Beyond the Basics

School EMS referrals, on the rise, catch City Council's attention

Sonya Turner knew her daughter struggled in school, both socially and academically. But when an assistant principal called one afternoon last October  to say that her daughter, Cashmiere, had turned suicidal and needed to be sent to the Emergency Room for psychiatric evaluation, Turner said she didn’t believe it.

When she visited the school that afternoon to follow up, she was told she would not be allowed to speak with Cashmiere until she met with school administrators. Turner refused and angrily confronted school officials until she had to be restrained school safety officers.

“I was livid, I was cursing, I was very irate,” Parker said. “If anyone should have been admitted to a psychiatric ward it should have been me, not my child,”

In the end, school officials sent Cashmiere to the ER anyway. She is one of hundreds of students who each year are forcibly referred to emergency medical services by principals who believe that they could be dangerous to themselves or others.

Those numbers are on the rise, education department officials told City Council members at a hearing on mental health services in schools today. During the 2010-2011 school year, principals and assistant principals sent students to the E.R. 947 times, a 12 percent spike from the previous school year.

“We have work to do because that number is not going in the right direction,” said Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said in her testimony.

Mental health professionals who work with students told the council that the increase signals a deterioration of the system’s ability to deal with students who require mental health care services. Budget cuts and a disorganized patchwork of multi-level mental healthcare providers have made it increasingly difficult to appropriately serve the thousands of students who received mental health diagnoses each year.

The practice of referring students to the hospital is the most extreme kind of intervention for mentally and emotionally disturbed students in New York City public schools. Special education and mental health advocates say it is not only expensive and traumatizing, but, in many of the cases, they are also often unnecessary.

A survey of doctors and psychologists found that as few as 3 percent of students who were sent to the Emergency Room were actually admitted to the hospital. In most cases, including Turner’s, the students are discharged within hours and sent home.

Turner said her daughter, the oldest girl in her seventh grade, was bullied and had grown frustrated by her academic status. But she was not suicidal, Turner said, and a psychologist at the hospital quickly agreed.

“She was safe to be back in school the next day,” said Turner, the only parent to testify at the hearing. Several parents in the past month who has spoken publicly about cases when their children were similarly sent to the E.R. as punishment for disruptive behavior. One parent said her her 10-year-old son was repeatedly taken to the E.R. for angry outbursts, and two families are suing a charter school after it placed kindergarten-age students on “psychiatric suspension.”

“We have seen that schools are too frequently referring students to EMS where school discipline is the issue, not medical or mental health treatment,” said Keren Farkas, an attorney at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, which works with people with disabilities.

Nelson Mar, an attorney for Legal Services NYC – Bronx, said that there were plenty of solutions to the shortfall of mental health services. He called for the DOE to immediately create policy designed to minimize the use of EMS as an intervention practice. But he said more data was necessary. The DOE has so far declined to release disaggregated demographic information about students sent to a hospital emergency room and the reasoning behind it.

“Only with data can policy makers be able to quantify the depth of the practice and craft appropriate public policy to address it,” Mar said in testimony.

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.