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.”

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.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.