School safety

The fatal stabbing in a Bronx classroom was horrific — but also extremely rare

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.

The fatal stabbing at a Bronx school Wednesday comes amid continuing debate over school safety and the use of metal detectors in schools — but also as serious crimes in schools are at near-record lows.

Details about the incident at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation are still coming in, but city officials have confirmed that two teenage students were stabbed during a history class, one fatally, by a classmate wielding a switchblade.

The incident is extremely rare: One student has not killed another inside a school for more than two decades, officials said. And though Wednesday’s events have put some families on edge, they come in the context of a wider downturn in crime inside schools and citywide.

The number of major crimes committed in schools — from murder to grand larceny — are at their lowest levels since the city began keeping track in 1998. Arrests, summonses, and suspensions have also fallen in recent years.

Less than two months ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio highlighted those trends at a press conference declaring last school year “the safest year on record.” At a briefing Wednesday, he noted that it had been “many, many years” since a student was killed inside a school.

The last time a student was killed at the hands of another student inside a school building appeared to be in 1993, when a 15-year-old student fatally stabbed another 15-year-old boy in the crowded hallway of a Manhattan junior high school. (In 2014, a 14-year-old boy stabbed another boy to death outside I.S. 117 in the Bronx.)

Still, the mayor’s critics have painted a different picture of overall school safety, relying on state data and other statistics that show more weapons are being recovered from city schools. Last school year, 1,429 weapons were recovered, according to police data, up from 1,073 the year before. De Blasio said last month that the increase could indicate greater vigilance from school personnel and police as opposed to a less safe environment.

Wednesday’s episode may also complicate the debate about the city’s deployment of metal detectors in school buildings. The building did not have a metal detector, and a police official said in a briefing that there was “no question” the knife used in the attack would have been caught during screening.

After rushing back to school to pick up their children, parents at the School for Wildlife Conservation reportedly began calling for the city to set up metal detectors. De Blasio said temporary metal detectors would be brought into the school on Thursday.

Police Chief Joanne Jaffe, who oversees the community affairs bureau, said it had previously been determined that the school did not require metal detectors, but now, “We’ll review that and take a look at that.”

Some advocates have argued metal detectors make students feel like criminals and “normalized the idea of getting shot or stabbed” as one student put it. Black and Hispanic students are more likely to have to pass through metal detectors, a WNYC analysis found.

Eighty-eight buildings currently have metal detectors, education department spokeswoman Toya Holness said. The city conducts annual reviews to determine if scanners are needed, and principals can also request that they be added or removed.

Last year, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña acknowledged advocates’ concerns about the use of scanners, but said they had to be weighed against students’ safety.

“You want to make sure that when you remove something,” she said, “that the school stays as safe.”

Correction: Based on information from city officials, an earlier version of this story cited a fatal stabbing at a Brooklyn high school in 1992 as the last time one student killed another inside a New York City. However, as the story now notes, another student was fatally stabbed inside a school later that academic year, in 1993.

PAYOUT

Douglas County district pays $1.3 million to settle landmark special education case

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The Douglas County School District has paid $1.32 million to settle a long-running special education case brought by a couple who sought reimbursement from the district for their son’s education at a private school for students with autism.

The payment, made to the law firm representing the couple in May, represents the last chapter in a landmark special education case known as Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The case lasted for seven years, leading to a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision that raised the standard schools must meet in educating students with disabilities.

“The settlement really just eliminates any uncertainty there may have been about the importance of the Endrew F. decision,” said Meghan Whittaker, policy and advocacy manager for the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

She expects the settlement to spur greater awareness about the higher standard and increased public investment in educating students with disabilities.

Jennifer and Joe, the parents of Endrew F., the student at the center of the case, declined to comment on the settlement when reached by email this week.

In February, they said their attorney had reached out to school district officials numerous times over the years with offers to talk and potentially settle the case out of court, but that the district rejected those overtures.

Chalkbeat requested the 2-page settlement agreement under the Colorado Open Records Act, but district officials declined to provide it, citing a confidentiality agreement between the two parties.

The seeds of the Endrew F. case were planted about a decade ago when Jennifer and Joe pulled Endrew, then a fourth-grader, out of his Douglas County elementary school after years of stalled educational progress. They placed him at a specialized school in Denver — Firefly Autism House — where they saw immediate improvements. Tuition at the school is more than $70,000 a year.

In 2011, Jennifer and Joe sued the school district for tuition reimbursement, arguing that Endrew had not received a fair and appropriate education in Douglas County schools as required by federal law. Three courts ruled against the family before the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Throughout the case, Jennifer and Joe asked that their last name not be used to protect their family’s privacy.

