177 Livingston Street 7th Floor Brooklyn, NY 11201 (718) 254-0700 info@bds.org

ABOUT

BROOKLYN DEFENDER SERVICES

The mission of Brooklyn Defender Services is to provide high quality legal representation and related services to people who cannot afford to retain an attorney.

Brooklyn Defender Services is a public defender organization that represents nearly 40,000 people each year who are too poor to afford an attorney. Our staff consists of specialized attorneys, social workers, investigators, paralegals and administrative staff who are experts in their individual fields.

Our staff are highly qualified and specially trained to provide excellent legal representation to people charged with a crime or facing child welfare proceedings. Every client receives the services needed to defend his or her case, including an investigator to track down witnesses or recover evidence, a social worker to improve the life circumstances of our client and an excellent attorney who will analyze the legal issues in the case, try to negotiate a fair resolution of the matter and will represent the client at a trial.

BDS has many services for our clients on-site, including civil legal advocacy, such as assistance with educational needs of our clients or their children, housing and benefits advocacy and immigration advice and representation.

People who are arrested face many obstacles, even if their case was resolved in their favor. Some examples are loss of employment, suspension from school, eviction from public or private housing, deportation, forfeiture of property and loss of licenses. Our goal is to help clients with these issues as they arise. We also work to change these systems by challenging their legality and advocating for changes in the law.

Each year, there are 100,000 arrests in Brooklyn. Eighty-five percent of these arrests are for misdemeanors or a non-criminal offense. Ninety percent of the people arrested cannot afford an attorney. Brooklyn Defender Services staffs the court so that every person has an attorney as soon as they see the judge.

One thousand families each year get a similar benefit—they too have an attorney waiting in the courtroom to help them on the very day that proceedings are filed for removal of their children.

Many of our clients are people with a mental illness. Many of our clients are under the age of 18. A growing number are veterans facing difficulties in returning home. A large portion are suffering with drug addiction or alcoholism. It is only through a zealous voice advocating for those unable to speak for themselves that justice is done. BDS is that voice.

PRACTICE AREAS

  • Criminal Defense

  • Family Defense

  • Immigration

  • Civil Justice

  • Policy & Advocacy

  • Community Office

BOARD OF DIRECTORS

Kevin Snover, Chairman of the Board
Gregory Cerchione, Secretary
Cindi Elibott Giglio, Treasurer
Suprotik Basu, Board Member
Andrea Bonina, Board Member
Robert J. Gunther, Jr., Board Member
Jeffrey Rona, Board Member
Lisa Schreibersdorf, Board Member and Executive Director

PRO BONO AT BDS

Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) is committed to high-quality and zealous representation on behalf of Brooklyn residents facing the criminal, family and immigration justice systems.   As part of this mission, BDS strives to ensure pro bono partnerships leverage resources and provide critical support for our clients in and out of the courtroom to ensure our clients obtain the best result possible in court and, hopefully, a better outcome in their lives.

BDS regularly partners with New York City’s major law firms, corporations and other members of the private bar on numerous cases from all of our practice areas.  Our pro bono partners have worked on individual cases, filed complaints in federal courts, co-authored amicus briefs, co-counseled hearings, filed and argued appeals and conducted research on novel areas of law.  BDS offers pro bono opportunities that not only present ideal opportunities for pro bono attorneys to get real courtroom experience and work with clients in need, but that result in just and better outcomes for our clients.  BDS offers both short- and long-term projects and has flexible co-counseling arrangements. Additionally, we offer comprehensive training programs, mentorship and supervision that will provide a meaningful experience for the pro bono attorney and the client.

Law firms, corporations, law-firm attorneys, and in-house counsel who are interested in joining Brooklyn Defender Services’ pro bono practice, please contact our Pro Bono Counsel Jessica Nitsche at jnitsche@bds.org.

Retired or Transitioning Attorneys interested in pro bono opportunities are welcomed at Brooklyn Defender Services. Our organization is one of the host organizations of the Attorney Emeritus Program (AEP) established by former New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. Please visit the NY Courts website to register for the program and contact Pro Bono Counsel Jessica Nitsche at jnitsche@bds.org.

Individual Volunteers are incorporated into our practices on an as-needed basis. Please send a resume and cover letter indicating particular skills you have that are applicable to our work and your specific availability to jnitsche@bds.org.

HISTORY


BDS opened its doors in 1996 as the first borough-specific public defender office in New York City, with 38 employees working around donated conference room tables out of office space recently vacated by the New York Telephone Co. That first year we lived rent-free, while the building was being renovated around us, and handled 10,000 cases.

Today, BDS is one of the largest defender offices in the country, representing tens of thousands of clients in criminal, family, immigration and civil cases annually. Our staff of 300 includes 180 attorneys and 120 social workers, investigators, paralegals, re-entry specialists, jail liaisons, community organizers and policy specialists as well as dedicated advocates for youth, veterans and parents. Our specialized defense approach allows us to provide targeted services for clients with mental illness or developmental disabilities, adolescent clients, trafficking victims and veterans.

