safety survey

In Bronx survey, struggling students explain what’s missing from school discipline debates

PHOTO: New Settlement Parent Action Committee
Shaka’la Maxwell, a Bronx high school student and member of the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, spoke during an event the group organized on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, where it released a new report. The report is based on a survey of Bronxites that Maxwell helped conduct.

Shaka’la Maxwell, a Bronx high school student who helped survey her peers about school discipline, recently asked a classmate why she had been suspended.

The girl explained that she had fought with another student who questioned her intelligence. But she also made clear that her problems went deeper than a schoolyard taunt.

“Basically,” Shaka’la explained, “she struggled in class a lot.”

That student was not alone: In surveying nearly 400 students, parents, and teachers at over 50 Bronx schools, Shaka’la and her research team found that students who struggle academically or socially at school are also more likely to get into trouble. Those same students are also the least likely to turn to school staffers for help, according to a new report by the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, the South Bronx advocacy group that conducted the surveys.

The report comes as the citywide suspension rate continues its steady descent, and the education department is encouraging schools to adopt less punitive discipline approaches. It also follows significant changes to the city’s school discipline policies last year — including restrictions on the use of suspensions — and City Hall’s formation of a task force to review school discipline practices.

But, the report suggests, those efforts will fall short if they fail to address the underlying reasons for student misbehavior, which often involve a mix of academic challenges, problems at home, and friction with peers.

“While there is important and critical work being done to change policing practices and discipline policy,” the report says, “our research suggests that policymakers and educators must also address these underlying factors in order to transform school climate and culture in New York City.”

The group, which has pushed for improvements to South Bronx schools for two decades, decided to survey Bronxites about their schools in order to expand the school-safety debate beyond suspensions and metal detectors. While their unscientific results could never match those of the city’s massive school survey — which involves nearly 1 million participants — the idea was to add more school-level voices to the debate.

Shaka’la, who is a junior at the Bronx High School of Medical Science, teamed up with fellow students and parents to conduct the surveys in school lunchrooms, parks, McDonald’s restaurants, and churches. (Shaka’la said she used candy bars to coax some reticent interviewees.) Overall, they found that more than half of students said they enjoyed school both academically and socially.

At the event Monday, students and educators learned about "restorative circles," a method of resolving conflicts by having both sides discuss the issue in a group.
PHOTO: New Settlement Parent Action Committee
At the event Monday, students and educators learned about “restorative circles,” a method of resolving conflicts by having both sides discuss the issue in a group.

But one in five students said they did not enjoy school, and those were the ones most likely to report having been disciplined in school and having struggled on state tests. Those same students were also twice as likely to say that they would not seek help from a teacher or other school staffer, according to the report.

Many of those students end up abandoning school, according to the report, which is based partly on interviews with students who dropped out of high school. The report says those dropouts were actually “pushed out,” explaining that many were “disengaged, distracted, disciplined, and dismissed long before they stopped attending.”

That was the case for Schurch Burgos, a 21-year-old Bronx resident who said she dropped out of long-struggling DeWitt Clinton High School when she was 15. She said that no one tried to pull her up as she fell behind in her classes, until she finally decided that it was pointless to keep showing up.

“I didn’t have help from teachers, from nobody,” said Schurch, who is now studying to earn a high school equivalency diploma. “I felt lost.”

If someone had intervened, she added, she believes that “would have stopped me from leaving, and I think I would have graduated.”

These issues are especially acute in the Bronx, which continues to have the lowest graduation rate and highest dropout rate of any borough. The Bronx has also historically seen the most school arrests and suspensions, though those numbers have declined sharply since 2012 along with the rest of the city’s.

The report makes several recommendations. It calls for more social workers to help coordinate schools’ “restorative justice” efforts, a problem-solving approach meant to replace suspensions. It also advocates substituting projects for some standardized exams, which it says will make students more excited about school and help those who perform poorly on tests.

An education department spokeswoman said the report is misleading because it relies on a limited sample of people. She said the city has hired 250 new guidance counselors and offered conflict de-escalation training to some schools, and she noted that suspensions fell by 17 percent last year.

In addition to the discipline-policy changes, the city has also invested heavily in mental-health counseling and other social services at some 130 “community schools” — efforts to confront the root causes of misbehavior and poor academics highlighted by the report.

“It’s an exciting moment,” said Emma Hulse, a Parent Action Committee organizer, “but there is a real need to continue the work and move forward.”

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