This piece was published in our Perspectives section. Freddy Medina is a writer who is currently incarcerated in Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, New York. He has a masters degree from the New York Theological Seminary.
The first time I saw a gun inside a school was in the sixth grade. I was eleven years old, and at the entrance to our school, this pale, freckle-faced kid who wore his older brother’s hand-me-downs was pulled off to the side by a school security guard. The security guard told the kid, Ariel, to put his hands on the wall and to assume the position for a pat-and-frisk before his backpack was searched. Even at eleven years old, Ariel knew exactly what to do when told to “assume the position.”
I don’t know if the incident was a random one, or if he was targeted by the security officer for some reason. But I know that everyone, even the security guard, was surprised by what happened next. The guard reached into Ariel’s bag and pulled out an Uzi, a semi-automatic pistol known in the streets as a “street sweeper.” I would not see Ariel for another twenty years, until we met again in the big yard of Sing Sing, the infamous maximum-security prison.
I asked him why he had carried that gun to school that day, so many years ago. His response? “My brother had gotten shot a couple of weeks before on streets, and I was afraid I was going to be next.”
For the first time, I really understood. Ariel was always hypervigilant, paranoid on his way to school, afraid of becoming a victim of the violence going on around him. He carried the gun for protection, in case he got jumped by kids from another neighborhood on his way to or from school. For politicians and cops, “school safety” meant arresting kids who brought guns to school. But for Ariel, carrying a gun was the way to be safe in school. He didn’t care about the issue of “school safety” as the politicians talked about it; for him, safety at school meant carrying a gun for protection, in case he got jumped by rivals while walking to or from school. It was about survival.
School and the Streets
When I attended George Washington High School in the 1990s, it was reported to have the third-highest number of violent incidents in the New York City school system. Most of it was violence that carried over from the streets. Inner-city public schools have always been an extension of life on the streets. For many Black and Latino youths, separating the school experience from the circumstances of their daily lives is almost impossible.
I remember whenever something big went down on the streets, everyone would show up to school the next day ready for violence to break out. We always walked in pairs and watched each others’ backs in the school hallways, like you do in a prison yard. Everybody involved was aware that people were armed, so the tension was always high. Sometimes, guys were caught by themselves in stairways and they would get jumped on and stabbed up by another group from a rival neighborhood.
Politicians responded to the violence with “tough on crime” policies. In 1998, the NYPD created a special School Safety Division to patrol public schools. By 2020, that School Safety Division had a budget of $425 million and included about 5,000 unarmed officers stationed in schools, who are known as “school safety agents,” and another 200 or so armed police officers who would respond to incidents in schools. (The number of school safety agents has since fallen, because many of them refused to comply with vaccine mandates in public schools.)
Schools became more like prisons, with students required to pass through maximum security style entrances with X-ray machines and metal detectors. But all this did little to stop the guns from coming in.
All it did was change the way weapons were brought into school. Guys got more creative at sneaking them in. For example, one of us would punch in our ID up front and then walk to the back entrance and open the door, where the rest of us were waiting outside the school with our weapons. We would place our weapons in his book bag and then go back around front and punch in our IDs for attendance purposes. After we made it into school, we would meet up in a stairway to redistribute the weapons among each other again.
Teenagers who live in a chronic state of threat from acts of violence will always find a way to protect themselves, especially those who come from the marginalized urban war zones around the city. According to New York City’s Vera Institute of Justice, young Black and Latino men are more likely than any other group to be the victims of violent crime. When violence is all around you, it’s only natural to want to protect yourself, however you can manage to.
This is why more police officers in our schools will never be the answer. Their presence will not deter a youth, who just got shot at a few days ago on the street, from bringing a gun to school for protection. Some urban youths will fear an overwhelming police presence more than trust it, especially when the guns in their holsters can become triggers for the very behavior they are trying to change.
When I was in school, the police officers didn’t trust us and we didn’t trust them. They would often pull the Black and Brown students, like my friends and I, to the side to pat frisk us. They always thought we looked suspicious with our oversized coats, baggy clothes, and hoodies on. We would be on our way to class and find ourselves being chased up and down the stairways, because they thought we had something to do with another incident that happened elsewhere. We always ran because we knew that if we got caught, we would be blamed for it anyway. There were plenty of times when we actually had to run out of the school building in the middle of the day just to avoid getting into trouble for things we did not do!
