NYC students explain why classmates bring weapons to school

For one 17-year-old student at the Adams St. high school campus in downtown Brooklyn, being inside school has always felt safe. It’s getting there that’s the problem.

Even after a classmate brought a loaded gun to school in his backpack last week, school officials were on hand to quickly deescalate the situation and comfort students. But when something happens on Ineiry Peña’s 40-minute commute back and forth between her Bushwick home, she’s on her own.

After a man recently crept up behind her and tried to rub against her at a subway station, Peña told the Daily News, she began carrying pepper spray.

That’s why Peña was frustrated when a team of NYPD school safety agents showed up the day after the gun incident with metal detectors to scan students on the way into class. the agents confiscated 21 items in a single day, including nine pepper spray canisters, seven knives, four tasers and a pair of brass knuckles.

“We aren’t criminals, we’re just trying to be safe in a city that has been made unsafe for us,” said Peña, a senior at the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice.

“You have a city not addressing the fear, then criminalizing students for protecting themselves.”

The weapons seizures brought a wave of media coverage that some students and staff felt unfairly cast their school and its students as dangerous.

“Many of them [the students] were crying,” said Annie Annunziato, an assistant principal at Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women, another of the three schools located in the Adams St. campus that includes students from sixth to 12th grade.

“There were 11- and 12-year-olds going through scanning and not understanding why, and you have media coverage painting them as criminals and saying their school is unsafe, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said.

Most of the items were taken from female students, and many were provided by their parents, Annunziato said.

Gregory Floyd, the president of Teamsters Local 237, the union representing school safety agents, dismissed students’ comments. He accused administrators and students of “lying about the reasons they were carrying those items, trying to justify.”

It’s illegal, you’re not supposed to have it. You’re not supposed to be walking into schools with pepper spray,” he said. “If pepper spray is sprayed in a school where a child has asthma, that could trigger an asthma attack. School safety agents don’t carry pepper spray. There are reasons for rules.”

Some students and staff at the Adams St. campus worried about the long-term consequences of a reputation as a “dangerous” school in a choice system where students select their high schools.

“Now some teachers might not want to come to our school, or parents don’t want to send their kids here,” said Emily Payamps, a 17-year-old senior at the Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women. “It’s a cycle that will always continue.”

Incidents involving students carrying weapons have increased citywide since the first full restart of in-person classes this fall after the pandemic shuttered schools in March 2020.

Authorities found eight guns in schools between July 1 and Oct. 24 of this year — the most recent dates for which NYPD made data available — compared with one gun in the same period in 2019 and two in 2018. None of the guns have been fired inside schools.

But the bulk of the nearly 30% overall increase in weapons seized from students has fallen into a category school officials describe as self-protection devices.

The number of Tasers confiscated in schools jumped nearly sevenfold from the same periods in 2018 and 2019, while items classified as “other” — a category that includes pepper spray — jumped to 224 this year, compared with 86 in 2018 and 52 in 2019.

Meanwhile, behavioral incidents in schools are down 18%, according to the city Education Department. But the most serious type of infraction, a category that includes bringing a weapon to school, is up.

Annunziato said many students have good reason to be cautious on their commutes.

“Several times we’ve had to call the police, students were touched sexually, they were kissed by a strange man” during commutes, Annunziato said.

“The vast majority of things found on students were found on females. The vast majority, they got them from their parents,” she added.

Aliyah Nesbitt, a 16-year-old junior at the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice, began carrying pepper spray at her mom’s behavior.

“Everything going on with two years of a pandemic, I feel that for her defense that she needs something to protect herself,” said Nesbitt’s mom, who didn’t give her name.

Payamps said after school safety agents confiscated pepper spray and tasers last week, “some of us … were left with nothing” for protection on their commutes. “None of those security guards standing there were going to walk us home.”

According to the NYPD, transit crime is down 30% since May 2021 compared with the same period in 2019 — but some students say their parents are still fearful.

“They’re watching the news and seeing all these things happening and they don’t have an option to not send their daughters to school,” said Payamps.

In October, after a string of reports of guns showing up in schools, Mayor de Blasio announced an increase in unannounced metal detector scanning like the kind deployed at the Adams St. campus last week, and an increase in NYPD officers posted outside schools during arrival and dismissal.

“Weapons have absolutely no place in our schools, and we work closely with our school safety agents and the NYPD every day to keep our schools safe by stopping dangerous items from entering our schools and ensure our young people feel fully supported,” said Education Department spokesman Nathaniel Styer.

The response was cheered on by some parents, advocates and the union representing school safety officers, who have called on the city to go even further by installing metal detectors in every school.

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But students like Peña, who arrived 30 minutes late for her first-period AP Economics class last week because of the long line to pass through the metal detectors, question whether the scanners make them safer.

“If these metal detectors are going to take away from my education, are they truly a benefit for my school? I don’t think so,” she said.

In the days since the gun incident, students and staff at the Adams St. campus have tried to change the narrative about their school.

Students, including Peña, Payamps and Nesbitt, penned a letter pushing back on the media coverage, while school staff and educators from across the city gathered outside the building to cheer students as they entered Monday in an attempt to lift their spirits.

“Walking into an environment where you feel cheered and supported instead of where you’re being punished and everyone’s angry and upset at you will definitely transfer over into our classes,” said Daysha Williams, a 15-year-old sophomore at the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice.

Students say that most of all, they want to be included in conversations about their own safety.

“They didn’t talk to the students,” said Payamps. “There was no asking students, ‘How could we make the school feel safe considering your emotions?’ ”

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