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.”

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.