Liza Acquah, whose children and grandchildren have attended Syracuse city schools, wants to see more mental health counselors in schools. 

She attended a town hall meeting about safety in schools this week to share her perspective. More mental health services might have helped intervene and prevent her son from heading down a path of violence, she said.

Acquah is the mother of Jabari Boykins, an 18-year-old who last year was arrested by Syracuse Police  after he was seen on a Facebook live video violently threatening and choking  a woman who had an order of protection against him.  

Boykins’ history of behavioral incidents started at school, said Acquah. She said her son was suspended on his first day at Fowler High School when the boy was assaulted by three other classmates.

From a young age, Acquah said, Boykins had an individualized educational plan, an educational intervention often called an IEP, to ensure that a child who has a disability gets the specialized help and services they need. 

“Each school that he went to, they found it difficult to deal with my son,” Acquah said. “They told us he has behavioral issues. When [school administrators] got tired of him, they said they did all they could for him.”

During his freshman year in 2017, Boykins was charged with criminal trespassing and resisting arrest. A video of the incident shows Boykins, at the time a student of Nottingham High School being restrained and later thrown to the ground by police officer Vallon Smith, who at the time was a school resource officer at Nottingham.

Boykins’ family sued the city accusing Smith of police brutality. The city paid a settlement of $200,000, but took no disciplinary action against Smith.

Despite the incident, Acquah said she had seen improvements in Boykins’ school performance when he was at some point sent to Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES.

“He had no problems at BOCES,” she said. “That’s because they had the [mental health staff], they had the help that he needed to keep him on track.”

Acquah said she thinks with more mental health services, the incident at Nottingham High School could have been avoided.

“If they are going to be in schools,  [SROs] need to be more educated on the kids that have special needs,” Acquah said. “Had SROs been told that he had an IEP and tried to talk to him in a different manner, instead of handling like that, things would have never gone that far.”

Acquah shared Boykins’ story Monday night at a Town Hall set up by Citizen Action of New York and the Alliance for Quality Education on redefining safe schools in Syracuse and ending the school-to-prison pipeline.

The parents and school safety advocates gathered at Fowler High School to call on the Syracuse City School District to fund mental health support systems and alternatives to what they deemed a punitive “zero-tolerance” education system.

The New York Civil Liberties Union defines the school-to-prison pipeline as education and public safety policies that push students into the criminal legal system.

Advocates called on the Syracuse City School District to stop including SROs as part of its school safety plans. Michael Henesey, SCSD’s spokesman, said SROs will be at the district’s five high schools in the 2022-2023 school year. 

After recent mass shootings in other cities, and an incident in which a child brought a gun to school, district school board members expressed an interest in having more police officers present in schools. That’s just the latest in a more than decade-long debate over discipline and police in Syracuse schools, which includes an order from the state’s attorney general and an overhaul of the district’s disciplinary code in 2014.

The organizers of Monday’s town hall said they were concerned about the latest push to have police in schools. They said they worry Black and Brown children in Syracuse are still more likely to be suspended from school than their white counterparts despite reform efforts in the past. 

“SROs create a punitive environment and when we prioritize SROs we prioritize surveillance and punishment instead of actually getting to the root causes of problems,” said Jesse Koklas, Citizen Action’s statewide organizer for ending mass incarceration. “Mental health counselors can deal with the majority of what SROs deal with and they take into account the individual situation children are going through and their background.”

Koklas said SCSD must also invest in training for teachers and staff so that they can better enforce the district’s code of conduct.

“That way staff can identify instances in which the presence of law enforcement at schools can be avoided.”

Students’ perception of school discipline is shaped as soon as they walk through the doors at Syracuse schools, advocates said.

“They’re greeted at the door by metal detectors and a police search,” said Joe Bennett, a physics teacher at Nottingham High School.

Bennett, a member of Syracuse Democratic Socialists of America and a former Democratic candidate in Onondaga County Legislature’s 15th District, said these measures create an environment where young people’s behavior is criminalized.  

“Now they have a record, and that record follows them,” he said.

Bennett advocated for more use of restorative justice practices He said he would like to see teachers and staff greet students as they enter school; faculty and staff trained in de-escalating dangerous events; and students feel more compelled to share more about their background with school counselors.

“I feel like within SCSD we try to intervene, we try to do these things,” Bennett said. “But we don’t really have the resources to do these things. We are understaffed and we don’t have enough counselors. There are 30 students in one room and if I tried to figure out what each one of my students is going through, I would have about a minute and a half for each student.”

Karin Davenport, a communications specialist for the district, said SCSD now employs 34 school psychologists, 51 counselors, and 55 social workers.

Bennett said the current system is still setting students on a track from schools to prisons.

“It’s time to make a different choice,” Bennett said. 

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