June 26, 2009
A 1998 agreement that gives the city’s police department control over school safety is still in effect, despite city officials’ insistence that it had expired more than six years ago.
The revelation has advocates and elected officials lambasting the city for not disclosing the agreement’s extension.
The original agreement, between Mayor Rudy Giuliani and then-Board of Education President William Thompson, was set to expire in 2002 and was widely assumed to have done so. But in fact, Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein quietly renewed the agreement in January 2003.
The renewal came to light for the first time this month, after Assemblyman Karim Camara urged his colleagues to consider school safety issues when deciding how to vote on mayoral control, according to Udi Ofer, director of advocacy for the New York Civil Liberties Union. The NYCLU was working with legislators to raise the profile of school safety in the mayoral control fight.
When Camara met with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Silver showed him a copy of the memorandum’s renewal, Ofer said. The paragraph-long agreement was signed by Bloomberg and Klein on Jan. 22, 2003, and does not include an expiration date.
The renewal contradicts information the City Council received during a 2007 hearing on school safety, where council members repeatedly asked whether any formal document existed to define the relationship between the city schools and the police department.
At the hearing, a deputy chancellor, Kathleen Grimm, testified that mayoral control made such an agreement unnecessary, because the mayor controls both the schools and the police. (I reported about the hearing for Insideschools.)
Grimm’s inaccurate testimony is important because it shows just how little accountability exists in the realm of school safety, Ofer said. In addition to Grimm, a police department deputy told NYCLU that no memorandum was in effect, he said.
“If they knew of this [Memorandum of Understanding], then they lied to us,” he said. “If they didn’t know, then the people who are in charge of implementing school safety have no idea of what rules govern them.”
“Either explanation would be a bad one,” he said.
After I sought comment from her office, Council Speaker Christine Quinn released a statement earlier this week calling the department’s incorrect testimony “completely unacceptable.”
“It undermines the Council’s ability to conduct effective oversight and has prevented any real conversations on the subject of reform,” she said. “When representatives of city agencies testify at Council hearings, we take it on faith that their testimony is accurate.”
Knowing the agreement was still in effect would have changed advocates’ approach to improving school safety, Ofer said. Advocates would also have pushed harder to compel the city to provide semi-annual evaluations of school safety, as required by the memorandum. At the October 2007 City Council meeting, Grimm testified that those evaluations were not taking place.
But more important than what the agreement’s existence changes is what it says about the city’s respect for the law, Ofer said.
“What’s in place was mischaracterized to the public for years,” he said. “It is fundamentally wrong when a legal document exists and the people in charge of enforcing it don’t even know it exists.”
NYCLU filed a Freedom of Information Law request against the police and schools departments to find out if a memorandum existed, Ofer said. The police department sent NYCLU a copy of the 1998 without the 2003 renewal. The education department simply did not respond, he said.
In 1998, Giuliani and Thompson, now comptroller and a mayoral candidate, inked a deal to turn control of school safety over to the police department the following year. But after 2002, the police officers assigned to schools did not disappear. Instead, their number swelled.
The October 2007 City Council hearing came after a series of high-profile flare-ups, in which students were arrested for minor infractions and a principal was hauled from his school in handcuffs after intervening in a student’s arrest.
Grimm referred me to the Department of Education’s press office for comment. I have yet to hear back.