Dougco voucher case will stay in Denver

Updated – A Denver judge has scheduled a three-day hearing starting Aug. 2 on a motion to halt the voucher pilot. District Judge Michael A. Martinez said today he expects to rule on the plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction shortly after the hearing is completed. If granted, the motion would stop the pilot from going forward while the legal challenges are resolved.

A Denver judge has denied Douglas County’s request to move the legal action against its voucher pilot to its home turf, saying he’s not convinced the state’s role in creating the pilot was “tangential.”

A bucolic scene in Douglas County

Denver District Court Judge Michael A. Martinez signed the seven-page ruling Saturday, declaring he was not persuaded by the arguments put forth by lawyers for the Dougco school district and its board. They contended the lawsuit should be moved to Douglas County because that’s where the actions occurred leading to the pilot and because it would be more convenient for the parties, witnesses and “the ends of justice.”

“Douglas County defendants also assert that apart from administrative tasks, the state defendants have had no substantive role in the development of the program,” Martinez wrote. “The court is not persuaded.”

The Colorado Department of Education and the State Board of Education are defendants, along with the district and school board, in a now-consolidated set of lawsuits filed June 21 by civil liberties groups, Douglas County parents and residents. They’re seeking to halt the state’s first district-driven voucher pilot, approved by a 7-0 vote of the Dougco school board on March 15.

Under the pilot, 500 Dougco students will use 75 percent of the district’s allocated per-pupil funding in 2011-12 – or $4,575 – to attend private schools that have entered into contracts with the district. The plaintiffs argue the pilot violates the state constitution and state school finance laws, which they say prohibit the spending of public dollars for religious schools.

Attorneys for Dougco filed a motion July 5 seeking a change of venue from Denver to Douglas County. Last Wednesday, the plaintiffs filed a motion objecting to the move and included email exchanges and notes of meetings in Denver between county and state officials, which they presented as proof that at least some of the action related to the pilot occurred outside Douglas County.

Friday, Dougco and state officials submitted a joint response. Martinez was not convinced.

“… the court finds that the meetings hosted by officials of the state defendants constituted more than mere “tangential” conduct as the Douglas County defendants contend,” the judge wrote. “The more reasonable conclusion under the circumstances and pleadings presented here, is that the meetings were a part of the process to identify various issues in the implementation of the program and to propose solutions thereto.”

Martinez also noted that the distance between the Douglas and Denver county courthouses is 30 miles and that Douglas County’s official website touts how “convenient” the commute to Denver is for Dougco residents.

“… the Douglas County defendants failed to provide any factual evidence to support its claim that the parties and witnesses are inconvenienced by this action remaining in Denver County,” the judge wrote. “Therefore, the court concludes that a change of venue is not warranted due to convenience or the ends of justice.”

Attorneys for both sides are scheduled to meet Monday morning with Martinez to set dates for pending motions, including the plaintiffs’ request for an immediate halt to the voucher pilot. Tuesday, the Dougco school board is scheduled for final vote on the creation of a charter school that will administer the pilot.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede