police response

Mental health crises are major cause of police interventions in New York City schools, new data show

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A member of the New York Police Department visits a classroom at Queens Explorers Elementary School.

When New York City police or safety agents respond to an incident at a school, they are more likely to take a student to the hospital for a psychological evaluation than to make an arrest or issue a summons, according to a new analysis of city data.

Last school year, nearly 29 percent of the 9,385 incidents where police or safety agents were called involved a “child in crisis,” in which the officer or agent determined the student needed to be taken to a hospital for a psychological evaluation. By contrast, 12 percent of the incidents resulted in arrests and 9 percent in summonses – a pattern that advocates say highlights a need for more mental-health professionals in schools.

Those statistics come from a report released this month by Advocates for Children, which analyzed police interactions with students from July 2016 to June 2017 — data the city was required to release for the first time last year under a new law. The statistics cover student interactions with school safety agents — who are police department employees stationed in schools — as well as patrol officers who might be called in by a safety agent or a staffer dialing 911.

The data reveal stark racial divides: Black students comprised nearly half of all children removed from school for evaluation, though they represent just 27 percent of the city’s school population. White students, by contrast, accounted for 5 percent of cases, despite being 15 percent of the school population.

Those disparities are also reflected in the use of handcuffs on students in emotional distress. Police used metal or Velcro handcuffs on black students in crisis 15 percent of the time, a higher rate than all other racial groups and almost twice the rate of white students.

To some advocates, the numbers raise questions about why police are so frequently called to respond to mental-health episodes.

“NYPD officers are there to enforce the law,” said Dawn Yuster, the School Justice Project director at Advocates for Children, and an author of the report. “When we have students with significant emotional challenges, we need [mental health professionals] trained to handle these students.”

Some 237,000 New York City children under 18 have a diagnosable mental health condition, according to Citizen’s Committee for Children of New York. Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city has ramped up mental-health services in schools, hiring additional counselors and opening mental-health clinics in some.

But advocates say the city has still not done enough to boost access to those services, and that training for school staff is inadequate. When school workers don’t have that training, advocates said, minor incidents can quickly boil over and draw a police response — major escalations that could be prevented.

Yuster pointed to a case where an 8-year-old boy with a disability was reprimanded after he poked another student with a spork. He then became agitated, which led the school to call in police officers who handcuffed the boy and insisted on sending him to the hospital even after his parents arrived.

“It’s not like these kids are spontaneously combusting,” she said. “There are so many signs along the way.”

Many of the mental-health crises involve young children.

Nearly half of police responses to children in crisis were for students 12 or younger, according to the report, with some involving students as young as four. The youngest child in emotional distress who was handcuffed was five years old.

Advocates say the city’s statistics likely under-represent the true number of police interventions linked to students experiencing a mental-health crisis. The numbers, for instance, do not include cases where police respond to students in emotional distress but do not transport them to the hospital for evaluation.

Of all police interactions, 40 percent were “mitigated,” meaning that police responded to an incident (including students in crisis) but determined the situation did not warrant further action. Students in emotional distress are also sometimes arrested, Yuster said, which also means they would not show up in the mental health statistics.

In response to the report, city officials emphasized they are investing more than $47 million per year on a range of school climate and mental health programs, including additional training.

“Providing all students with a safe, inclusive and supportive learning environment is our top priority,” education spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in a statement. “We are continuing to expand programs and trainings, including training on restorative practices and de-escalation techniques and therapeutic crisis interventions.”

School deserts

New study shows just how hard it is to find a decent public school in Detroit — especially in 10 city neighborhoods

An alarming new study shows just how difficult it is to find a quality school in the city of Detroit — especially for families that live in certain neighborhoods.

The study from the nonprofit research organization IFF identified ten city neighborhoods where it’s extremely difficult to find a seat in a quality school.

Those neighborhoods are home to 30,000 children, but had just eight “performing” schools. The study defined them using the color-coded school ratings that state education officials assigned for the 2015-16 school year based primarily on test scores.  

That doesn’t mean Detroit doesn’t have enough schools. In fact, the study found that many of the city’s schools are half empty. The main Detroit district had physical space for more than  80,000 students in the 2015-16 school year but served fewer than 45,000 kids that year.

Some Detroit families travel long distances — at great personal sacrifice — to find better schools but even families with the means to travel can have difficulty finding a spot in a decent school.

