passive aggressive

Usual activists plan to keep low profile at tonight's PEP meeting

The crowd at a January PEP meeting at Brooklyn Technical High School

Chancellor Dennis Walcott is so ready for yet another raucous Panel for Educational Policy meeting tonight that he has reserved the Prospect Heights Campus auditorium until 9 a.m. Friday.

“We’re prepared to stay all night and into the morning,” Walcott told Rosanna Scotto and Greg Kelly, the “Good Day New York” crew at Fox 5 during an appearance this morning.

But there’s a chance that tonight could actually be much less heated than some of the panel meetings that have taken place over the past school year.

That’s because two key organizers behind the protests, rallies, and theatrics at those meetings are taking a backseat tonight. The teachers union is largely staying away and Occupy the DOE protesters who have disrupted previous meetings say they plan to keep a low profile. Only a new group, Students Activists United, which grew out of the Alliance for Quality Education and the Coalition for Educational Justice’s efforts against school closures, has plans for an organized protest.

The groups cite political and practical reasons for stepping back, and seasoned activists also say they are suffering from protest fatigue after shouting themselves hoarse at panel meetings whose outcomes seem predetermined.

“After witnessing so many bad PEP meetings, no one has any hope that this will not be another rubber-stamp approval across the board,” said Kevin Kearns, a teacher at Lehman High School in the Bronx.

Instead of protesting at the panel meeting, the UFT is hosting a rally miles away on the steps of City Hall “to protest Mayor Bloomberg’s plans to close 26 schools despite fierce community opposition,” according to a press advisory. The City Hall rally takes place at 4:30 p.m., giving teachers time to attend the 6 p.m. meeting if they want to. But the union’s absence is notable, given that it has in the past organized a caravan of buses to bring hundreds of members to panel meetings in protest.

The Occupy DOE movement, a faction of the Occupy Wall Street movement that dominated and even derailed education department meetings this year, is also not shooting for a starring role.

“We want to let the schools take the lead,” said John Yanno, a teacher at the Secondary School of Law in Brooklyn, who helped organize teacher “grade-ins” in Zuccotti Park, the epicenter of the Occupy protests last fall.

But even teachers at the now-24 turnaround schools said they’re not planning any mass protest. They’ve organized dozens of rallies throughout the four-month ordeal, but no such event was planned for tonight.

“Most of us plan to go the traditional route of just giving public testimony in support of our schools,” said Kearns, who emceed an all-turnaround-school protest outside the Department of Education’s Tweed Courthouse headquarters that attracted teachers from only a handful of schools.

Organizers offered several reasons for taking a lower-key approach to tonight’s meeting.

One of them is political. When the Department of Education removed nine schools from its turnaround list, some took that as a small token of political good will.

“Getting those seven schools was a big deal,” said one organizer about the A- and B-rated schools pulled from the list earlier this month. “People want more, but it was a smart move by the administration to do that. It was an egregious decision to put them on there in the first place.”

Yanno also suggested that the union’s growing focus on the 2013 mayoral elections had made it less likely to take to the streets. “We’re going into an election season and the UFT’s tactic for this is to get people behind elected officials,” he said.

Activists are also feeling protest fatigue after a rally-packed spring and are simply having a hard time mustering the energy to protest against the panel, which has never rejected a single mayoral proposal.

“People are so frustrated with what’s going on,” said another organizer. “They have no hope anymore that this administration is going to change course. They’re just getting to the point where they have to show up and be heard but that’s about it because they’re just going to go through with these policies anyway.”

A third explanation could be that the groups are hoping to avoid a showdown of the type that overshadowed the Feb. 9 meeting where the panel voted to close or shrink 23 schools. Three separate groups that evening organized protests, and while the collective effort was disruptive, it also revealed a deep rift between the Occupy DOE protesters, who pledged to shut down the meeting by using their trademark “people’s mic,” and the UFT leadership. The competing demonstrations derailed the UFT’s protest in a scenario the union might be hesitant to repeat.

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