Safety Switch

With police report requirement unclear, safety transfers hard to come by

Of the many concerns raised by last week’s fatal stabbing outside I.S. 117 in the Bronx, one traces back to the day before the crime itself, when neighbors say the father of suspect Noel Estevez requested a safety transfer for his son.

As the investigation into 14-year-old Timothy Crump’s death continues, it’s far from clear whether allowing Estevez to transfer might have helped avert the assault. But the transfer request does put a spotlight on a process that advocates say places too high a bar for families seeking to keep their children safe.

Safety transfers are designed to remove students from threatening environments where they face bullying or harassment. The Department of Education would not provide data on the number of requested or approved safety transfers across the city.

But according to Nick Sheehan, who works on the School Justice Project at Advocates for Children, safety transfers are “really challenging to get.” The biggest stumbling block, he said, is the required police report, which the city’s regulations list among the required documents for a safety transfer.

Parents might not have time to file a report, he said, and “historic distrust” between the police and students’ communities might also discourage families. An even bigger problem, he said, is that students might feel unsafe at school even before a crime has been committed against them.

“Sometimes the safety concern doesn’t rise to a level of criminal activity [that would be filed in a police report], it’s just ongoing bullying and harassment,” Sheehan said.

Pamela Wheaton, a managing editor at InsideSchools, said she’s heard of police refusing to give students reports because at that point, they hadn’t been victims of a crime. “It seems to me like a Catch-22,” she said.

Statements from the city imply that parents might not need a police report at all. A spokeswoman from the Department of Education said the city collaborates with schools and parents in situations when there is no police report, though she did not explain how this would work.

The department’s priority, she added, is to ensure that students have a safe school environment. Chancellor Carmen Fariña echoed this sentiment this week in her newsletter to principals, encouraging them to create “a clear, defined policy” to deal with bullying.

Sheehan said he has heard from department officials that not all incidents of bullying merit police reports, even though they warrant safety transfers. But the department’s website still lists the police report as a requirement.

With or without a report, the process for obtaining a transfer grew more complicated in 2003, when the city rolled out a new high school admissions procedure to allow more school choice.

Previously, students could transfer if the principals of both schools agreed to the switch. After high school admissions became a centralized process, though, that request needed to go through the Department of Education, and transfers were approved only if they fit into a handful of categories, including medical hardships, travel hardships, and safety hardships.

Under the new system, a student can request a safety transfer if “it is determined that the student’s continued presence in the school is unsafe for the student,” according to Chancellor’s Regulation A-449.

A parent must first go to the principal, who will recommend to an official in the Office of Student Enrollment whether the safety transfer should be approved. The principal is required to file four forms: a safety transfer intake form, a summary of investigation form, a school occurrence report, and a police report.

From that point, the Office of Student Enrollment has a week to get back to the family with its decision. The office, not the family, has the final say in choosing the student’s new school.

Advocates for Children says dozens of parents call its hotline every year inquiring about safety transfers. The organization recorded at least 36 such calls this school year, though officials there said that number does not include callers who wanted a transfer but did not specify why.

While the department did not say whether policy changes would follow last week’s stabbing, Wheaton hopes that the city will be prompted to act.

“Maybe this will lead to another reconsideration of that [safety] transfer request,” she said. “Maybe that’s one of the things you drop; you don’t require a police report because that’s another hoop for people to jump through.”

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.