 

PARTNERS AND SUPPORTERS


Our primary mission at BDS is to represent people facing serious accusations from the government. We recognize that our clients face many additional challenges and obstacles related to their poverty. As the largest Brooklyn-based legal services provider, BDS’s interdisciplinary staff provides supplemental legal and social services on site to our clients, including immigration attorneys, housing attorneys, an education attorney and social workers who specialize in areas such as mental health and youth advocacy.

826NYC

ARISE (Action for Reform in Special Education)

Attorney General Office Criminal Justice and Mental Health Roundtable

Black Alliance for Just Immigration

Brooklyn Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyer’s Project

Brooklyn Community Bail Fund

Brooklyn Community Services

Brooklyn Justice Corps

Brooklyn Justice Initiatives

Brooklyn Law School

Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association

Brownsville Community Justice Center

Camelot

Caribbean American Center of New York

CASES

Center for Community Alternatives

Center  for Court Innovation

Center for Family Life

Child Welfare Organizing Project

Children’s Museum of the Arts

Christ Church Fellowship Baptist Church

Coalition for Effective Behavioral Health Reforms and Dignity in Schools Campaign

Common Justice

Drew House & Project Greenhope

Esperanza

EXALT

Families for Freedom

Families Rising

Fortune Society

Good Shepherd Services

Haitian Centers Council

Haitian Family Resource Center

Haitian Legal Immigration Legal Assistance Program

Health Home Initiative

La Union

Lutheran Social Services

Medgar Evers College Adult Education Department

MFY Legal Service

NAMI- NY

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

New York State Bar Association

NY Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) Coalition with Legal Aid Society, Bronx Defenders, Make the Road New York, Center for Popular Democracy, Vera Institute, Cardozo Law School & Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights.

NYU Law School

Osborne Association

P2PH

Parent Providers Coalition (Bronx Defenders, Center for Family Representation)

Pinkerton Fellows at John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Pro Bono Scholars

Ridgewood-Bushwick Young Adult Literacy Program

Shorefront YM-YWHA, Brighton-Manhattan Beach, Inc.

Shriver Center

STEPS

TASC, EAC-Link

YCP

Young New Yorkers

INFORMATION

BDS COMMUNITY OFFICE IN EAST NEW YORK

Visit our Community Office in East New York, located at:
566 Livonia Ave. (Between Alabama & Georgia Avenues)
Brooklyn, NY 11207

We accept walk-in consultations on a variety of legal issues including ACS/child welfare, housing, and criminal matters. The office also offers regular Know Your Rights workshops open to community members. Past training topics included education rights, seeking employment with a criminal record, and what to do when ACS knocks on your door.

Current BDS clients, if you need to connect with your attorney or social worker, it is possible to arrange meetings to be held at the community office.

The office also has a variety of informational material and community resources, including know your rights fact sheets, community events, and voter registration forms.

For more information, call (718) 254-0700 x 303.

NEED HELP?

If you are a Brooklyn resident and cannot afford an attorney, BDS will provide free advice.

In fear of being arrested? Call 718-254-0700 and ask for the operator.

In fear of having your children removed? Call 347-592-2500.

OPPORTUNITIES

IMMIGRATION ATTORNEY

Brooklyn Defender Services seeks an attorney with relevant experience to join our Immigration Practice. Our Immigration Practice currently has a staff of 23 attorneys, three BIA accredited representatives, two social workers, four paralegals, and three legal assistants. Our “Padilla” team advises our criminal defense colleagues and helps devise strategies to minimize the immigration impact of our clients’ criminal proceedings.

See full job posting on idealist.org

CUSTODY ATTORNEY

BDS Family Defense Practice seeks an admitted attorney to represent clients in collateral cases that arise in child welfare proceedings, including custody and visitation, family offense, and paternity proceedings.

See full job posting on idealist.org.

STAFF ATTORNEY – FAMILY DEFENSE PRACTICE

Brooklyn Defender Services is presently hiring Staff Attorneys to join our Family Defense Practice and represent low-income parents in Child Welfare proceedings in Brooklyn Family Court.

See full job posting on idealist.org.

SOCIAL WORKER – NYIFUP IMMIGRATION PRACTICE

BDS seeks an energetic social worker to become an integral part of the NYIFUP team to advocate for immigrant clients, both in and out of court.

See idealist.org for full job posting.

TRIAL ATTORNEYS – CRIMINAL DEFENSE PRACTICE

BDS Criminal Defense Practice will be interviewing third year law students this fall for full-time post-graduate positions that would begin in September 2018. Our interviewers will meet with candidates at the law schools and job fairs listed below. All interested candidates who are currently attending one of the law schools we will be visiting should apply for an interview through their institution’s on-campus interviewing (OCI) Symplicity system. Students who are not attending one of the schools listed below should apply through one of the job fairs we are attending. Alternatively, students not attending one of the listed schools and not able to attend one of the job fairs may apply by submitting their cover letter and resume directly to rlafontaine@bds.org before the December 1st, 2017 deadline.

