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NYC schools see surge in weapon seizures. Students ‘don’t feel safe’

The uptick has reignited a debate over the role police play in keeping schools safe

new york city public school 95

Public School 95 in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, New York.

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

By Michael Elsen-Rooney
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — The kids are not alright.

Fear of violence that has plagued New York City streets during the pandemic has seeped into public schools, with frightened students grabbing guns, Tasers and pepper spray to protect themselves.

A gun in a knapsack in class, and a 14-year-old middle school student packing a pink pistol, are just two examples of the eight firearms found in city schools between July 1 and Oct. 24.

That’s up from one gun discovered during the same period in 2019 and two in 2018, NYPD data show. Cops have seized 787 weapons at city schools since the start of July, up 28% from 2018 and 2019.

The kids caught with the weapons mostly report that they’re concerned about their safety during their commutes, with a sharp increase in youth gun violence since the start of the pandemic, city Education Department officials said.

“What we see happening with our young people is indicative of what’s happening in the city as a whole,” said Mark Rampersant, Education Department security director. “They don’t feel safe as they transition through multiple communities traveling to school.”

In the first 10 months of 2021, 124 city residents younger than 18 have been shot, 21 of whom have died, police said. That’s up from 98 young people shot and seven killed during the same period last year, and far outpaces the 52 kids shot and four killed in 2019, NYPD data show.

The economic, health and emotional effects of the pandemic — along with the sudden disappearance of support systems like in-person school and extracurricular activities — increased the chances that young people already at risk of gun violence would pick up a weapon, said Elise White, a deputy research director at the Center for Court Innovation.

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“What the pandemic did is just turn up the temperature significantly; the result was just a pretty significant increase in violence,” said White, who is part of a research team that has interviewed hundreds of city youth about why they carry guns.

Now that full-time, in-person classes have resumed, some of those troubling patterns are showing up at schoolhouse doors.

Education officials say they’ve seen more serious disciplinary infractions — a category that includes bringing a weapon to school — this year compared with 2019, though lower-level offenses are down.

The “highest priority [of the Education Department and the NYPD] is keeping kids and communities safe, and through our partnership, incidents in schools are down 16% this year,” said Education Department spokesman Nathaniel Styer. “Weapons have absolutely no place in our schools, and we work closely with our outstanding school safety agents and the NYPD every day to keep our schools safe by stopping dangerous items from entering our schools and ensuring the entire community is safe.”

Along with the uptick in guns, the number of Tasers reported in schools increased sevenfold, from 12 a year in 2018 and 2019, to 84 this year.

Weapons categorized as “other” — which could include things like Tasers, pepper spray and brass knuckles — jumped to 224 this year, compared with 86 in 2018 and 52 in 2019, according to NYPD data.

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Those items likely surged in popularity because they’re cheap, easily accessible ways for young people to arm themselves on the way to and from school, experts and officials said.

“Based on conversations with young people, these Tasers are defensive devices that they’re arming themselves with to protect themselves as they transition to and from school,” said Rampersant.

“The internet has changed things,” added David Caba, the program director at Bronx Rises Against Gun Violence, a group that works to defuse neighborhood gun violence. “You can purchase all these items online easily.”

One Brooklyn principal had to remind two female students recently that the pepper spray canisters attached to their key chains weren’t allowed in school.

“I was conflicted because I know this is a safety strategy. ... [They’ve] never used it in school, I don’t think [they] would,” said the principal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But another student might pick it up and use it. We had to have that conversation.”

None of the eight guns found at city schools have been fired inside the buildings, but a 16-year-old allegedly shot at a classmate and gang rival outside Midwood High School in Brooklyn last month.

The increase in weaponry is troubling for parents and students.

Sevika Singh Dhaliwal, the mother of a freshman at Martin Van Buren High School, said her daughter left school terrified after police flooded the Queens campus to arrest a 17-year-old caught with a gun in his backpack.

“Unacceptable. The school needs to have a better security system,” Dhaliwal said.

The gun scare was one of five in city schools over a two-day stretch last month.

The uptick in weapons found in school has reignited a debate over the role police play in keeping schools safe.

In summer 2020, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and racial justice protests that swept the city, a long-running movement to reduce the presence of cops in schools gained traction — pushing city officials to commit to transferring the roughly 5,000-member school safety agent force from the NYPD to the Education Department.

But the transfer has moved slowly, and its future is uncertain with incoming Mayor Eric Adams, who’s indicated he supports keeping school safety under the NYPD.

In the meantime, a coalition of parents, activists and union officials who oppose the reforms and support a stronger police presence in schools has grown increasingly vocal and called for more school safety agents and the installation of metal detectors in every city school.

Mayor de Blasio has said he is deploying additional NYPD officers to help with arrival and dismissal at schools with security concerns, and adding unannounced metal detector scanning at 30 schools.

Not everyone welcomes that plan.

Passing through metal detectors each morning “doesn’t make you feel welcome to a place you’re supposed to ... call home,” said 15-year-old Belkia Rodriguez, a high school student on Staten Island and advocate for police-free schools.

Johanna Miller, the director of the Education Policy Center at the New York Civil Liberties Union, argues there is no good way to assess the effectiveness of metal detectors because the NYPD has not released specific data on how many schools scan and what the scanning yields.

Several of the guns discovered at school this year were turned up by metal detectors, while others were reported by concerned students.

Education Department officials and some educators maintain that school safety agents — who do not carry guns — are valuable partners who don’t play the same role as armed street cops.

“A lot of times, the kids will tell the security guards stuff. In most schools, I’ve seen the relationships the security guards have with the students,” said one school social worker in the Bronx who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

LaShawn Robinson, Education Department deputy chancellor in charge of school safety, said “the last few weeks demonstrate how valuable they [school safety agents] are.”

But critics say adding more police inside or outside schools is at best a limited solution, and at worst will exacerbate tensions.

Kevin Riley, a Bronx city councilman who was visiting Harry Truman High School in September when a violent melee erupted outside the building, argued a swell of police in and around schools only keeps kids safe during class hours and doesn’t address the root cause of the weapons surge among teens.

“We can’t just oversaturate with police,” he said. “What program is going to protect them when they’re walking home from school? This is [on] all of us. There has to be a more community-based solution.”

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