on the steps

Advocates ask candidates for school discipline climate change

Junior Benia Darius says the next mayor needs to take a different approach to school discipline.
At a rally Monday, junior Benia Darius said the next mayor needs to take a different approach to school discipline.

After years of pressing Mayor Bloomberg to make school discipline fairer, students and advocates are turning their attention to the candidates seeking to replace him.

At a rally outside City Hall just before a City Council hearing on school climate Monday, students and advocates from the Dignity in Schools Campaign called on the next mayor to take a different approach to school discipline. They want a model that relies less on suspensions and other punitive measures, and also ensures that black and Latino students are not disproportionately affected by school discipline.

“We need a mayor that is going to implement and fund restorative justice in our schools,” said Benia Darius, a junior at Bushwick School for Social Justice. “I am soon going to start my training as a peer mediator, and I’m going to be part of the change in my school. But what I want to know today as a student is what you as mayoral candidates are going to do to change these issues in our schools?”

According to Department of Education data, the number of students arrested in schools during the last quarter of 2012 was nearly 50 percent lower than during the same period in 2011. But black and Latino students made up the same proportion of arrested students in each year: 93 percent.

All of the leading Democratic candidates either attended the rally or sent representatives. Bill Thompson, the former school board president and comptroller, was there from start to finish and signaled that he would support the Dignity in Schools Campaign.

“I want to be the mayor who works along, yes, with our students, but also with education professionals to make sure our environments are safe but that students and particularly students of color aren’t being targeted, aren’t being singled out for suspensions and arrests,” Thompson said.

Other candidates said they were sympathetic to the issues the students raised. After the rally, Comptroller John Liu, another mayoral candidate, drew a sharp line between the racial breakdown of students who are suspended and arrested and the Bloomberg administration’s “stop and frisk” policy.

“I think the numbers speak for themselves,” Liu said. “You see the disparities in the school suspensions and disciplinary actions disproportionately against students of color, and you see things like racial profiling and stop and frisk that are clearly tilted disproportionately way against people of color.”

“It’s time to end this disparity and ensure that students — regardless of race, income, or disability — are provided with positive approaches to discipline that help keep them in the classroom and off the street,” Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said in a statement.

In a statement and a column in the Huffington Post Monday, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn highlighted recent changes to the Department of Education’s discipline code, which she noted had followed the council’s 2009 Student Safety Act. She also said there are now more supports to help students before they misbehave. (Like the rest of the Democratic candidates, she supports “community schools” that offer counseling and other services alongside academic instruction.)

“But there is still more to be done,” she wrote in the column, which she co-authored with Robert Jackson, the council’s education committee chair.

Later, Jackson pushed Kathleen Grimm, a Department of Education deputy chancellor, and the commanding officer of the NYPD’s School Safety Division Brian Conroy, to explain the disproportionate arrest and suspension rates among black and Latino students.

“NYPD and/or DOE, in your opinion, why is that, if you have an opinion?” Jackson said. “And what do you think we can do to reduce those numbers?”

“Clearly none of our disciplinary actions taken based on race or creed or gender or any classification,” Grimm said. “We are as troubled as you that this number seems to be sticking and we aren’t moving this down. I think through additional supports and training and lessons learned through Young Men’s Initiative, we have the ability to address this problem.”

In testimony during the hearing, the head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which supports the Dignity in Schools Campaign, called on council members to reduce the amount of information that the Department of Education can redact from its regular school safety reports.

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