More

ATTORNEY TRAINING PROGRAM FOR NEW BDS EMPLOYEES

Criminal Defense Practice Brooklyn Defender Services’ intensive training program is designed for recent law graduates and attorneys who are new to the practice of criminal law in New York. Attorneys spend the first few weeks of their employment at BDS attending in-house lectures on various aspects of criminal defense, shadowing experienced attorneys and practicing their skills through simulations of various aspects of criminal practice.

The Appellate Division has granted us a student practice order which gives us the right to have law students and law graduates working for BDS to appear in court even though they are not yet admitted to practice law. This allows our interns, fellows and recent law graduates to handle cases with supervision.

INTERNSHIPS

Law Student Summer Internships

BDS has many relationships with local educational institutions, including clinical study programs from New York University Law School (the Offender Re-Entry Clinic, the Family Defense Clinic and the Community Defender Clinic), the Youth Justice Clinic of Cardozo Law School, the Criminal Defense Clinic of St. John’s School of Law and the CUNY Law School Family Law Concentration Clinic.

Brooklyn Defender Services also offers full-time summer internships to law students who have completed their second year of law school and have a commitment to public defense. The internship program lasts ten weeks. Intern duties may include legal research and writing, representation of clients in arraignments (under supervision), court appearances, client and witness interviews, trial preparation and investigation assistance.

Our law student summer internship program is extremely competitive and positions are limited. To apply for a criminal position, please send a cover letter and a resume to Jillian Modzeleski at jmodzeleski@bds.org. If you are interested in a family defense internship contact Chas Budnick at cbudnick@bfdp.bds.org.

All internships are volunteer positions. However, BDS will work with students to secure funding from outside sources or class credits where available.

Internships are also available with the BDS Immigration Practice in three focus areas: Padilla, where attorneys work closely with BDS criminal defenders to avoid or minimize negative immigration consequences of their noncitizen clients’ criminal cases pursuant to our obligations under the Supreme Court’s decision in Padilla v. Kentucky; the Youth and Communities Project providing BDS clients and Brooklyn residents with affirmative immigration benefits and removal defense; and the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP), a first-in-the-nation program that provides legal representation for indigent New Yorkers in detained removal proceedings. To apply, please send a cover letter, resume, and at least two references to Sophie Dalsimer at sdalsimer@bds.org with “Summer Internship” in the subject heading.

Postgraduate Law Fellowships

Brooklyn Defender Services hosts fellows to work in our office on special projects. Each year, we aim to identify law student fellowship applications that meet our mission of serving underprivileged clients in Brooklyn through innovative proposals. These include Equal Justice Works fellowships, Skadden fellows, and Soros fellowships among others. We additionally welcome law students from around the country whose law schools have fellowship placement options, particularly post-graduate fellowships. Applications for fellowships for the upcoming year are now closed.

BDS Immigration Practice Summer 2018 Internship 

Description and Responsibilities:

The Immigration Practice of Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) seeks summer 2018 law student interns. BDS is one of the largest public defense providers in the United States.  We represent more than 45,000 clients per year in a variety of legal proceedings in New York City, primarily indigent criminal, family, and immigration defense.

The Immigration Practice has three primary focus areas: Padilla, Youth and Communities, and NYIFUP.

First, Padilla attorneys work in close collaboration with BDS criminal defenders to avoid or minimize the negative immigration consequences of their noncitizen clients’ criminal cases, and to ensure clients are fully advised of those consequences pursuant to our obligations under the Supreme Court’s decision in Padilla v. Kentucky. In some cases, Padilla attorneys continue to advocate for BDS clients after the criminal case is disposed. We advocate against our clients’ immigration detention, defend them in immigration removal proceedings, and provide assistance applying for immigration benefits.

Second, the Youth and Communities Project provides a full range of immigration legal services to BDS clients and Brooklyn residents, including removal defense and affirmative immigration benefits such as Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), permanent residence, and victim and trafficking visas. We both identify clients in-house through our criminal and family defense practice and also participate in external clinics in close partnership with numerous community-based organizations.

Third, BDS serves as assigned counsel under the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project—a first-in-the-nation program that provides legal representation for indigent New Yorkers in detained removal proceedings at the Varick Street Immigration Court and in non-detained removal proceedings if our efforts result in the clients’ release. NYIFUP attorneys provide ongoing representation to clients facing immigration detention and deportation on a wide array of defenses, applications, and other creative advocacy efforts.

Initially, Immigration Practice interns will be assigned to one of these three practice areas with the opportunity to work with multiple attorneys.  Based on interest, previous experience and capacity, the intern may also be able to be work in other practice areas.

Qualifications:

We seek dynamic students currently enrolled in law school with a demonstrated commitment to defending immigrants accused and/or convicted of crimes. Applicants should have a strong substantive background in immigrant rights, criminal justice, and/or social justice issues. Applicants should also possess the ability to perform nuanced legal research and writing, to communicate clearly and effectively with clients, and to be a team player.

