Asked and answered

Are special education reforms moving too slowly? Chicago monitor responds to criticism.

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Just four months into her role as the powerful independent monitor overseeing efforts to reform special education in Chicago Public Schools, Laura Boedeker already faces angry, public criticism.

The state created the monitor’s office earlier this year after a public inquiry found that Chicago was systematically delaying and denying educational services — guaranteed by federal law — to special-needs students. But on Monday, advocates for special education charged that Boedeker and her superiors at the Illinois State Board of Education have failed on many counts to improve services and to communicate with parents.

At the same time, the advocates released findings of a survey of 800 parents and teachers that backed their charges. The next day, Chicago parents finally received an email from Boedeker and her boss, state board General Counsel Stephanie Jones, that linked to updated special education protocols and parent trainings, and suggested that the state was working on a plan for families who want to file grievances.

In an interview with Chalkbeat on Tuesday afternoon, Boedeker responded to the criticism, described the work she’s done, and outlined what’s ahead.

What exactly is your job?

Being that one person in ISBE who is dedicated to overseeing, correcting, and addressing concerns about special education in Chicago Public Schools.

Do parents know you exist?

I hope so. They seem to. The word is getting out there, I can tell that.

We’re getting more attendance at our parent workshop sessions, and there’s a new topic every month. I’m seeing more parent emails. Not so much in the sense of  “I’m complaining about services,” but “I wanted to let you know this is something going on at my school.”

Why did it take several months to introduce yourself to parents and tell them what you’re doing as monitor?

We really wanted to.

But where it got really complicated is we really wanted all the information to be in the letter, including the student-specific corrective action, rather than sending out two letters. We also saw delays in trying to come to an agreement on language along with the advocate groups as well. It was hard to reach an agreement about not just appropriate language, but the level of the language of the letter.

A survey released this week indicated that special education reform in Chicago has been slow and under-resourced. How do you respond to that?

We are talking about very pervasive, systemic issues that were already problematic before the advocates submitted their letter last November [an action that helped put in motion events that led to the state monitor overseeing Chicago schools]. This is going to take a long time. There’s been a lot of broken trust between parents and schools, parents and central office, parents and administrators.

There’s a lot of restoration and repair we need to address even before we can go in and dig really deep into those corrections.

And as far as resources go, we have been wanting to take this first month or two to get a better idea of where I need more assistance. That’s something you’re not going to know until you start the job, when school is in session. We have regional offices that we work with and that I will be partnering with as specific to CPS. As far as my surrounding staff goes, that’s something that I’m discussing with [the office of the general counsel].

How many schools have you visited?

A small handful — less than 10 so far. That’s something we’re just starting to schedule because we’ve been getting a lot of feedback over the first two months of school, so we now have some action items, some investigatory points. I’ve had a lot of district representatives go into schools and do investigations. My plan is to go in and see if I’m seeing the same things they are reporting.

From the schools you’ve been to, what have you seen?

What’s been fascinating is that there’s so many stakeholders in special education. At the center of everything is the student, of course, and then you have the laws that surround special education — federal and state laws. And then you have a group of all these adults that have different understanding of special education. Even if they have the same understanding, they have different interpretations and beliefs about how things should be done.

So it’s really about getting inside of that story. For example: At a school I went to last week, I [received a] lot of staff outreach. And if I’m just going on the staff outreach, then I think the principal is assigning special education teachers to gen ed classrooms when a teacher doesn’t show up. But when we got in there, it was a little different than what was portrayed via the staff.

What was happening?

In this particular instance, four teachers called off that day, so they had four absences they were trying to deal with. It came down to [the principal asking special education teachers] can you please go to this classroom, unless or until we get a substitute who is arriving within the next 10 minutes, so these students aren’t alone without an adult.

What are some other concerns you’ve heard from schools you’ve visited?

Paraprofessionals being assigned to roles that aren’t IEP-based [referring to individualized education programs, which schools must create for each special-education student]. For example, covering lunchroom duty. That’s not a proper use of a paraprofessional.

A lot of scheduling concerns go back to schools being trained to properly schedule their teachers, so if a teacher does call off there can be a better contingency plan for covering those students and classes.

Messaging to IEP teams. Making sure the right people are in an IEP meeting for the duration of the meeting. We’ve been really hammering home the message that the only person that can excuse a member from an IEP meeting is a parent. But sometimes we have reports that the principal directed teachers to go somewhere else. So we have to really train principals on the law, and proper use of the teachers.

In the advocates’ survey, three out of four teachers reported knowing one or more students were not receiving services due to staffing shortages. What can you do about that?

Let’s take the example of a principal taking a special education teacher and sending them to a gen ed class because they need an adult in the room.

As I was telling the principal, that’s when your scheduling needs to be really tight so you have the flexibility to come up with a contingency plan. You know teachers are going to be out. It’s kind of hard to have a contingency plan for four teachers that are out, but one or two, there are ways to get creative. You can split up a gen ed class and integrate them into a few other age-appropriate classes for instruction, or bring them into a large group and do a social emotional learning circle that addresses a current academic issue.