While the unanimous 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling was hailed as a momentous decision with enormous significance for millions of students with disabilities across the country, it kicked the question of whether the district should repay the family for years of private school back to the lower court.

In February, a federal judge ruled that the district owed the family for tuition and legal costs. According to district officials, the district reached an agreement for the $1.32 million payment on April 19 with the school board’s authority. The money came out of the district’s general fund.

In recent months, public and private groups have released new resources to help school district leaders and parents understand and act on the Endrew F. decision. In December, the U.S. Department of Education put out a nine-page Q&A on the topic.

In early 2018, the National Center for Learning Disabilities put out the Endrew F. Advocacy Toolkit for parents. The downloadable toolkit, which has been accessed 30,000 times so far, outlines the process for advocating for students with disabilities and improving their individualized learning plans.

Whittaker said the Endrew F. settlement signals to both parents and school officials the importance of working together to craft such plans.

“The focus here needs to not be on future cases and parents suing school districts but providing students with the services they need now,” she said.

Read more about Joe and Jennifer’s long journey to the Supreme Court here and their frustration at being portrayed as a school choice success story by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos here.

it's official

An integration plan is approved for Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Middle schools in District 3, including Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Visual Arts, pictured above, will give struggling students priority in admission, the local Community Education Council announced.

The New York City education department on Wednesday approved a plan to integrate middle schools in Manhattan’s District 3, the culmination of years of advocacy amid vocal pushback against admissions changes aimed at creating more economically and academically diverse schools.

The plan marks the city’s first attempt under Mayor Bill de Blasio to integrate middle schools across an entire district, an effort that garnered national attention after the schools Chancellor, Richard Carranza, tweeted a blunt criticism of parents who protested the proposal.

Announcing approval of the plan, Carranza said in a statement that he hopes District 3 will serve as a model for other communities aiming for more diversity.

“Students benefit from integrated schools, and I applaud the District 3 community on taking this step to integrate their middle schools,” he said.

The new admissions system builds on growing momentum to unravel deep segregation in the country’s largest school system. A few weeks ago, de Blasio announced a contentious plan to overhaul admissions at the city’s elite specialized high schools. And later on Wednesday,  a set of recommendations is expected to be unveiled for integrating middle schools in Brooklyn’s District 15.

Under the plan approved in District 3, students who are poor, struggle on state tests, and earn low report card grades will be given admissions priority for a quarter of seats at the district’s middle schools. Of those seats, 10 percent would go to students who struggle the most, and 15 percent would go to the next-neediest group.

Education officials had considered weighing a number of different criteria to determine which students would get priority. They settled on a mix indicators including student poverty and academic achievement because it “identifies students most likely to suffer the consequences of long-term segregation in District 3,” according to a statement released by the Community Education Council, a group of parent volunteers who have supported the district’s integration efforts. 

Since academic performance is often linked to race and class, the new admissions system could integrate schools on a number of different measures. But in aiming for academic diversity explicitly, the district is pushing for a unique and controversial change. In District 3 and across New York City, high-performing students are often concentrated in a tiny subset of schools.

Parents who worried their children would be elbowed out of the most selective schools pushed hard against the plan, including a woman featured on a viral NY1 video saying that the proposal tells hard-working students “life sucks.”  

“I think it was definitely a much harder concept for parents to understand,” said Kristen Berger, a parent on the local Community Education Council who has helped lead the integration effort.  “We have a lot of talk about meritocracy… anything that challenges it, challenges a very basic concept parents have.”

With those concerns in mind, the district says it will boost training for school staff in strategies to help struggling students. The district will also provide anti-bias training for all middle school staff and teachers will also focus on culturally relevant education practices, which ensure that all students are reflected in what is taught in classrooms.

Despite the backlash, the proposal would actually have a modest impact on many district schools, according to city projections. Among the schools expected to change the most is the Computer School, which would see a 16-point increase in the number of needy students who are offered admission. Still, only 28 percent of students would be poor and have low test scores and report card grades.  

Schools that currently serve the greatest number of struggling students aren’t expected to change much, if at all, according to projections. Many of those schools are in Harlem, prompting education council members to push the department to do more for those schools.

The council pledged to take on the work itself. Parents want to weigh whether new school options are needed, and “address long-standing challenges such as disparities in resource allocation,” the council’s statement said.

“We need a Harlem vision. That’s really important and that’s key to the next steps,” Berger said.