All internships are volunteer positions. However, BDS will work with students to secure funding from outside sources or class credits where available. Most summer interns work full-time for 10-12 weeks, although we will consider split summers on a case by case basis.

Languages:

Spanish, Haitian Creole, Mandarin, or other second-language fluency is preferred but not required.

Application Instructions:

To apply, please send a cover letter, resume, and at least two references to Sophie Dalsimer at sdalsimer@bds.org with the subject line “Summer 2018 Internship.”  We will accept applications on a rolling basis, but encourage applying by January 1, 2018.

Education Unit Internship

The Education Unit provides legal representation and informal advocacy to our school-age clients and the school-age children of our clients. As a legal and social work team, we work to improve our clients’ access to education, and a significant portion of our advocacy relates to school discipline, special education, reentry from incarceration and suspension, and enrollment in credit recovery or high school equivalency programs.

Responsibilities:

  •  Collaborate with attorneys and social workers in the criminal, family and immigration practices to address the educational needs of BDS clients;
  •  Conduct legal research on various special education issues and draft corresponding memos;
  •  Assist in special education and school disciplinary matters, including conducting client interviews, sending and following up on record requests, and attending meetings with an education attorney or social worker; and
  •  Help clients and their families navigate services and opportunities available through the NYC Department of Education.

Qualifications:

  •  A current 1L or 2L with a demonstrated commitment to social justice;
  •  Interest in working on behalf of youth and their families involved in the criminal, family welfare or immigration systems;
  •  Able to work in collaborative teams;
  •  Strong legal research and writing skills; and
  •  Proactive, flexible, and able to think both creatively and practically.

The position will be full-time and will last approximately ten weeks. The anticipated start date for summer interns is June 6, 2018. All internships are volunteer positions. However, BDS will work with students to secure funding from outside sources or class credits where available.

Application Instructions:

To apply, please send a cover letter, resume and writing sample to kfarkas@bds.org and maccomando@bds.org with the subject line “Summer 2018 Education Internship.” We will accept applications on a rolling basis up until April 1, 2018. Candidates selected for interviews will be contacted.

Investigative Assistant Internships

BDS seeks undergraduates and recent college graduates with an interest in and a commitment to social and criminal justice issues for our Investigative Assistant Internship. Investigators locate, interview and take detailed statements from the witnesses, run background checks on witnesses and police officers, review video surveillance footage, draft and serve subpoenas, photograph and diagram crime scenes, and transcribe audio recordings. Investigative assistants additionally provide administrative assistance to the investigator team.

While some of the investigative assistant’s work will take place in the office, much of it will be out in the field—in private homes, in local businesses, on the street and in the greater community. Ideal applicants should be comfortable working all over Brooklyn and should possess characteristics necessary to approach and interact with strangers about sensitive subjects. Candidates must be able to work in a collaborative setting and be able to produce high-quality written work.

The internship has a rolling admission deadline, and start and end dates can accommodate academic schedules. The internship will start with an intensive, multi-disciplinary two-week training where the interns will rotate shadowing some of our staff investigators. Investigative assistants will learn about our progressive approach to representation, our different practice areas and the laws and ethics involved in investigation. Following the initial training period, investigative assistants will continue to receive ongoing training and supervision from an experienced staff investigator who will serve as a mentor and will be responsible for assigning cases.

Required qualifications and abilities:
– Excellent interpersonal and communication skills
– Interest in criminal justice, especially the fields of criminal defense and the rights of the accused
– Strong writing ability
– Fluency in another language is highly desired, but not required

This internship is unpaid. We strongly encourage interns to apply to grants, fellowships or any other funding available through school or third-party organizations. Interns will be provided with unlimited monthly metro cards for the duration of their internship.

To apply, submit a resume and cover letter to Brenda Duman (bduman@bds.org) and Sophia Rivero (srivero@bds.org) with the subject “Investigative Assistant Application.” Please specify which cycle you are applying to work for and if you will be working full or part time (e.g., Summer 2017, full time). Resumes and cover letters will only be accepted by email; no phone calls, please. If selected for an interview, applicants will be notified on a rolling basis.

 

 

POLICY

LETTERS AND TESTIMONY

January 11, 2018

BDS testifies before the New York State Assembly hearing on Legalizing & Regulating Adult Sale and Possession of Marijuana and its Prospective Effects on Public Health and the Criminal Legal System. (PDF)

December 14, 2017

BDS testifies before NYC Oversight Hearing on Examining Forensic Science Practices in the NYPD Crime Lab and OCME. (PDF)

December 4, 2017

BDS testifies before NYC Council Oversight Hearing on Progress in Closing Rikers. (PDF)

November 28, 2017

BDS comments: Proposed state regulations on solitary confinement in local jails only codify the practice of torture (PDF )

November 21, 2017

BDS testifies before the NYC Council on NYPD’s role in school safety and efforts to improve school climate (PDF )

November 16, 2017

BDS, along with 100 community and advocacy groups across NYS, submit letter to Governor Cuomo with recommendations for changes to New York’s pretrial detention system

November 15, 2017

BDS testifies before the NYC Council’s Oversight Hearing on the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD (PDF )

