new approach

Long-awaited discipline policy changes further restrict suspensions, restraints

PHOTO: Ron Coleman

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced long-awaited revisions to school discipline policies on Friday, including new suspension procedures and restrictions on school-based police officers.

The plan includes a new review process for suspensions for insubordination, restrictions on handcuffing students, and expanded training for the city’s School Safety Agents. The changes came as the city faced mounting pressure to further revamp its discipline code given the disproportionate suspension rates of black and Hispanic students and students with disabilities, which city officials have said they are committed to improving.

“Today’s changes will protect students from bullying and violence, and provide relief and a better school experience for students who need to be focused on their learning and not constantly worry about getting suspended for any minor incident,” Chancellor Fariña said in a statement.

Suspensions are down 27 percent since 2011, and in-school arrests have dropped 32 percent between 2012-13 and 2013-14, according to city statistics. But black and Hispanic students account for 90 percent of suspensions but just 70 percent of city students, while students with special needs account for about one-third of suspensions.

Under the new policy, principals will be required to obtain written approval from the department’s Office of Safety and Youth Development before suspending a student for defying authority, a move likely to reduce suspensions for less significant offenses. The more severe superintendent’s suspensions are being no longer an option for students involved in “minor physical altercations.”

The city’s changes are less drastic than those made by a few other large cities in recent years. Both San Francisco and Los Angeles have eliminated schools’ ability to suspend students for “willful defiance,” and there has been a nationwide push to roll back zero-tolerance discipline policies, which favored severe penalties for minor infractions.

The changes came as a disappointment to advocacy groups, who wanted the city to eliminate suspensions for “defying authority” and bar school safety officers from being able to arrest or ticket students for misbehavior. In a sign that there could be more changes coming, de Blasio and Fariña created a “School Climate Leadership Team” that includes advocacy groups.

“We’re hopeful about the creation of the mayor’s leadership team, and think that could help us pave the way for new discipline policies,” said Shoshi Chowdhury of the Dignity in Schools campaign.

Principals have long cautioned that it’s not simple to remove a tool for dealing with unruly students, like suspensions, especially if schools don’t get any additional training or resources.

The city is allocating $432,000 in new money for the changes, officials said, to expand an algebra-based mentoring program from four to six schools next year. The programs will cost $5 million overall, though that money is already being spent.

The City Council will continue providing funding to train school staff in “restorative justice” practices, which include peer mediation and student panels that try to change students’ behaviors. Supporters say that those programs can help create a positive environment and offer a more productive way of dealing with disruptive students, though they take significant effort to implement fully.

“We have a lot of schools interested in changing their discipline policies, but they know it takes money, staff, and training time,” said Urban Youth Collaborative coordinator Kesi Foster.

The changes are the latest in a series of recent edits to the city’s discipline and suspension policies, but the first under the de Blasio administration.

Calls for changes to the suspension policy grew louder when the city began reporting suspension statistics in 2012. A coalition of advocates led by retired Chief Judge of New York Judith Kaye made recommendations for changes in 2013, and the discipline code—which outlines the city’s school discipline policies and students’ rights—has changed over the last few years to emphasize alternatives to suspension.

The package of changes announced Friday includes new training and restrictions on School Safety Agents and police officers assigned to schools, who man metal detectors and patrol the halls of city schools. (The city’s 5,000 safety agents together make up one of the largest police forces in the country, and report to the police department, not the principals in their buildings.)

And after advocacy groups publicly voiced their frustrations in October about reports of children as young as five being restrained in schools, the discipline code now says that students under age 12 will not be handcuffed. The police department will also start providing monthly reports on how often students are restrained.

The revised code includes more information on how schools can address bullying and changes to rules about calling 911 for help dealing with disruptive students. The city settled a lawsuit in December requiring the Department of Education to come up with a formal plan for dealing with disruptive students that didn’t involve calling 911, which often resulted in students being sent to the emergency room though they had no medical issues. The city is now proposing that each school be responsible for developing a guide for when a student’s behavior warrants calling 911.

The proposed changes to the discipline code will be discussed at a March 2 hearing and will go into effect this spring.

Sarah Darville contributed reporting.

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.