The study found that the vast majority of Detroit children — 70,000 of the 85,000 Detroit children who attend public school in the city — are in schools that don’t meet the state’s criteria for performance.

“This report is not about criticizing our public schools without offering a path forward,” said Chris Uhl, IFF’s executive director in a press release. The purpose, he said, “is to give everyone with a stake in improving Detroit’s education system — the district, charter schools and their authorizers, the city, foundations, and, of course, our families — the neighborhood-by-neighborhood data they need to work together to find shared solutions.”

The study includes an online tool that allows Detroiters to see which neighborhoods have performing schools as well as the conditions of those schools, and the basic demographics of the students who attend them.

Click here to use that tool — and scroll down to read the full report below.

How I Lead

When this Colorado principal learned about a student’s tough home life, she put him to work at school

Karen Shaw, principal of Columbia Elementary School, in Colorado Springs District 11.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here and pieces in our sister series “How I Teach” here.

After a student’s mother used an expletive to describe her son, Karen Shaw decided to act.

The principal of Colombia Elementary School in Colorado Springs thought that giving the boy “jobs” might help him succeed. So Shaw tapped him to become a daily helper in the library and later in a kindergarten class — being careful to put him around adults he liked and trusted.

Shaw talked to Chalkbeat about how that experience changed her perspective, why teacher evaluations sometimes go awry and how poverty affects the school.

Shaw was the 2016 National Distinguished Principal of the Year for Colorado. The award is sponsored by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?
My first job in education was teaching second grade in Great Falls, Montana. My interest in education was sparked when I was in high school. I had the opportunity to teach vacation Bible school at our church. I really enjoyed working with the kids in my class. The rest is history.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I __________. Why?
Visit every classroom. The success of every student and staff member is my number one priority. At Columbia, “All means all!”

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?
Having been at Columbia for the past eight years really puts me ahead of the game when it comes to getting to know the kids. We have weekly data meetings with either primary or intermediate teachers. I have my own system that I keep up to date with student data, just like the teachers. This helps me track how kids are learning and growing academically. Being visible in classrooms and other areas of the school is another way to get to know students. I supervise the fourth- and fifth-graders daily at lunch as well as work with my own intervention groups.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?
On two occasions, I had teachers who were new to the profession. Both believed they already knew everything. I would show them data that documented kids weren’t learning. We would visit highly effective classrooms highlighting more efficient ways for students to learn and high standards for behavior. I would provide multiple levels of coaching from the building level and district level. These teachers didn’t want to take feedback to improve.

Even after 20- some years in education, I believe none of us have arrived. We can always learn ways to do things better.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
Five years after being at Columbia we were named one of Colorado’s five 2013 National Blue Ribbon Schools. This was a true team effort. Columbia was recognized based on student achievement growth over that five-year period. I was so proud of our staff, students and families. Being Colorado’s 2016 National Distinguished Principal was pretty awesome as well! I still can’t believe that was me!

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
I speak to all involved to hear all sides of the story and proceed with an appropriate resolution. My favorite resolution is when there is a natural consequence. I also work hard to build relationships with our students. It is always my hope that when a student has made a mistake that disappointing me is one of the biggest consequences.

What is the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part of my job is working with reluctant staff members. When there isn’t an innate desire to grow and improve, it is very difficult to impact change.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
We have a student who is in his second year with us at Columbia. When our social worker first met his mom she was told by the mom that the boy is a little sh**. Knowing that is what his mom shared with the school, I knew I would have to take a different approach with him. So I quickly “employed” him with a caring adult at our school. Our library technology educator gave him a job in the library. My purpose in doing this is to build a relationship with an adult in our school. The student gets to participate in the job regardless of behavior.

When there is a discipline problem, I have the student’s “supervisor” help me work with the child to reflect on the behavior and talk about different choices. This year I have him “employed” as a kindergarten helper for 15 minutes a day with his favorite person in our school, Ms. Rene. Ms. Rene is always positive with him and happy to work with him. I hope this little intervention will help change his life.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

Families in poverty. The RJ Montgomery Center for homeless families is in our school boundaries. We assess students the first day that they come to our school and use the data to put students in appropriate math and reading intervention groups. This year we offer yoga classes to all kindergarten through fifth grade students once or twice a week. We use our district funds and federal funds for low-income students in creative ways to have the most impact on our students’ academic and social emotional wellbeing.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“Wonder” by R.J. Palacio

What’s the best advice you ever received?
“When you know better, you do better”