October 30, 2017

BDS testifies before the NYS Assembly Hearing on Healthcare in NYS Prisons and Local Jails (PDF )

October 26, 2017

BDS testifies before the NYC Council Committee on Juvenile Justice Hearing on Reentry Programs for Formerly Incarcerated Youth (PDF )

October 25, 2017

BDS testifies before the NYC Council oversight hearing on violence in city jails (PDF )

October 23, 2017

Do You Qualify to Have Your Criminal Record Sealed? A BDS One-Pager. (PDF )

October 16, 2017

BDS testifies before the NYC Council Committee on Public Safety (PDF )

BDS testifies before the NYC Council Committee on Technology on Algorithm Transparency (PDF )

September 27, 2017

BDS testifies before NYC Council Oversight Hearing on Safe and Accessible Shelters for Homeless Youth (PDF )

September 20, 2017

BDS testifies before NYC Council Committee on Aging in support of Int. No. 1616–– a Local Law in relation to establishing a temporary task force on post-conviction reentry for older adults (PDF )

September 18, 2017

BDS testifies before NYC Council Committee on Courts and Legal Services Hearing on New York’s Integrated Domestic Violence Courts (PDF )

September 13, 2017

BDS testifies before the NYC Council Committee oversight hearing on Best Practices for NYC Agencies, Courts, And Law Enforcement Authorized to Certify Immigrant Victims for U and T Visas (PDF )

September 7, 2017

BDS testifies before NYC Council Committee on Public Safety  & Committee on Mental Health, Developmental Disability, Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Disability Services joint Oversight Hearing on NYPD’s Responses to Persons in Mental Health Crisis (PDF )

More

DATA AND REPORTS

Brooklyn Defender Services handles approximately 40 percent of the overall criminal cases for the Borough of Brooklyn, making our client profile indicative, if not entirely representational, of the wider law enforcement trends across the city, as they pertain to arrests, custody and court adjudication.

More

STRATEGIC LITIGATION

BDS’s Special Litigation Counsel works with BDS defenders and clients, outside counsel and activists, to identify systemic criminal justice deficiencies and constitutional violations that unjustly affect criminal justice outcomes for our clients. Once identified, special litigation lawyers strategically litigate those issues in State and Federal courts to improve both process and outcomes for all accused New Yorkers. From challenging unreasonable bail conditions when a case starts to overbroad barriers to re-entry when it’s over, BDS is striving to make the criminal justice system accountable to those it intends to serve through its growing impact litigation practice.

ADVOCACY

Brooklyn Defender Services has amassed a wealth of experience and expertise on the complexities that inform our client’s lives and their involvement in the justice system. BDS works with each of the courts and other stakeholders to improve procedures and policies that affect our clients in each of the courts where we are the institutional provider.

As zealous advocates for our clients and the communities we serve, it is also our duty to contribute to the larger conversations taking place within the criminal, family and immigration justice systems in order to facilitate meaningful changes. Through our presence on working groups and coalitions, the use of our external communications, position papers, blog, and other forums we seek to educate system players, legislators and community members about the critical issues facing our clients and give voice to some of New York’s most vulnerable populations.

COURT INVOLVED YOUTH

NEWS

News

STATEMENT ON NYS DOCCS’ SUSPENSION OF ITS VENDOR-ONLY PACKAGE RESTRICTION PILOT PROGRAM

Statement by Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services, on NYS DOCCS’ suspension of its vendor-only package restriction pilot program

(Directive 4911A).

“We are pleased that Governor Cuomo directed DOCCS to rescind its package restriction rule, which had effectively prohibited care packages with most books and all fresh produce for people in three state prisons. This rule also increased the already high costs of having a loved one in prison, borne disproportionately by low-income people of color, as approved vendors’ prices were significantly higher than those of local small businesses. We urge DOCCS to continue to heed the call of incarcerated people, public defenders, NYC Books through Bars, and many others and refrain from implementing any new rule that further strains the connections between people in prison and their families.”

News

BDS STATEMENT ON GOVERNOR CUOMO’S STATE OF THE STATE

Governor Cuomo today announced groundbreaking steps towards reforming the most regressive policies in New York’s legal system, including ending monetary bail, improving the right to a speedy trial, removing barriers to re-entering society after conviction, and limiting asset forfeiture. In particular, BDS strongly supports the Governor’s commitment to improving transparency in criminal cases through fairer discovery laws. This represents an auspicious moment for criminal justice reform in New York.

News

BDS IN THE NEWS: WNYC’S THE BRIAN LEHRER SHOW “CHRISTMAS IN RIKERS IS EXTREMELY COLD”

News

BDS TESTIFIES BEFORE THE NYC COUNCIL ON NYPD’S SCHOOL SAFETY’S ROLE AND EFFORTS TO IMPROVE SCHOOL CLIMATE

TESTIMONY OF: 

Keren Farkas – Supervising Attorney, Education Unit

BROOKLYN DEFENDER SERVICES

Presented before

The New York City Council Committees on Public Safety

Oversight Hearing on NYPD’s School Safety’s Role and

Efforts to Improve School Climate 

November 21, 2017

 

 

My name is Keren Farkas and I am the Supervising Attorney of the Education Unit at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). BDS provides multi-disciplinary and client-centered criminal, family, and immigration defense, as well as civil legal services, social work support and advocacy, for over 30,000 clients in Brooklyn every year. I thank the Committee on Public Safety for holding this hearing and for providing us with the opportunity to testify.

