Rochester, N.Y. – Evion Smith has been arrested too many times to count. Some of those arrests happened while he was in school. He was arrested for fighting and for simply “mouthing off.”
“I didn’t want to go to jail,” said Smith. “It’s crazy being in a cell. You don’t know what time it is. You don’t know what’s going on outside, nothing.”
Smith dropped out in 10th grade. He doesn’t like police officers.
Over the past five school years, nearly 2,500 city high school students have been arrested in school. The most common offenses are disorderly conduct, assault and larceny.
“That one interaction with law enforcement puts them on a trajectory to prison,” said City Councilman Adam McFadden, who has been a critic of arresting students. “Once you arrest a kid and they come back what other leverage do you have to deal with a behavior issue? None.”
Officer Moses Robinson is assigned to East High School.
“It can severely impact their life forever,” said Robinson. “Making an arrest of a kid should absolutely be the last resort.”
When Lori Baldwin became the Rochester City School District’s head of security, the retired police sergeant was alarmed at the number of student arrests.
“I think it’s great if we don’t have to put kids in jail,” Baldwin said. “If there’s a behavior issue, there’s a consequence. It doesn’t have to be an arrest though.”
Arrests hit an all-time high in the 2008-2009 school year. More than 1,000 students were criminally charged. Arrests spiked as the district banned out of school suspensions. Teachers and administrators turned to school resource officers to help with discipline.
Baldwin worked with school staff and police to lower the number of arrests. This school year, only 53 students have been placed under arrest. The district is on pace to have reduced arrests 90 percent in five years. Baldwin said she pushes alternate forms of discipline.
“We certainly want to teach (students) life skills, conflict resolution. Try to get them to build their own capacity rather than put them in the criminal justice system and maybe lose them,” said Baldwin.
Don’t Call the Cops?
The dramatic drop in arrests raises questions about safety and accurate reporting of crime data. 13WHAM News heard from several teachers who say they are not satisfied with how schools handle violent incidents. All are worried about retaliation from their principals and did not want to go on camera.
One teacher said he was disciplined for telling police when a student punched him in the face. This teacher, who has worked at several high schools, said administrators have encouraged teachers not to report incidents to police.
“They’ll try anything to convince you to not file a police report,” the teacher said. “The different reasons I’ve been given is it will reflect badly on schools. It will reflect badly on us as teachers. I just don’t think they want the school to be seen in any bad light whatsoever and they just kind of brush things under the rug.”
Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski said a recent survey of teachers shows safety and discipline are top concerns.
“I’m glad to see we are not arresting young people in droves. Arrestable behavior has never been the main problem in our schools,” said Urbanski. “I think we need to provide the kind of mental health and emotional support services to kids who obviously are not coping well.”
Baldwin said there’s no directive to staff to avoid calling police or sweep crime under the rug.
“We’re not stopping the felonies. We’re not stopping the misdemeanors or anything like that,” she said. “If somebody’s going to get hurt or there’s an upper level crime that occurs, it’s still going to be handled the same way. What we’re affecting is those lower level offenses so we’re trying to change the behavior.”
Officer Robinson said no one has ordered him not to make arrests. As long as the student’s behavior isn’t severe, he explores other avenues.
“We’re not here as the muscle, so to speak. We’re here to make relevant relationships with the kids,” he said. “Putting them in handcuffs and taking them out of school is very traumatic, not just for the kid going through this, but for other kids who may see it.”
East High School Principal Anibal Soler said arrests are often initiated by staff and students who have been victims of assault or theft. They have the right to press charges.
“Before I call my school resource officer, I want to make sure I’ve done everything and done enough evidence to support both families involved in the conflict, both students involved in the crisis,” Soler said.
Getting arrested a bunch of times didn’t straighten out Evion Smith. He said a number of well-meaning adults also did not help him change his behavior.
Smith, 19, is trying to get himself together. He said getting older and more mature made a difference in his behavior. He has also received counseling and a warning from a city court judge to never return.
Smith is also working with Pathways to Peace, an anti-violence and anti-gang program.
“I think it could do a lot for me. I think it could change me a little bit,” Smith said. “I want to be successful. I really do.”
Click on the link above for school by school arrest data.