On the seventh floor of an unassuming building along 149th Street in Mott Haven, South Bronx, a group of young people dubbed the United Playaz discussed their reality on a recent fall evening. They do this for an hour every Tuesday as part of an alternative-to-incarceration program run by a nonprofit called Community Connections for Youth.
“Only 28 percent of youth had their parents present while being questioned by police. What do you guys think of that?” said Charles Hudgins, a member of the United Playaz. The question hung in the air.
The figure mentioned by Hudgins is from the Participatory Action Research Project, a forthcoming report on juvenile justice by Community Connections for Youth. The publication – which surveyed Bronx teenagers below the age of 15 about their experiences with juvenile justice – is laden with other statistics. Only 42 percent of youth had their parents notified immediately after their arrest. Three quarters of youth reported that officers were dishonest or said nothing about what would happen after their arrest.
The findings not so much shocked the Playaz as reaffirmed their belief in the over-policed state of youth in the Bronx. They have a point: about 5,200 School Safety Agents, a branch of the NYPD, patrol New York City’s public schools, making them one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the country.
“By having them in schools, it’s setting kids up for jail,” said intervention specialist Khalid McKenzie. “If you make a kid feel like a criminal, that’s how they’re going to act.”
The presence of police in and around public schools in the borough and across New York City surged after 1998 when the Board of Education voted to transfer school security from educators to School Safety Agents. They patrol school entrances and exits, operate cameras and metal detectors – which 62 percent of Bronx high school students walk through each day – as well as having the power to detain students for arrest by precinct officers. With those statistics in mind, little wonder the Playaz are not surprised by the survey’s findings.
“You get used to certain surroundings if you see them everyday,” said Khalid McKenzie.
The results of the 1998 decision are mixed. According to the New York City mayor’s office, public school arrests have declined by 52 percent in the last three years. But Black and Hispanic students, who account for 62 percent of public school enrollment in New York City, were involved in more than 90 percent of school arrests.
Moreover, about half of those summons for public school arrests across New York City were for students in six Bronx high schools: DeWitt Clinton, Adlai E. Stevenson, Walton, JFK, Herbert H. Lehman and Evander Childs Educational Campus.
Members of the group, the majority of whom are black or Hispanic, have experienced what the numbers show up close and personal. Many have been suspended. Others, like Crystali Romero, have been arrested.
“I know kids feel intimidated,” said Romero, who was arrested for getting into fights. “Before School Safety Agents call the parents, they call the cops.”
Common to all of the Playaz, however, is the distrust of law enforcement that increased policing in school has created.
“I feel like I’m being watched,” said DeVante Lewis, a 23-year-old Playaz staff member and one of the authors of the survey. He walks home past Bronx Writing Academy on 167th Street and College Avenue in the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx every day, where an NYPD truck and up to 30 officers stand on patrol.
“They never say ‘hello’ or ‘what’s up?’ It feels like they are there to tell us that we’ve done something wrong, so naturally it becomes us versus them,” said Lewis.
Lewis’s mentality is representative of many youths of color, not just in the Bronx but across the country. “The story is the same anywhere you go,” said Justin Christopher, a 29-year-old black graduate student at UCLA who was in and out of juvenile detention as a teenager in Cincinnati. “If you have a narrative that historically, black people are dangerous, no matter where you are, police will approach black people feeling vulnerable. That’s not protect and preserve, that’s being defensive.”
It is a sentiment that has been crystallized by national protests in the last two years over notorious cases of police brutality, including the killings of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. An ongoing investigation by the Guardian reports that 1046 people have been killed by police in the United States in 2015, with 6.3 black people per million killed for every 2.64 white people. Among youth, a harsher racial disparity exists – the W. Haywood Burns Institute, a juvenile justice think tank, reports that in 2013, for every five black youths incarcerated, one was white.
According to Dr Melissa Sickmund, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice – a research organization in Pittsburgh – the overabundance of police around youth has led to the criminalization of growing up. “Anything that was once considered normal adolescent behavior – teens challenging authority, getting into scraps – is now law-violating behavior,” she said.
The desire to address this is why Amelia Frank runs the Playaz. Frank, a former teacher at Banana Kelly High School in the Bronx, understands the effects of positive and negative reinforcement on students.
“The first principal I worked with at Banana Kelly was amazing – he built a community of young people, their families and School Safetys. He even had Safetys participate in basketball games. But the second principal was scared of the kids, constantly threatening them,” she said. “The use of police on students is not something that automatically has to happen. It’s disempowering to staff and parents. It’s telling them that they can’t help their children.”
Frank’s approach is felt by the members of the Playaz she meets with on Tuesday evenings. “I loved the vibe and energy in the room when I first walked in,” said Gerald Smith, a 12th grader at Bronx Academy of Letters who joined the Playaz in the summer of 2014 after he was suspended from school.
Smith is the youngest of 10 siblings. Many of them have also experienced the criminal justice system – one of his brothers has been in juvenile detention in upstate New York, and one of his cousins spent time on Rikers Island after he was falsely accused of selling cocaine.
Even though he has felt threatened by the police as a result of his family’s experience, his involvement with United Playaz has encouraged him to begin again. “From the start, I felt like I was part of a family. It’s a space that allowed me to devote myself to making the community a better place,” he said.
In April, Smith started a United Playaz chapter at Bronx Academy of Letters, where it is now an elective class that organizes food and clothes drives to help local shelters. “The United Playaz’ motto is: ‘It takes the hood to save the hood,’” he said. “We’re trying to use the class as a method of intervention to help freshman and upperclassmen stay out of trouble.”
The success of programs such as United Playaz shows the effect that community has on rehabilitating youths, a far cry from the provision for inmates at juvenile detention facilities in New York.
“Rehabilitation doesn’t even feel like it’s a part of the agenda here,” said Jacob Cohen, a musician who plays the cello for 16- and 17-year-old inmates at the Robert N Davoren Complex in East Elmhurst, part of the Rikers Island jail complex. “There’s one social worker for 40 inmates. It’s crazy because we have an amazing opportunity to reach them while they’re away from the streets and temptation. If there were 1,000 people like me trying to do their part going in there, it would be a whole different culture.”
On the outside, people like Smith understand the benefit of this kind of support. At the moment, he is completing applications to colleges across New York State, where he hopes to major in political science. Ultimately, he has bigger plans.
“I want to join the army, that’s always been my dream. My brother served for 15 years as a weapons specialist and I want to do the same,” he said. “He taught me to not make the wrong decisions, and to not abuse my power.”