BDS’ Education Unit provides legal representation and informal advocacy to our school-age clients. All of our clients are involved with the criminal legal or child welfare systems. A significant percentage are “over-age and under-credited,” and have been retained at least one grade. More than half of our clients are classified as students with disabilities. Nearly all of our teenage clients report at least one school suspension, oftentimes between two and six. As a legal and social work team, we work to improve our clients’ access to education. A significant portion of our advocacy relates to school discipline, special education, school reentry from incarceration and suspension, and enrollment in credit recovery and High School Equivalency programs

BDS commends the City Council for its continued attention to policing and discipline practices in our city’s schools. Since 2011, the Student Safety Act has provided invaluable insight into school practices, revealing the use of punitive discipline and police involvement at schools that, although lessening overall, continues to disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities. Confronted with the data from that law, city agencies, namely the DOE and NYPD, are allocating more resources to school climate reform. Although we are encouraged by the recent investments in pilot positive school-wide programs and school-based mental health services, we believe that all of our city’s schools – especially those presenting with the highest rates of suspension, calls to EMS, and arrests – need access to models, such as restorative justice practices and collaborative problem solving, that can positively address student misbehavior and lessen reliance on police. Ultimately, children should never be placed in handcuffs or be subjected to interruptions in schooling as punishment.

More School Safety Officers and More Metal Detectors are Not the Answer

BDS shares the Council’s deep concern about any violence in schools. We represent thousands of school-age youth every year and many on our staff are public school parents. However, we firmly believe that school safety officers often function to escalate disciplinary conflicts in schools, rather than de-escalating situations and making the school environment safer for all. We believe that all steps towards a positive school climate will come from increased funding, training and support for educators and school-based mental health clinicians, not criminal enforcement responses.

Keeping schools safe is a uniformly shared objective; where people diverge is how to achieve it. BDS strongly believes that increased police presence and metal detectors at school are not the solution. In fact, we believe that such efforts undermine school safety.  School policing has not been found to prevent school violence.[1] Research actually demonstrates that police presence and metal detectors can significantly decrease a student’s perception of safety at school and, in turn, lead them to make unsafe choices to protect themselves.[2]  Further, school policing criminalizes common adolescent behavior, exposing young people to the criminal legal system, making them more susceptible to future contacts and the litany of collateral consequences.[3]

Beyond its questionable efficacy in deterring school violence, a strong law enforcement presence sets a tone of distrust in a school that is not conducive to learning.  Student police interaction is linked to poor academic performance and school disengagement.[4] The data mirrors our clients’ experience. We regularly meet with young people grappling with the harmful cumulative impact of disruptions to their education due to punitive discipline and the tensions associated with law enforcement presences in schools. Repeated contacts with school safety agents at school, often for non-violent adolescent misbehavior, have damaged not only their attitudes towards school, but their attitudes about themselves and their potential.

I also urge the Council to put incidents of school violence into context. Most incidents of student misbehavior do not involve weapons or guns making shootings or incidents involving dangerous weapons are extremely rare. Adolescent behavior, including misbehavior, is a function of immaturity, disability, mental health, trauma, bullying — all of which are not issues even the most well-meaning, thoughtful school safety agent is prepared to address. Likewise, they are better addressed by a restorative/preventive approach.

Training Trusted School Staff in Crisis De-Escalation & Restorative Justice Is the Answer

Our city’s schools need to shift to a culture where school staff, not police, take the lead in addressing and preventing student misbehavior.  That shift requires a thoughtful and systematic financial investment and philosophical commitment to whole-school approaches that promote positive school climates. When schools utilize preventive, restorative approaches that focus on conflict resolution and diffusing problems early, there is an increase in both student social emotional and academic growth. [5] Research shows that comprehensive, consistent implementation of approaches, such as conflict resolution and restorative justice, is also associated with positive teacher-student and student-student relationships, vital indicators of a school culture that can foster learning and safety.[6] The programs are also linked with a reduction in school violence.[7] Increasing the amount of guidance counselors and school based mental health clinicians has similarly been associated with the same benefits to school climate and student safety.[8] These are the resources our city’s students deserve.

Notably, these approaches are found to decrease future conflict, and do so more effectively than police intervention.[9]   This change is possible because the techniques actually teach students skills about conflict resolution and critical thinking, which they can draw upon when they will undoubtedly face future disagreements with others We must not forget that children and adolescents still have developing brains. All of our clients have also experienced trauma and/or poverty that have complicated their development of coping skills. A significant portion of our clients also have emotional disabilities.  When schools rely so heavily on school safety agents to address discipline in lieu of positive behavioral approaches, we are not only missing opportunities to instill tools to support their positive development, we can exacerbate the underlying behavioral or mental health challenges.

