Vox populi

Comments of the Week: Our story on a parent activist goes meta

As soon as our story about Leonie Haimson, the prominent parent activist who ceased being a public school parent last summer, went live on Wednesday, comments applauding Haimson’s advocacy began rolling in.

Among the first to comment was Assembly Education Committee chair Cathy Nolan, who wrote as “freshmanmom,”

I love working with leonie haimson; her dedication, research skills, advocacy and passion are very helpful to me both as a parent of a nyc public school student and as the chair of the assembly’s education committee. Leonie has a right to send her child to whatever school she thinks is best for her child, especially after fighting for years to improve the public school system for all familes.

Later, Haimson herself added a comment and urged readers to visit her blog, NYC Public School Parents, to read the post she had published before seeing our story:

Thanks for the tremendous support from those of you who commented here, on the lists or privately; your friendship, understanding and support helps keep me going!

Many of Haimson’s supporters also questioned, sometimes with ferocity, whether we should have written the story at all. We have invited Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute, to weigh in on that question and on the question of how well our story accomplished its goals. We’ll publish her ombudsman-style response next week, no matter what she says.

For now, we’ll point you to what the public editor of the Education Writers Association, Emily Richmond, wrote when she discussed our story on her own blog today, in a post that also appeared at the Atlantic:

GothamSchools does have its defenders, including Robert Pondiscio, executive director of the civic education initiative CitizenshipFirst, who wrote on his public Facebook page that:

This piece is far from a hatchet job. A high-profile, fierce public school advocate decides to send her kids to private school? That meets the basic test for newsworthy and fair. And the piece is hardly an attack. Her would-be defenders are making this a much bigger deal than it needs to be by loading up Gotham Schools comments with intemperate overreactions.

I asked GothamSchools managing editor Philissa Cramer to explain the decision to run reporter Geoff Decker’s story, and here’s what she shared with me:

We spent a lot of time thinking about whether to do this story and took the decision seriously, as we do about all stories. We decided to do it because Leonie Haimson is a very public figure — now national — who has staked her credibility on being a public school parent. She has made that part of her identity and in turn has made her identity part of her argument. Given that context, we have a responsibility to report that her identity has changed. We aren’t saying anything about whether the change undermines her credibility. We’re saying, here’s a change in the facts, and here are some ways to think about the change based on reporting about how others think about them. We also appreciated the opportunity to report about the tension between personal school choice and political belief, which is a real and difficult part of the world we cover.

I also heard from Lindsey Christ, an education reporter at NY1 News who’s been following the controversy, and she emailed me the following:

You don’t need to be a public school parent to advocate for public school parents, but when someone bases a public profile on personal circumstances, it makes changes to those circumstances relevant. I’ve been assuming she still was a public school parent, based on how much she’d previously emphasized that as a key part of her identity, perspective and authority. I could have easily referred to her as a public school parent in a story, so in that sense, it’s misleading by omission.

Christ makes an important point: If for no other reason than accuracy in reporting, the disclosure was warranted. In their online comments, many of Haimson’s supporters are framing this as a personal attack that will hurt her political influence. But why should it? Does making a decision based on the needs of her own child really negate Haimson’s many years of advocacy? If entire communities benefit from a better public education system, shouldn’t all of us have a say, whether or not we have children in those schools?

At the same time, it’s understandable that the the enrollment status of a public education activist’s children might be considered pertinent information under certain circumstances. GothamSchools makes a strong case that its reporting met that threshold. But that’s probably not going to satisfy critics intent on shooting the messenger.

At least one of our readers came to the same conclusion. Juggleandhope wrote in the comments section:

If someone read just the comments it would seem like this article must have been a “gotcha” hit job on a well-loved champion of the common good. But actually the article carefully emphasizes multiple viewpoints – including eloquent quotes from Haimson and her defenders – on the issue of her family’s educational choices. Some comments have argued that personal and political should be separated – but Haimson herself has specifically argued against this. I can understand why people feel upset that a grassroots activist has been challenged about her credentials if they feel that the scrutiny hasn’t been evenly applied. But her blog is called, “New York City Public School Parents – independent voices of public school parents” and has served as an important voice in important debates – how can questioning the foundational self-description of an important member of the discourse be irrelevant?

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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