Schenectady

Schenectady City Council approves school-police program

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SCHENECTADY — Following weeks of debate and fierce criticism from some community members, the City Council on Monday voted to approve a program that would expand the presence of police in city schools.

The 6-0 vote capped off weeks of public scrutiny surrounding a community engagement officer program that would place up to six officers in city schools over the next three years at a cost of $600,000 annually, split evenly between the city and school district. 

Councilman Damonni Farley, an employee of the school district, abstained from the vote. He asked residents to be mindful of concerns raised by some about the program over the past two months, adding that the council is tasked with examining all issues from multiple points of view. 

“I definitely want our kids to feel safe, but it’s imperative that the council look at what safety means for everybody,” Farley said.

Plans to expand the program, which launched on a pilot basis with a pair of officers at Schenectady High School last fall, have been the subject of intense debate at school board meetings in recent weeks, with dozens of individuals, including parents and students, expressing opposition to the program via written letters and during public comment periods.

The expanded program will place two officers at the high school and see three officers divide time between the district’s middle and elementary schools. A supervising sergeant will oversee the program. 

Many have argued that police have no place in schools, and their presence would only serve to traumatize students of color and pointed to studies by the American Civil Liberties Union that have found Black and brown students face higher arrest rates when police are placed in schools.

But Superintendent Anibal Soler Jr. and police Chief Eric Clifford have touted the program as a way to foster relationships between students and police and noted that police will not be involved in the disciplinary process, but could intervene when violent incidents occur and investigate any crimes that occur on campus.

The school board ultimately approved the program in a 4-3 vote.

Melanie Trimble, the Capital Region director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, urged the council to table the proposal on Monday, calling the contract between the school district and police department “deeply flawed” and would give police the ability to discipline students. 

She said the program would exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline, and noted the Schenectady Police Department has a history of using force when arresting individuals of color — an issue, she said, is particularly concerning given how diverse the school district is. 

Money for the program, she said, would be better used to hire additional counselors and health-care professionals.

“The $600,000 that you’re using to employ police officers in school would be better diverted to hiring more counselors and health-care professionals,” Trimble said. “This proposal deserves much more serious thought than it has been given, and this council is the body that must exercise due care when considering it before any public funds are given to it.”

But several in attendance said police are needed in schools, pointing to a number of recent violent incidents that they said teachers and guidance counselors are not equipped to handle, which has created an unsafe environment for students and staff.  

One individual pointed to an incident last week involving a 17-year-old student out on suspension who was apprehended by the community engagement officers with a BB gun that looked like a real weapon after being spotted walking with building with a mask and gloves and providing staff with a fake ID before fleeing the building. 

No one was injured as a result of the incident, according to the school district. 

Theresa Doty said her son was “violently attacked” at Mont Pleasant Middle School just before the pandemic took hold over an incident stemming from gym class.

She said faculty stood by and watched as the incident unfolded and that school security wasn’t on hand to intervene. 

The incident was eventually stopped by another student, but not before Doty said her son sustained a concussion and two black eyes. She added that her family is still dealing with the trauma from the incident and that her son was afraid to attend class.

“I don’t wish COVID on us at all, but it was the best thing to happen to my son — to bring him back home to a place where he felt safe to learn,” Doty said. 

Councilman John Polimeni said there is “too much violence” in city schools and things have gotten to the point where some faculty are too afraid to come to work. 

He noted the program will allow police officers to interact with students and can be terminated at any time by either the school district or police department.

“We need officers in the school. We need to engage with students and create an environment that is positive,” he said. 

Meanwhile Council President Marion Porterfield said she had a number of conversations with numerous stakeholders, including parents and police officers, and researched how similar programs worked elsewhere. 

Porterfield said she decided to vote in favor of the program after taking all the facts into consideration, and urged residents to do the same before rushing to judgment about the program.

“I ask that all of you, whether for or against it, as it goes on to evaluate and take the time to take a look at what’s going on and then make your argument that this did work or didn’t work,” she said.

Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.  

Categories: News, Schenectady, Schenectady County

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