Your first or second solution should not be going to the special ed teacher.

A lot of the inquiry boils down to this: students who have needs being delayed or denied services. Do you see that’s still the case at CPS from what you can tell so far?

Issues of delays and denials of services — such as paraprofessional assistance, separate day school, transportation — those have dissipated some. From the data we’ve pulled and from the feedback from schools and parents, those are not nearly as big an issue as they were before, primarily because those blocks that were put on the electronic system were lifted.

Before, the only way transportation could be added to an IEP was if a district rep was there to approve it, and that’s no longer the case. Most of the power has gone back into the hands of the IEP teams, which is exactly what the public inquiry recommended.

What should the student-specific corrective action process look like, and how does it compare with what’s going on now?

We’ve been discussing this process with an office within the U.S. Department of Education. One thing they have been very clear on is that IEP teams need to be front and center of that decision. They’re the ones on the front lines with these students, so the Education Department is insistent that the IEP teams are involved when we’re talking about sending notices out to families, alerting them that you may have a child affected by the public inquiry.

That leads us to identifying who that class of students is, and then after we have those families and students identified, that’s when the IEP team comes in to say, “Yes, we do know there was a delay or break in services — what was the harm to that student?”

We hope to provide them with a set of instructions, like, “Here are the talking points, and if you find the student was harmed, here’s a menu of remedies that would be appropriate.”

Those are the conversations we’re working through right now with the department of education, CPS, the advocate representatives, and ISBE. As you can imagine, those are some pretty hefty and lengthy conversations. We’re all trying to get on the same page, and all trying to come to an agreement about what that would look like. But also, what’s fiscally responsible?

This is a three-year process. What should parents and students expect to happen between now and the end of the school year?

We’re holding schools more accountable now and we have them on our radar.

There’s going to be a lot more eye-opening information that emerges from this role, and it’s the first time it’s really been done in this way. This is truly a way for one person to explore CPS through the special education lens like nobody has ever done before. I find that really exciting.

 

First Person

We’ve watched as schools have responded to the Parkland shooting with more police. What we actually need: counselors and teachers of color

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Students from the Grace Dodge campus in the Bronx walked out of class on March 14 to call for more investment in mental health support and counselors.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a year ago today, in which 17 students and staff members were killed, put gun violence front and center in the national conversation. It’s been a year since this horrific tragedy, and we must continue to put the focus on ways to truly make schools safer.

What happened in the aftermath of Parkland was incredible. Students, some of them our age, who had been silent became active, and those who have been speaking about gun violence for years got even louder. Marjory Stoneman Douglas students used their time in the spotlight to garner worldwide media attention, and youth across the country organized walkouts, including in New York.

We have so much love and respect for what the Parkland students did in the midst of tragedy. They helped, as models and through their actions, build the foundation for future generations fighting for social justice. But while their success is undeniable, we must also acknowledge the countless students of color who have advocated for the end of gun violence for years but have never attracted the same attention and who sometimes see school safety through a different lens.

These students, in organizations like LIFE Camp in Queens, and New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, have been on the ground in black and brown communities long before the Parkland tragedy. The two of us — one a student of color, Alliyah, who has experienced some of the effects of gun violence, and one of us, Abe, who is white and has mostly escaped such experiences — stand together to elevate these voices.

The voices of students of color are too often ignored, forgotten, or silenced. Many communities of color know the consequences of gun violence all too well, and students there have had to reckon with the threat of gun violence too early in young lives. They go to schools that are already over-policed and wait in long lines every morning to go through metal detectors that do not make them feel safe. Yet these students’ stories have often been left out of the national debates about gun violence; that must change.

In the Bronx, where Alliyah went to middle school, the threat of gun violence was often present. In middle school, there were frequent loudspeaker announcements telling students that a peer had been injured or killed at the hands of a gun. Each notice left families and friends reeling, but their suffering didn’t attract much media attention. And the response to school shootings has often been to insist on more police, more security measures in and around schools that often don’t make students of color feel safer.

They can be hassled by police to and from school and wait in those long metal-detector lines to enter school. Students can be subject to random searches by the New York Police Department at school, as described by a recent student at a Black Lives Matter at School rally. Black students are more likely than whites to receive harsher punishments for the same categories of misbehavior in school. Taken together, over-policing in and around schools can lower test scores and become a reason to avoid school for some students of color, as a new study has found.

That’s why we believe the answer to school violence isn’t more police, more metal detectors, or teachers carrying guns. We were heartened to see New York state legislators supporting a bill to prevent teachers from carrying guns in schools. This is a start. But too many other states are responding to the tragedy at Parkland by arming teachers, which doesn’t make students of color feel more secure. It is extremely important that all students, no matter their race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation, feel protected in schools. But this can only happen if students of color have a voice in how we respond to gun violence.

