Keeping students safe

Could Chicago schools do a better job protecting students? Some city officials think so

Much-anticipated City Council hearings Wednesday over the sexual abuse crisis in Chicago Public Schools produced few solutions — but did make one point quite clear: Chicago officials’ response to the crisis has meandered without firm leadership and direction.

Aldermen peppered district officials with angry, and sometimes incredulous questions during the more than three-hour hearing.

Six months after the student sexual abuse scandal broke, the school district hasn’t hired anyone to head the office formed to protect students. Instead, a top school district lawyer — whose office was implicated in failing to protect students — and three mid-level directors helm the new office, known as the Office of Student Protections and Title IX.

School district spokesman Michael Passman told Chalkbeat Chicago that the district is working hard on finding a candidate. But he could not provide a target date for the hire, who will report directly to schools CEO Janice Jackson.

Jackson did not appear before the council on Wednesday.

“I’m a little disappointed that Janice isn’t here. This is a really important issue,” said Ald. Susan Garza, who demanded to know how so many cases of child abuse could be mishandled and underreported. “Who dropped the ball?”

Garza also questioned why the district is spending $3 million on its office of student protections. Instead, she said, the funds might be better spent on counselors at every school to support students, to get to know families and to provide a safe space to field reports of abuse and mistreatment.

Schools, Garza said, “should be the office of student protections. Your school should protect you!”

Ald. James Cappleman grilled the district representatives about the district allowing non-clinical professionals to interview students about sexual assault allegations.

Ald. Robert Maldonado railed about the office’s limited language capability.

Similarly, Ald. Raymond Lopez asked incredulously, “One person out of five [investigators] speaks Spanish, for a school district that is 50 percent Latino?” He concluded, “You’re not equipped to deal with your population you’re being asked to serve as much as you should be.”

Aldermen and child advocates brought up concerns that a hotline used to report abuse isn’t staffed 24 hours, the need for more social workers to address issues on the ground, and fears that stringent background check policies, while a reasonable precaution to keep students safe, are unfairly erecting barriers to some parents volunteering at schools, especially immigrant parents.

The tough questions underscored Chicago aldermen’s first public hearing about the sexual abuse scandal — six months after the Chicago Tribune revealed the school district’s mishandling of student sexual abuse investigations over the past decade, which unfolded amid a revolving door of school chiefs.

The district has assigned the investigation into what went wrong over to its inspector general, Nicholas Schuler. The school district earlier hired former federal prosecutor Maggie Hickey to review its handling of complaints and make recommendations. In August, Hickey released a preliminary report that blamed instability in leadership at the district — both in chief executives and network chiefs — for a gap in oversight that failed to protect student victims of sexual abuse.

The report also found “systemic deficiencies … at all levels: in the schools, the networks, the central office, and the Chicago Board of Education,” and concluded that “CPS did not collect overall data to see trends in certain schools or across geographies or demographics. Thus, CPS failed to recognize the extent of the problem.”  

Hickey is also serving as an adviser to the student protections office.

The district has assigned five people to the office responding to complaints of sexual harassment and abuse against students, and has five investigators to examine the most serious cases of student-on-student sexual abuse and violence. The office also has a training and compliance coordinator.

Since Sept, 4, the office has fielded 624 reports, including 491 allegations of student-on-student offenses and 133 allegations of offenses by adults, including adults outside of schools, according to the district.

At City Hall Wednesday, North Side Ald. Harry Osterman said City Council members should meet again in March to gauge progress made at the school district to keep Chicago students safe.

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.