SCHENECTADY Once or twice a week, every week of the school year, police take someone out of Schenectady High School in handcuffs.
But in the vast majority of those cases, no crime was committed. Police were called to help the school district enforce internal discipline when suspended students or drop-outs wouldn’t leave the building.
Out of 63 cases in the last school year, only 17 involved allegations of a crime. And only five of those arrests involved a fight, according to records released under a Freedom of Information Act request.
By the numbers
A look at Schenectady High School arrests in the 2010-2011 school year:
Felony assault 0
Dangerous weapon 3
Stolen property 2
Criminal mischief 1
Misdemeanor assault 5
Violations, including trespass and disorderly conduct 46
The low number of crimes flies in the face of the school’s rating up through the 2010-11 academic year as a “dangerous” school. Associate Superintendent Gregory Fields, who is charge of the high school, said the arrest record proves the school is safe.
“I don’t think we ever should have been on the dangerous schools list,” he said.
But the arrests left some parents criticizing the school, saying officials turn to police too often. In 46 cases, police didn’t have to make an arrest. They did so only because the district insisted.
“The majority of these cases are violations,” Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett said. “We’ll really work off the school district’s desire to press charges.”
Police must make an arrest if they see someone committing a crime — perhaps a theft or assault. If someone is committing a violation, such as trespass, the victim can decide whether to press charges. A violation is not a crime, and is considered roughly the same as a traffic ticket.
Fields defended the need to press charges, saying that school officials try to get students to behave before calling police. Most of the time, the problem is that students won’t leave when asked.
“We don’t want to have the policemen on campus,” he said. “If we called them for assistance, it means we asked them to leave and they haven’t left.”
If that happens, school officials will press charges. “We have to follow through,” Fields said.
But, he added, school officials are often led to believe that they must press charges.
“The police officers advise us,” he said. “And most of them time [the students] weren’t even cooperating when the policeman came. So they went ahead with the arrest.”
Last school year, officials pressed charges in seven cases of disorderly conduct — fights that didn’t cause any injuries or property damage. And officials pressed charges in 39 other cases.
Bennett agreed with Fields that those cases were mainly trespass when drop-outs or suspended students walked into the school.
“What frequently we get are people who are banned from the property who come back,” Bennett said. “In many cases they [school officials] will just say they want them to leave the property.”
When faced with a police officer, the teenager usually agrees to leave, Bennett said.
There are some occasions when police insisted on an arrest that had nothing to do with the school. In the last calendar year, police went to the high school 12 times to serve warrants and court summons on students.
“If it can be avoided, we’ll avoid it,” Bennett said. “But if we have a warrant and they’re in school and we’ve made efforts to find them away from school and we were not successful, we make the arrest at school.”
He noted that schools are “no different” from businesses and other locations where police track down suspects. “I think it’s a fair policy,” he said.
Fields said that school officials always allow officers into the high school to make those arrests. “They have the authority. They come with a warrant. We can’t intercede,” he said. “We have no choice. We can’t tell them they can’t come here and arrest them.”
The district’s new superintendent, Laurence Spring, has a slightly different policy.
If administrators must call police to deal with students, Spring said they must call the parents at the same time.
“We have to remember, we are essentially that child’s parents. We need to make sure we’re advocating for the child’s rights,” he said. The same would be true if police arrive to serve a warrant, he said. Parents should be called.
Bennett said, “Does the school have the right to come up with an internal policy? I would say yes.”
But, he added, he doesn’t want his officers to be forced to wait for hours until a parent arrives. “They can meet us at the Police Department just as easily,” he said. “And it doesn’t matter anyway if they’re under 16. They have to be interviewed in front of a parent or adult.”
He wants to discuss such policies with Spring when he arrives in June, but he said he doesn’t anticipate any problems. “We’re not talking about a lot of cases,” he said.
While some parents in Schenectady want school officials to call police less often, other nearby schools are tightening their policies.
In Niskayuna, the new superintendent has created a stronger working relationship with police, department spokesman Sgt. Dan McManus said.
Superintendent Susan Kay Salvaggio called for police to “consistently” charge students who committed crimes, after eight students were found drinking at a football game last fall.
School spokesman Matt Leon said the district considers consistency a safety policy. “We call them any time a crime has occurred, or we have reason to believe a crime has occurred, in the interest of keeping all students safe,” he said.
But, he added, “It’s not a daily event or a weekly event.”
Police confirmed that.
Leon said that despite the desire to avoid arresting students, the superintendent has made it clear she’s willing to do so.
“Our approach is to do whatever it takes to keep children safe,” he said.
A Niskayuna student and a Schenectady student were arrested on campus in November after they allegedly robbed a student at knife point. Both students were sent to a juvenile delinquency center on felony robbery and larceny charges.
Schenectady has also had occasions where police had to be called for serious crimes. In the last school year, one of the worst crimes reported was a class-E felony. A student falsely reported that he had a bomb. Police closed down the school and searched it with bomb-sniffing dogs before determining that the boy had lied.