Now, almost thirty years since I attended high school, the problem of our young people carrying guns to school remains prevalent in our poorest districts. Recently, the issue of guns in schools has resurfaced. It’s not because politicians suddenly care about the lives of Black and Brown young men, but because the kind of violence urban youths spend their lives witnessing has now begun to impact suburban and rural schools, which are attended by mostly white kids.
With a new mayor in office, New York also has a new chance to make a difference in the lives of these young people and to end gun violence. Even as an incarcerated individual still residing inside one of New York State’s many prisons, I would like to believe that as a New Yorker my voice still matters to this administration. And there’s one thing I want to tell Mayor Eric Adams: A stronger police presence in our inner city schools is not the way.
We’ve been down this road before. More police in schools was the same solution presented by politicians in the ’90s, during the height of mass incarceration and the war on drugs. But it made no difference to the young Black and Latino men who continued to carry guns to school as a direct result of violence in their streets. The same reasoning still drives the poor decision making of our urban youths today, because the same kind of violence that contributed to the erosion of our communities back in the ‘90s continues to threaten today’s generation.
The problems first started in the ’80s, when the Reagan administration declared the War on Drugs All of a sudden, our community’s providers, protectors, and parental guardians began to disappear into the criminal justice system by the thousands, creating a massive void in the hearts of our neighborhoods.
Two years ago, it seemed like things might finally be changing. As people took to the streets during the George Floyd protests, Black and Latino students organized for “Police-Free Schools,” a demand that New York City remove all NYPD officers from public schools. Mayor de Blasio and the City Council refused to do that, but they did eventually agree to transfer control of school safety officers (and their $425 million budget) from the NYPD to the Department of Education.
But even this symbolic defeat for the NYPD may be reversed. Mayor de Blasio, who always opposed the movement to take the NYPD out of schools, insisted on a two-year deadline for the transfer, meaning that it wouldn’t be finished until June 2022, when he was already out of office.
Mayor Adams, meanwhile, has pledged to block the transfer of school safety agents from the NYPD to the DOE. Adams said during his campaign that he does not want there to be a “police culture” in public schools, but all he has proposed is giving the school safety agents stationed in schools more training and new uniforms. Instead of trying to reduce the amount of police officers in public schools, both de Blasio and Adams have recently supported increasing the police presence in schools.
There is a better way to deal with this issue. But it must mean tackling the root causes of the violence that leads to guns being carried into our schools in the first place.
Our focus should be on the poverty-stricken communities that keep perpetuating violence like an infectious disease. I’m not suggesting Stop-and-Frisk tactics, which proved to be racially biased and unproductive in the past. Like the metal detectors in schools, Stop-and-Frisk just tries to find guns. It does nothing to stop the root causes of street violence. With a more proactive approach, such as reallocating more funds and resources for programs in these communities, we can work to stop violence before it occurs and keep our youths off the streets.
There are dozens of programs that are deserving of our attention and funding — our leaders only need to seek them out. Save Our Streets, Urban Youth Alliance, Both Sides of the Violence, Center for Community Alternatives, and Community Connections for Youth are just some of the programs out there that are serving communities in crisis. These are programs that have credible messengers out there on the streets who are trying to put an end to gun violence while keeping our youths out of prison.
These programs are focused on creating safer communities with safer methods of violence prevention. This is the way. And with a conscious collaboration between our community leaders, community based programs, and our schools, these are the kind of programs that will actually make a difference.
What can we expect from a group that feels devalued by society? It’s no wonder they see a larger police presence in their schools as a threat instead of as a safety measure. I know I did. They react how their environment has trained them to react.
I find it interesting that when discussing school safety, no one mentions the fact that it is easier for teenagers in our most underprivileged communities to get their hands on a gun than it is for them to buy a pack of cigarettes. Instead, it feels like the issue is being swept under the rug again, with the same solutions on the table, which do more to perpetuate the myth of inherent criminality than they act as a deterrent for deviant behavior. They act like the violence is unstoppable and all we can do is try to take away their guns and send them off to Rikers.
But it’s no coincidence that the schools that have the most problems with guns are located in marginalized, disenfranchised, poverty- stricken and over-policed communities. Violence and poverty go hand in hand, and carrying guns for protection has becomes the norm in these communities, especially when the mentality on the streets, is, “I’d rather get caught by the police with a gun on me than get caught slipping on the streets by someone trying to do harm to me without one.”
We rarely hear about how much our communities do want to get involved with the solutions that work, the solutions that invest in our communities and help our youth find alternatives to violence. With the proper support from our elected officials, these solutions can finally allow our teenagers to reach their full potential.