So what do students of color need? More adults of color whom students can turn to when they have problems; more counselors who can talk to us about issues we’re having before violence happens and when something traumatic does take place. Sometimes it’s a teacher’s positivity that creates a nurturing school environment. Alliyah, for example, attends a public high school where most of the students and teachers are white. But there are two black female teachers, and they constantly cheer her and each other on with positive comments, complimenting each other on how great natural hair looks and how proud they are of each other. This positive energy should be present for every student of color in every school.

Most of all, students of color don’t want to be viewed with constant suspicion and fear, becoming the targets of more — or more aggressive — policing in and out of school. We talk a lot about physical safety in schools but not enough about psychological, emotional, and cultural safety.

Students of color need to be able to walk into school every day knowing that they will be secure. This means that teachers should not be armed, that students should not be walking through metal detectors, that more teachers should look like their students of color, and that administrators have adequate funding for more school counselors.

Fourteen students died a year ago in Parkland. But since then 1,200 more children have lost their lives to gun violence. We must continue this fight to get that number to zero. Lives are literally on the line.

Alliyah Logan is a student in the Teen Activist Project at the New York Civil Liberties Union and Youth Over Guns. Abe Rothstein is a student in the Teen Activist Project at the New York Civil Liberties Union.

police presence

New studies point to a big downside for schools bringing in more police

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Local governments across Tennessee paid to add 213 school resource officers this year, according to the Tennessee Department of Education.

It’s been a year since 17 people were killed at a Parkland, Florida high school, sparking a national conversation about gun control and a race to ratchet up school security.

Florida lawmakers, for instance, passed legislation requiring every public school in the state to have an armed guard. A Trump administration commission recommended armed school personnel, among other safety measures. Already, 71 percent of U.S. public high schools have at least one law enforcement officer who carries a gun.

While some argue that these efforts are increasingly necessary, others point out that school shootings are rare and fear that more security will backfire — making schools less conducive to learning and making it more likely for students of color to be funneled into the criminal justice system.

Now, two new academic studies provide strong evidence that some of those concerns are valid. Both released this week and looking at large groups of students, they are among the first research to directly link more police to worse academic outcomes for students.

In one case, adding police to Texas schools led to declines in high school graduation rates and college enrollment rates. Another found that more police in New York City neighborhoods hurt the test scores of black male students.

“The results of both those studies, for us, put numbers to what we already know and what the experiences of young people are,” said Maria Fernandez, a senior campaign strategist for the Advancement Project, which advocates for less punitive discipline in schools.

The papers strongly suggest that police are the cause of those negative outcomes, though they aren’t definitive proof. And they don’t tell us anything about whether the police made schools safer overall. Still, they underscore how efforts to do so can have unintended consequences.  

In New York City, more police in neighborhoods hurt achievement and attendance for black boys.

One of the studies looked at the academic performance of students in high-crime neighborhoods in New York City that saw an influx of police officers instructed to make arrests for low-level offenses and conduct frequent searches from 2004 to 2012.

It found that young black boys from those neighborhoods saw test scores drop as a result of the increased police presence. Black male students as young as 11 saw those effects, which were even worse for older students, up to age 15. (The study does not have data for high school students, who might have been even more affected.)

The increased police presence did decrease violent crime in targeted neighborhoods — something that might be expected to help students do better in schools. But black boys were more frequently absent from school, by nearly 1.5 days a year, due to the policing program, potentially to avoid the threat of arrest in surrounding neighborhoods.

“Aggressive, broken-windows policing may have negative effects by undermining trust in authorities, including schools and teachers, and by leading to withdrawal and system avoidance,” write researchers Joscha Legewie and Jeffrey Fagan in the study, published in a peer-reviewed journal. “High rates of direct or indirect contact with police may also create stress and other health and emotional responses that undermine cognitive performance.”

The program had no effect for Hispanic students or black girls. Tellingly, white students were not included in the study because so few lived in targeted neighborhoods..

In Texas, hiring more school police hurt high school graduation and college attendance rates.

Meanwhile, the Texas study examines what happened when school districts won federal grants to hire police to work in schools between 1999 and 2008.

Students in middle or high schools that received a three-year grant were 1.7 percentage points less likely to graduate high school and 1.9 percentage points less likely to enroll in college, compared to similar students in the same district in other years.

It’s not clear what explains these results. Unlike in the New York City study, there was no indication that these declines were steeper for black students, or that the greater police presence meant students were disciplined more often in high school.

But there was evidence that more security led to more disciplinary infractions in middle school, particularly for low-level offenses and for black and Hispanic students.

Researcher Emily Weisburst says that might have long-term consequences.

“A student’s experience with school discipline at an early age has potential ramifications for high school graduation and college enrollment,” she wrote in the study, published in a peer-reviewed journal.

“Negative school discipline experiences could shape the way that students are perceived by teachers, school administrators, and peers, and may also affect a student’s confidence and attachment to school.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said that 17 students died in the Parkland shooting; it was 17 people, not all of whom were students.