Fact check

Mayor de Blasio just said New York City’s schools are safer than ever. Is he right?

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio, flanked by police Commissioner James O'Neill and Chancellor Carmen Fariña held a press conference on school safety at M.S. 88 in Brooklyn in August.

Sandwiched between two banners that proclaimed last year the “safest school year on record,” Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday that the city’s schools are less violent than ever before.

The press conference represented a victory lap for de Blasio, who has pushed to reduce student suspensions and interactions with police in favor of more “restorative” practices that emphasize de-escalation and group discussions to resolve problems instead.

“As a result of these efforts,” de Blasio said at a press conference at Brooklyn’s M.S. 88, “the school year that just ended was the safest on record in the history of New York City.”

But even before the press conference started, Families for Excellent Schools — a pro-charter group that is one of de Blasio’s biggest critics — issued its own press release claiming the city’s schools are more violent than ever.

So what explains the radically different perspectives on how safe the city’s schools really are — and who’s right?

The mayor’s claim that schools are safer than ever is largely based on a single statistic.

When de Blasio says the city’s schools are safer than ever, he’s mostly referring to seven major crimes categorized by the NYPD: murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny, and grand larceny auto. Last school year, there were 503 major crimes in schools, according to the NYPD, an 18 percent decline over three years.

It’s the lowest since 1998, when the city began tracking major crimes in schools, officials said. That might be an important piece of evidence, but doesn’t necessarily mean that schools are safer than they’ve ever been.

The mayor also noted that suspensions have dropped dramatically on his watch, and school-related arrests and summonses issued by the NYPD fell last year — by 8 and 11 percent respectively.

But it’s impossible to know based on publicly available data whether students are actually facing fewer arrests or summonses for school-related incidents than ever before. Until 2016, the NYPD did not release data on how its regular patrol officers (as opposed to its agents stationed in schools) interacted with students on school grounds. That changed last year, when they were compelled by a new city law to begin releasing those statistics, which show that black and Hispanic students are more likely to be arrested or restrained.

How can Families for Excellent schools claim the city’s schools are actually more dangerous?

In an email blast immediately before de Blasio’s press conference, the pro-charter group published a series of eye-popping statistics: Over the four school years that preceded 2015-16, assaults with serious physical injuries shot up roughly 82 percent, forcible sex offenses went up 18 percent, and overall violent incidents increased 30 percent.

Those statistics are based on data collected by the State Education Department through a system called VADIR (Violent and Disruptive Incident Reporting). But that system has come under fire for exaggerating the dangerousness of incidents in schools by using terminology associated with serious crimes.

The VADIR system has also been criticized by the state itself: Former education commissioner John King said in 2013 that the system “rarely reflects the realities of school health and safety” — and state education officials are currently working to update the system.

Asked about the state data, city officials pointed to a situation last year in which a first-grader was hit with a milk carton — later classified as a violent incident in VADIR.

“If my kids were in the first grade and they threw an empty milk carton or they were on the receiving end, there’s no way in the world I would consider that a violent incident,” de Blasio said. “The state, we’ve said many times, has a very different standard.”

At the press conference, somewhat ironically given their critique, city officials were eager to showcase how few city schools met the state’s classification of “persistently dangerous” — only two city schools down from 27 the previous school year.

The VADIR data also doesn’t look good for charter schools, which saw a 54 percent increase in violent incidents over a two-year period, Politico New York reported.

Overall, the evidence for “safest school year on record” is thin

Asked if there is additional data to back the mayor’s claim, neither the NYPD nor Department of Education could point to other statistics that show the city’s schools are safer now than ever before.

Setting aside the state’s VADIR data, some of the city’s own statistics offer a less rosy picture. Research based on the city’s annual surveys shows teachers and students think school climate has deteriorated under de Blasio.

And last school year, there were 1,429 incidents “involving weapons and dangerous instrument” — a 33 percent increase over the previous year, according to NYPD data.  

De Blasio pointed out that the weapons statistics could show that more weapons are being found, as opposed to more being brought into schools in the first place.

Changing course

After pressure from school board members, University of Memphis middle school drops its academic requirement

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University of Memphis' elementary, Campus School, is one of the highest achieving schools in the state.

Leaders of a popular elementary school known for its high academic performance are changing the entrance requirements at a proposed middle school in hopes of creating a more diverse student body.

After the Shelby County Schools board raised concerns that the University of Memphis’ plans would continue a pattern of student enrollment from its elementary school, Campus School, that is mostly white, university leaders said last week they would drop the academic requirement for the middle school.

Most Memphis students do not meet state standards for learning. Under the revised proposal, students would need satisfactory behavior records and fewer than 15 unexcused absences, tardies, or early dismissals.

In addition, the school is meant to be a learning lab for teachers earning their degrees. School leaders hope these teachers will eventually return to the Memphis school system to work with children who live in poverty. But currently, the student body doesn’t reflect the population school leaders want to serve.

“We need to make sure that new teachers are getting everything they need. That way you then can learn how to be successful in a diverse community,” board member Miska Clay Bibbs said.

White students made up two-thirds of the elementary school in 2017, the highest percentage in the district. Only 8 percent of the students lived in poverty — the lowest in the district. By comparison, more than half of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty while only 8 percent are white.

The Memphis district has added more speciality schools in recent years to attract and retain high-achieving students, including white students, who might otherwise choose a private school or schools in the surrounding suburbs. Campus School is one that attracts a lot of white families.

It wasn’t always like that, board member Michelle Robinson McKissack said. She and other board members urged university leaders to do more intentional outreach to the surrounding neighborhood that would have priority in admissions.

“It’s surprising to me that it did seem to be more diverse when I was a child going to Campus in the mid-70s than today,” she said. “And I want to ensure that University Middle looks like Campus looked when I was going to school there.”

Until recently, Campus School was the only school with a contract in the district. Compared to charter schools, contract schools have more say in how they choose students. That allows the University of Memphis to give priority to children of faculty and staff.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University Middle would be housed in the former St. Anne Catholic School near Highland Street and Spottswood Avenue.

Paul Little and his wife chose their house because of its proximity to Campus School. If the university’s middle school had been open, he would have enrolled his oldest daughter there. He considered other public options, but ultimately decided on an all-girls private school.

“For a long time, I was against private schools in general because if people with high academic achievers pull their kids out of public school, you’ve left a vacuum,” he said.

Little, a White Station High School graduate, disagrees with the assertion that Campus School is not diverse, citing several international students who are children of University of Memphis faculty.

At a recent school meeting, “when I looked out over the cafeteria, I saw a lot of diversity there… That’s never been a concern for me,” he said. He said he was encouraged by the university’s outreach plans “to make the school as diverse as possible.”

Board members are expected to discuss the contract with University of Memphis on Tuesday night, vote the following week, and then open online applications to the school Jan. 30. The school would open in August with sixth-graders with plans to add one grade each year after that.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.