad idea. It can really change how some schools operate (metal detector school) and have a better effect on how minor misbehavior is handled. Vigilance committees can ensure that student rights would be understood and respected and school would have less of the feeling of preparing you for prison. For this idea to go through students have to step up and stay together."

Luis: "I think student should be able to have vigilance committees in their schools. In my high school students get arrested and harassed and the environment feels like a prison because of the metal detectors. Even though it is for our safety it is uncomfortable and feels like it violates our rights. School policies demand that we should be held accountable for our actions but the consequence are always suspension causing students to miss class for minor miss behavior. The vigilant committee can stand up for us and hopefully change the way the Department of Education handles minor misbehaviors and sees us as students."

Dante: "As Black minorities we should come together to find a way to protect our civil liberties. The article says students can form a club with a good purpose. Why not use that to come together so we can alert others and as a people try to make a change."