Monday, November 9, 2009

NY: City settles lawsuit over alleged abuse by school safety agent

November 5, 2009
by Maura Walz

The city will pay $55,000 to a Queens high school student who alleged that he was abused by a school safety agent.

The family of Stephen Cruz, a senior at Robert F. Kennedy High School in Flushing, Queens, sued the city a year ago after a school safety agent, Daniel O’Connell, allegedly kicked open the door of the bathroom stall Cruz was in. The door swung, hitting Cruz and cutting his face. The New York Civil Liberties Union also filed a complaint against O’Connell last year with the police department’s Internal Affairs Bureau on Cruz’ behalf.

NYCLU spokeswoman Jennifer Carnig said that to her knowledge, the police department has not taken disciplinary action against O’Connell, who was transferred to a middle school following the incident. A police department spokesman did not return request for comment on the complaint.

The settlement comes less than a week before a scheduled City Council hearing on the Student Safety Act, a law introduced by education committee chairman Robert Jackson in August 2008. The legislation, which is currently sponsored by 33 of the council’s 50 members, would require the Department of Education to submit reports four times a year on safety incidents and the activities of the school safety agents at each school. It would also require 311 operators to direct complaints about the agents to the police department’s Internal Affairs Bureau.

The NYCLU is planning a rally on the steps of City Hall before the hearing. Cruz’s family members and attorney will also testify at the hearing.

Critics of police presence in schools have long complained that the 5,000 school safety agents assigned to the city’s public schools but employed by the police department treat students too aggressively and get involved in disciplinary cases better handled by educational staff.

At a town-hall style meeting earlier this month, a parent raised this criticism with Deputy Mayor for Education Dennis Walcott. The parent, Susan Crawford, argued that incidents that should be handled by principals are now being handed over to police and that children end up with unnecessary criminal records that follow them for years to come.

Walcott disagreed, saying that the city never took disciplinary power away from principals and that the security policies have resulted in a significant decrease in safety problems in schools.

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