Making his way through the halls of Millennium Art Academy high school in the Bronx early this past school year, Benvenuto Ferron spotted one of his students, a senior, through the window to the gym. The assistant principal approached the teenager, who was huddled with a few other kids he didn't recognize, and quickly noticed the smell of marijuana.
"I thought I was going to get locked up, expelled from school or something," the student remembers thinking as Ferron walked him to the dean's office. But instead of entering New York City's dystopian criminal justice system, the teenager was alternately shocked and relieved to learn he was getting a "warning card."
"I don't know where the warning card came from, I had never heard of it," the student tells VICE. "I was like, 'What?'"
NYPD School Safety Agents (SSAs) in Bronx schools handed out nearly 700 court summonses—a.k.a. orders to appear before a judge—to students in 2012, accounting for a disproportionately large share of the citywide total. That June, a group of parents organized a hearing with the NYPD and the city's Department of Education (DOE) to address the problem. It took a few years, but the Warning Card Project is the result of that burst of parental activism.
For now, the project is just a pilot program at five Bronx high school campuses (which house dozens of schools) that use warnings instead of court summonses for two kinds of infractions: pot possession and disorderly conduct. But if proven effective, the program could gain traction across the country amid rising national scrutiny of how school cops discipline kids.
The key difference between a summons and a warning card? Cards don't give you a criminal record, which matters when you're applying for college, housing, or a job later on.
A summons can even impact your right to stay in the country.
On a typical day, several school safety agents sit at the entrance of the Stevenson campus in the Bronx's Soundview neighborhood. One watches a flat-screen monitor with feeds from several hallways, zooming in on images of blurry students every so often to get a closer look. Another is posted up next to the metal detector. He closes his eyes, clasps his hands in his lap, and extends his legs out, waiting for students or visitors to scan.
Latisha Weeks, a secretary at Bronx Compass High on the same campus, says hers is a "scanner school"—which is to say one marked by a noticeable focus on security.
"Most of our kids come from tough homes, so when they arrive at a scanner school like this, they feel like they are being watched," she says as we walk down the hall. "They arrive and feel like they've already done something wrong."
The traditionally strict school discipline approach has come under fire in recent years for contributing to the "school-to-prison pipeline," policies critics say push at-risk kids from school into America's sprawling criminal justice system, where just one summons can be the start of a nightmare.
"Thousands of people miss their court date every year," says Molly Kovel, legal director of the Civil Action practice at the Bronx Defenders. "The whole weight of the system can fall on them." According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, there are currently more than 1 million active warrants in NYC, and many of them target young people.
For his part, Millennium Art Academy's principal, Herman Guy, attended a Warning Card Project training last summer, and he had doubts about the program when it was rolled out during the fall. But he's warmed up to the new approach after seeing it in action.
"I had reservations as to where that line was going to be drawn on the severity of an offense," he tells me. "Now that I understand that it's not a 'get out of jail card' for any offense, it's just those minor mistakes that teenagers being teenagers will make. In many cases, [the warning card] is enough to turn the student around."
School safety agents caught a different student with a small lead pipe during morning scanning at the same campus this year, and he was sent to Dean Jessica Flores's office. Flores and the agent involved decided to give the student a warning card.
"He had it for defense—he had been jumped several times," Flores recalls. "The majority of our kids are responding to levels of trauma. If you look at a kid in that light, and you work with the child like a human being, you start to see it differently."
The dean says the Warning Card Project is a welcome shift away from stiff penalties for bad behavior. But she concedes schools still have a long way to go. "I think it's a good step in the right direction, but I don't know if it's enough," Flores says. "I hope they're not like, OK, we're good now, there's no prison pipeline."
As one might imagine, there are critics of a new, less punitive approach among teachers and at least one union official, Teamsters Local 237 President Gregory Floyd, who told the New York Post, "This type of turning your back on illegal behavior is grooming criminals." (Floyd's union represents school safety agents.) The tabloid suggested some city teachers fear kids can "get away with anything" and raised the specter of violence by unruly teens.
But Anne Gregory, an associate professor at Rutgers University who researches school environments, says initiatives like the Warning Card Project are popping up in school districts throughout the United States.
"There is movement to transform the SSAs' role and have them be more focused on safety related incidents and not minor behavior," she explains.
It's a small sample size, but in the last three months of 2015, the number of court summonses handed out in Bronx schools decreased by 60 percent compared to the same time period in 2012. More promising still is that summonses for marijuana possession dropped by nearly half to 9 from 16 during the same time period in 2014, and summonses for disorderly conduct dropped 64 percent from 36 to 13. According to Mark Rampersant, head of the DOE's Office of Safety and Youth Development, there has been just one case of recidivism in the 2015–2016 school year, in which a student has received two warning cards. He says the city is looking to expand the program next academic year.
In deciding whether to give the teenager Assistant Principal Ferron caught with weed a warning, Pressie Tyner, the lead NYPD agent for the Stevenson campus, considered that he was a transfer student who'd never been in trouble before.
"You're not the first [to make this mistake], and you're not going to be the last," she remembers explaining to the kid. "I've seen a lot of changes from working in one school that was 'zero tolerance,' so we were issuing summonses for a student cursing a staff member out. [The warning card] develops a community based system. We aren't seen as the enemy anymore."
If the student had brought weed to school a year ago, he would have received an automatic court summons—and might have never recovered.
"Without the warning card, I wouldn't have been able to do half the things I did this year: go to the senior trip, play on the basketball team," the student says. "I didn't think I was going to be able to do anything. I thought I was going to be looked at as a bad student. But it was the opposite way around. This actually helped me to do better."
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