Client Stories

Unfortunately, we continue to hear instances where School Safety Agents (SSA) unnecessarily insert themselves in situations, or school staff reflexively call upon SSA’s to intervene. Recently, a teenage client with known mental health needs did not want to speak with a school administrator and started to walk away. Seven SSA’s responded. A well-trained educator, guidance counselor or social worker could have more appropriately addressed and deescalated that situation. Another teenage client had a disagreement with a school official and raised her voice. Three SSA’s responded and escorted her to the Assistant Principal’s office. In several instances with Kindergarten and 1st grade students with known emotional disabilities, schools have called SSAs and the police to restrain the children following a tantrum.

In these situations, and the many similar ones we see clients experiences, with the right training and staffing, the school could have responded to the situation without police involvement. We believe, and the data affirm, that police responses are comparatively rare or even non-existent in schools with more privileged populations.[10] For instance, with training in Therapeutic Crisis Intervention in Schools (TCIS) or an effective behavior intervention plan, the schools could have used positive practices to help the young children manage their behavior. With the teenage students, they could have utilized guidance interventions, such as restorative circles, where both parties could actively participate in addressing and repairing the harm. By doing so, both the harmed and the harmer can feel valued and learn perspective-taking, empathy, and taking responsibility.[11] Instead, when utilizing punitive measures, we alienate the harmer, often resulting in school disengagement – a reality we repeatedly see for our clients.

School Segregation and School Climate

We also urge the Council to consider how rampant school segregation may be impacting school climate, school discipline, and access to therapeutic or restorative responses to problematic behavior. The Civil Rights Project of the University of California, Los Angeles issued a report in 2014 finding that New York City has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, and that New York State has the highest school segregation rates.[12] Ample research has confirmed a connection between race and school discipline, with Black students as much as six times more likely to be suspended as compared to their white counterparts.[13] Relatedly, certain public schools with wealthier student populations bring in donor-driven Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) budgets of more than a million dollars, allowing for substantial discretionary spending on a variety of enrichment programs and activities, while others struggle to fundraise at all.[14] This dynamic undoubtedly contributes to inequality in school discipline. Notably, both of the wealthy Upper West Side elementary school featured in The New York Times article on wealthy PTAs had zero student removals in 2015, 2016, and to date in 2017, while a nearby elementary school serving many children who live in public housing (PS 191) reported 38, according to DOE data.

Policy Recommendations:

The City Council can play a critical role in fostering safer and more supportive school environments. We recommend that the Council enact many of the reforms called for by the Mayor’s Leadership Team on School Climate and Discipline. We focus on four today.

  1. Reduce law enforcement presences in schools

We encourage the City Council to reduce the presence of school safety agents and metal detectors in schools and reallocate the funds to positive behavioral approaches. Research not only indicates that law enforcement presence does not create safer schools; it can detract from a positive school climate and student’s social emotional and academic growth. Moreover, there are more effective methods that require increased funding.

  1. Expand positive whole-school approaches to address student behavior

We ask the city council to expand funding in whole-school positive methods, such as restorative justice practices, collaborative problem solving and therapeutic crisis intervention.  To effectively implement and realize the associated positive benefits in school climate, schools staff need training, ongoing professional development and full-time staff to facilitate whole-school adoption of the approaches and ensure staff receive ongoing coaching.

We are encouraged by the pilot programs, but want to emphasize that there are many more schools that require this investment to counter punitive school discipline tactics and overuse of police.  At BDS, we repeatedly encounter the same schools for inappropriate and overly punitive responses to student misbehavior, but none of them are on the current list of pilot schools.

  1. Expand access to school-based and school-linked behavioral health services

Particularly for our students facing the toxic stress of poverty, access to school-based or school-linked behavioral health supports is critical to student success and school safety.  We are encouraged by Thrive NYC and the Mayor’s office’s attention to mental illness, its impact on New Yorkers, and the need to invest in resources, such as a continuum of mental health resources for our city’s schools.  More funding, however, is needed to carry out the thoughtful recommendations of the Mayor’s Leadership Team on School Climate and Discipline and provide the range of staffing and services needed to ensure our city’s schools can address the root cause of misbehavior, starting with the highest need schools. We urge the city to expand financial investments to ensure our schools, particularly our highest need schools, have access to behavioral health consultants and on site mental health clinicians.

  1. Increase the number of school-based guidance counselors and licensed social workers

Guidance counselors can serve a critical role supporting students and implementing guidance interventions, including restorative practices, as an alternative to punitive discipline. Clinically trained staff, particularly LCSW’s, can serve an additional important role — particularly working with youth who have experienced trauma, which is tragically very common amongst students in our highest-need schools. Beyond supporting individual students, guidance and social work staff can facilitate successful implementation of whole school reform and supporting all staff in the undertaking.

We urge the City Council to increase staffing and training for guidance counselors.

