Safety Switch

With police report requirement unclear, safety transfers hard to come by

Of the many concerns raised by last week’s fatal stabbing outside I.S. 117 in the Bronx, one traces back to the day before the crime itself, when neighbors say the father of suspect Noel Estevez requested a safety transfer for his son.

As the investigation into 14-year-old Timothy Crump’s death continues, it’s far from clear whether allowing Estevez to transfer might have helped avert the assault. But the transfer request does put a spotlight on a process that advocates say places too high a bar for families seeking to keep their children safe.

Safety transfers are designed to remove students from threatening environments where they face bullying or harassment. The Department of Education would not provide data on the number of requested or approved safety transfers across the city.

But according to Nick Sheehan, who works on the School Justice Project at Advocates for Children, safety transfers are “really challenging to get.” The biggest stumbling block, he said, is the required police report, which the city’s regulations list among the required documents for a safety transfer.

Parents might not have time to file a report, he said, and “historic distrust” between the police and students’ communities might also discourage families. An even bigger problem, he said, is that students might feel unsafe at school even before a crime has been committed against them.

“Sometimes the safety concern doesn’t rise to a level of criminal activity [that would be filed in a police report], it’s just ongoing bullying and harassment,” Sheehan said.

Pamela Wheaton, a managing editor at InsideSchools, said she’s heard of police refusing to give students reports because at that point, they hadn’t been victims of a crime. “It seems to me like a Catch-22,” she said.

Statements from the city imply that parents might not need a police report at all. A spokeswoman from the Department of Education said the city collaborates with schools and parents in situations when there is no police report, though she did not explain how this would work.

The department’s priority, she added, is to ensure that students have a safe school environment. Chancellor Carmen Fariña echoed this sentiment this week in her newsletter to principals, encouraging them to create “a clear, defined policy” to deal with bullying.

Sheehan said he has heard from department officials that not all incidents of bullying merit police reports, even though they warrant safety transfers. But the department’s website still lists the police report as a requirement.

With or without a report, the process for obtaining a transfer grew more complicated in 2003, when the city rolled out a new high school admissions procedure to allow more school choice.

Previously, students could transfer if the principals of both schools agreed to the switch. After high school admissions became a centralized process, though, that request needed to go through the Department of Education, and transfers were approved only if they fit into a handful of categories, including medical hardships, travel hardships, and safety hardships.

Under the new system, a student can request a safety transfer if “it is determined that the student’s continued presence in the school is unsafe for the student,” according to Chancellor’s Regulation A-449.

A parent must first go to the principal, who will recommend to an official in the Office of Student Enrollment whether the safety transfer should be approved. The principal is required to file four forms: a safety transfer intake form, a summary of investigation form, a school occurrence report, and a police report.

From that point, the Office of Student Enrollment has a week to get back to the family with its decision. The office, not the family, has the final say in choosing the student’s new school.

Advocates for Children says dozens of parents call its hotline every year inquiring about safety transfers. The organization recorded at least 36 such calls this school year, though officials there said that number does not include callers who wanted a transfer but did not specify why.

While the department did not say whether policy changes would follow last week’s stabbing, Wheaton hopes that the city will be prompted to act.

“Maybe this will lead to another reconsideration of that [safety] transfer request,” she said. “Maybe that’s one of the things you drop; you don’t require a police report because that’s another hoop for people to jump through.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.