By Dr. Marsha Jean-Charles, Lead Organizer of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol & Cidra M. Sebastien, Associate Executive Director of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol
At New York’s P.S. 397 in the late 1990s, a deified security guard––bold, Black, and woman––made sure that students remained secure both inside the school walls and throughout school property. Commanding respect and exuding both professionalism and love, she knew us, supported us, and often offered us advice on reaching success in the world. She, as well as our nurse, our principals, and our guidance counselors regularly and unequivocally helped set students on a path of academic achievement.
Today, that support system is virtually nonexistent, especially for young New Yorkers of color. The school safety agents with whom most NYC youth engage in 2019 are employees of the New York Police Department (NYPD) and the number of student support staff in the city’s public schools is meager at best. According to a NYC Department of Education report, in 2018, there were 2,880 guidance counselors and 1,293 social workers serving the 1.1 million students in NYC’s public schools. That is roughly 382 students per guidance counselor and 851 students per social worker — far too many for any one staff member to support effectively or to even know a student by their name.
The Center for Popular Democracy reports that in 2016, there were 5,511 NYPD personnel in NYC public schools, a staggering 190 of who were armed. These statistics aren’t just unacceptable and frightening, they’re indicative of a growing inability to support the full needs of our youth –– especially the marginalized. In NYC, 114,659 youth –– that’s 1 out of every 10 students –– are homeless and 74% of public school youth are economically disadvantaged. Moreover, 96% of teens surveyed by Pew Research Center indicated that anxiety and depression are of the top problems they and their peers face. Given these realities, having more NYPD staff than student support staff is a terrible injustice.
From our experience working with students at The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (Bro/Sis), the Harlem-based nonprofit that provides education and after-school programming to hundreds of NYC’s youth, having in-school support staff would make all the difference.
That’s why we at Bro/Sis are calling on city and state officials to increase education budgets by 20% by 2020 to hire more student support staff and give our students the guidance they truly deserve. We’re also calling for an immediate freeze on the hiring of additional school police. The money saved from such a hiring freeze should be refocused to fund the salaries of additional support staff.
For the young people we serve at Bro/Sis, justice in schools is virtually nonexistent and holistic support seems out of reach. When asked to write about their hopes, for example, our young people say that guidance counselors “can help make me feel that I’m heard at my school” and “can help students feel like they have bright futures.” College counselors, they say, “can help students finish what they have begun” and “can let me know that asking for help is okay.” They also say that therapists “can help me express myself” and “can help me realize who I am without my depression and how my identity changes without it.” If we are to truly create the schools we want for our youth and they want for themselves, we have to increase the budget and hire thousands of student support staff across NYC public schools while putting a stay on hiring more school police. This has to begin with schools serving our most vulnerable populations, particularly youth of color.
With 1.1 million students, it’s long past time that we give our students more support staff: guidance counselors, therapists, social workers, career counselors, college counselors, Title IX coordinators, and others to actually meet the varied and dynamic needs of our students if we are to truly prepare them to successfully navigate today’s world.
Every young person deserves safe, high-quality, holistic, and transformative educational experiences. If we believe in equity and want to create the future all New Yorkers deserve, we must build within our schools systems of accountability, restorative justice, and behavioral management. We must use the millions of dollars currently directed to the NYPD to occupy our schools to instead invest in our students, their successes, and their academic futures. The ACLU said it best that “federal, state, and local dollars must prioritize counselors, psychologists, social workers, and nurses instead of police.” We urge all New Yorkers to join in our call to City and State elected officials to increase by 20% the budget for public school support staff – because if we don’t invest in the future of our youth, who will?