Conclusion

In short, we need to foster school culture that presumptively approaches all student misbehavior as teachable moments. We urge the city to support this goal by passing legislation to support schools to do so without police intervention.

Thank you for your consideration of our comments. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to Andrea Nieves in my office at 718-254-0700 ext. 387 or anieves@bds.org.

 

[1] See, e.g., Advancement Project, A Real Fix: The Gun-Free Way to School Safety (2013).

[2] See, e.g., Matthew T. Theriot & John G. Orme, School Resource Officers and Students’ Feelings of Safety at School, 14 Youth Violence & Juv. Justice 130-146 (2016).

[3] See, e.g., Trevor Fronius, Sarah Guckenburg & Anthony Petrosino, Policing Schools Strategies: A Review of the Evaluation Evidence, 8 J. Multidisciplinary Evaluation 80-101 (2012).

[4] See, e.g., Marilyn Armour, Restorative Practices: Righting the Wrongs of Exclusionary School Discipline, 50 U. Richmond L. Rev. 999 (2016).

[5] Thalia Gonzalez, Keeping Kids in Schools: Restorative Justice, Punitive Discipline, and the School to Prison Pipeline, 41 J.L. & Educ. 281 (2012).

[6] Anne Gregory & Dewey Cornell, Authoritative School Discipline: High School Practices Associated With Lower Bullying and Victimization, 102 J. Educational Psychology 483-496 (2010).

[7] David R. Karp & Beau Breslin, Restorative Justice in School Communities, 33 Youth & Society 249-72 (2001).

[8] Randall Reback, Schools’ Mental Health Services and Young Children’s Emotions, Behavior, and Learning, 29 J. Policy Analysis & Management 698-725 (2010).

[9] Jason P. Nance, Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline, 48 Ariz. State L. J. 313 (2016).

[10] American Civil Liberties Union, Bullies in Blue: The Origins and Consequences of School Policing (2017), available at https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/aclu_bullies_in_blue_4_11_17_final.pdf.

[11] Trevor Fronius et al, Restorative Justice in U.S. Schools: A Research Review, February 2016, available at https://jprc.wested.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/RJ_Literature-Review_20160217.pdf.

[12] John Kucsera & Gary Orfield, New York State’s Extreme School Segregation (The Civil Rights Project at UCLA 2014), available at https://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/ny-norflet-report-placeholder/Kucsera-New-York-Extreme-Segregation-2014.pdf.

[13] Alia Wong, How School Suspensions Push Black Students Behind, The Atlantic, Feb. 8, 2016, available at https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/02/how-school-suspensions-push-black-students-behind/460305/.

[14] Kyle Spencer, Way Beyond Bake Sales: The $1 Million PTA, N.Y. Times, June 1, 2012, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/03/nyregion/at-wealthy-schools-ptas-help-fill-budget-holes.html.

News

BDS WELCOMES ITS NEW CLASS OF SOCIAL WORK INTERNS

The MSW Intern Program at BDS currently has 20 interns from New York University, Fordham University, Columbia University, Long Island University and Hunter College schools of social work. The Program also hosts one Pinkerton intern. Interns are placed in the Adult and Adolescent Criminal , Family Defense, Immigration, Policy and Jail Services Units. Interns work interdisciplinary with our staff attorneys and social workers to address the clients’ out of court needs and support positive legal outcomes. 

News

IN THE NEWS: VOX – A NEW YORK COURTROOM GAVE EVERY DETAINED IMMIGRANT A LAWYER. THE RESULTS WERE STAGGERING.

In conjunction with the release of Vera’s report on NYIFUP and the announcement of their SAFE Cities Network, Vox published an explainer on the project. Simply put, when people facing deportation in immigration court are given an attorney, they are much more likely to win their case. For every twelve immigrants winning their deportation cases in New York’s immigration court, eleven would have been deported without a lawyer. Hear our client Omar Siagha’s story here. 

News

IN THE NEWS: NYTIMES – “DISABLED PARENTS SUE NEW YORK CITY OVER CHILD REMOVALS”

The New York Times reported on a new lawsuit filed by five mothers in New York City who claim the the Administration for Children’s Services discriminated against them and other parents, violating federal law. Lauren Shapiro, director of BDS’ Family Defense Practice, says the city has failed to provide adequate programs and services that could assist intellectually disabled parents in caring for their children.

Read the full piece here.

News

BDS PRESENTS: “POWER OF PROSECUTORS”

Prosecutors have the power to end mass incarceration today. Learn what you can do to hold them accountable. Brooklyn votes Tuesday September 12! Over 1,000 elections nationwide in 2018.

Featuring the voices of: Deray McKesson (Black Lives Matter, Pod Save the People), Baratunde Thurston (Author, Comedian, Formerly The Onion, Daily Show), Adam Foss (Former Prosecutor), Nina Morrison (Innocence Project), John Pfaff (Professor, Author of “Locked In”), Brandon Buskey (ACLU), Josie Duffy Rice (Fair Punishment Project), Scott Hechinger (Public Defender, Brooklyn Defender Services).