SESIS UNDER FIRE

James sues city for not properly tracking services for students with disabilities

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Public Advocate Letitia James

Public Advocate Letitia James has filed a lawsuit against the city education department, alleging that flaws with its special-education data system have resulted in missing support services for some students and the loss of millions of dollars.

The lawsuit centers on the embattled $130 million Special Education Student Information System, or SESIS. That system was designed to allow educators to more easily keep track of the learning plans created for each of the city’s more than 200,000 students with disabilities, and to make sure the students receive their mandated services.

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However, the system came under fire almost immediately after it was rolled out in 2011. Teachers reported that it was glitchy and burdensome, and the city comptroller blamed the system for keeping the city collecting millions of dollars in federal Medicaid reimbursements for low-income students with disabilities.

Now, James is taking those longstanding critiques of the Bloomberg-era system one step further by filing the lawsuit, which claims that problems with SESIS contributed to the city losing out on $356 million in Medicaid dollars over several years.

“The program doesn’t work and it never has,” James said at a press conference Monday. “The failure of the system has been one of the department’s worst-kept secrets.”

When former City Comptroller John Liu made a similar claim in 2013, city officials denied that Medicaid reimbursements are in any way affected by SESIS. On Monday, a city law department spokesman said the city plans to review James’ lawsuit.

The latest attack on SESIS comes on the heels of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found the city provides “inexcusable” accommodations for its young students with disabilities and has failed to address the problem for years. On Friday, the city formally rejected the findings that two-year investigation by the office of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the New York Times reported.

School staff working with special-education students are required to log information into SESIS about each student’s “Individualized Education Program,” or IEP, including details about initial evaluations, meetings with parents, services provided, and any changes made to the plan. But the system suffered from so many technical problems early on that teachers had to input data on evenings and weekends, which eventually led an arbitrator to order the city to pay $38 million in overtime to more than 30,000 educators.

Advocates have other complaints. Ellen McHugh, a longtime special education advocate and James’s appointee on the citywide council on special education, said parents should be able to access the system to keep tabs on their children’s progress.

“We can’t, as parents, access our child’s IEP,” she said. “We can’t, as parents, find out that our IEPs are being implemented.”

Maggie Moroff, special education policy coordinator for Advocates for Children, said that many students with disabilities do go without their mandated services. While she hesitated to lay the blame completely on SESIS, she said the city needs to make sure that no students fall through the cracks.

“There are lots of kids going on without their services,” she said, “and there doesn’t seem to be a system designed to flag that.”

The public advocate’s office has set its sights on the city’s handling of students with disabilities before. In August, James joined a lawsuit — which is set to start oral arguments in April — that claims the city is violating a local law that requires students with disabilities to be transported in air-conditioned buses when it’s particularly warm outside.

“We go wherever the facts lead us,” James said, “and, unfortunately, a significant number of complaints that we have received are from parents with special needs children.”

An education department spokesman did not comment directly on the lawsuit’s claims about SESIS.

However, he said that more school staffers had been trained to use the system. He also noted that the city has taken other steps to boost its supports for students with special needs, including launching more programs for students with autism and hiring 300 additional occupational therapists.

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