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.”