In September, more than a million New York City students returned to the classroom, but an exciting period turned tragic when two of them were shot within blocks of their high schools. The violent deaths came in the midst of a severe shortage of New York City Police Department-employed safety agents in schools and a renewed debate over the effectiveness of school policing.
One of the victims was fifteen-year-old Unique Smith, who was shot and killed in Brooklyn’s Mclaughlin Park on his way home from school on September 7, said police. School safety agents from George Westinghouse High School who were the first responders at the scene, according to a statement by the NYC School Safety Coalition.
“NYPD School Safety Agents work closely with and are essential members of our school communities, caring for our students and staff each and every day,” Department of Education Press Secretary Jenna Lyle said in a statement.
There are roughly 2,000 fewer school safety agents than there were in 2019, said Gregory Floyd, President of Local 237, a NYC public employee union of more than 24,000 members. According to the union, 3,100 agents were employed at the beginning of the school year.
They are unarmed and stationed within and in the surrounding perimeters of New York City public schools.
With shooting incidents on the rise in New York City, Chancellor David Banks, appointed in January by New York City Mayor Eric Adams, announced that as many as 750 more school safety agents could be added to public schools this year, still leaving employment levels for these positions much lower than in 2019.
According to some agents, low wages and training are seen as main causes for the shortage. Following the reignited Black Lives Matter and police reform movement after the death of George Floyd in June 2020, the City Council began blocking agent training classes and even considered removing agents. Others argued transferring the agents out of NYPD, and rendering them under control of the Department of Education.
Political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, employed by Local 237 and the NYC School Safety Coalition, disagreed with council members who called for the removal of agents as the debates over policing heightened. For Sheinkopf, the results of the depleted ranks of agents are obvious.
“We don’t have safe corridors out the door [of schools]. And the end result is we have more violence,” Sheinkopf said.
He describes many of the agents as “women of color with supporting families, who care deeply about the community and have an investment in that community.”
Li Simpkins, a school safety agent of seventeen years and a mother of four public school students, said that she chose this career path because she has a passion for helping young people. In Simpkin’s opinion, it was not just the police reform movement or job losses during the pandemic that depleted the ranks of school safety officers.
Agents make significantly less than police officers, and it takes seven years to make the maximum salary of 50,207 dollars. As a result, Simpkins said, “really good people were lost.”
Simpkins argues that there’s been a misunderstanding about the role of school safety agents as police. “We’re not here to arrest children; we’re here to protect them from the outside negative forces that come in and impact the school community,” Simpkins said.
Ramik Williams, Executive Director of youth violence prevention organization KAVI, remains unconvinced. He thinks that having agents as a law enforcement branch in schools will always remain problematic. However, as conversations about school safety continue, Williams sees a chance for change.
“This is an opportunity to re-engineer the role of School Safety Agents to be more ingrained in the school community as members, and not as arms of law enforcement,” he said.
A celebration of life was held for Smith on September 17. His mother, Dominique Simmons, wrote on GoFundMe (where over $14,500 in funds for the funeral expenses were donated): “Unique was a smart, funny and kind person, who will be deeply missed by his family and friends.”