School safety

After deadly school shooting in Florida, NYC schools chief calls for classroom discussions about the ‘unthinkable’ tragedy

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

In the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 people dead, New York City schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña reassured families on Thursday that the city’s schools are safe and encouraged educators to talk about what happened.

“Within our classrooms, I have asked educators to engage in the challenging questions and conversations about tragedies like this one,” Fariña wrote in a letter. “As an educator who has always strived to help children grow, succeed, and live out their potential, what happened yesterday cut me to the core.”

Fariña said that the education department “works in lockstep” with the police department to keep schools safe, and that all schools are required to conduct safety drills — including one between Feb. 2 and March 15. Following the shooting in Florida, principals will be expected to review their schools’ safety plans with their staffs.

A city education department spokeswoman added that schools must conduct four lockdown and eight evacuation drills throughout the year. School staff also receive annual training on safety protocols, she said.

In her letter, Fariña said she asked teachers and other school staffers to talk to students and their families about why schools are conducting the safety drills.

“It is important that we have these conversations at school and at home, and to always remind our children that they are safe in our schools and that we will do everything within our power to keep it that way,” she wrote.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wrote on Facebook on Wednesday that he was “heartbroken” by the shooting in Florida, and that every school shooting is “a tragic reminder that it’s way past time for change.” In a speech before the shooting, de Blasio announced a push for “rapid-response lesson plans” connected to current events.

Police said Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year-old who had been expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida., showed up around dismissal time with an AR-15 rifle and opened fire. Victims included students and staff. The authorities charged Cruz with 17 counts of premeditated murder on Thursday.

President Donald Trump addressed the situation on Thursday, emphasizing Cruz’s apparently troubled past and calling the deaths a “scene of terrible violence, hatred and evil.” His education secretary, Betsy DeVos, called for congressional hearings on school shootings. Former President Barack Obama weighed in on Twitter, calling for stricter gun control laws.

New York has avoided similarly deadly shootings in recent years. According to the gun-control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, there have been no fatal school shootings in the state since 2013 — the year state officials passed the SAFE Act that banned certain assault weapons, including the AR-15. The law was passed in the wake of a school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, which left 26 people dead — including 20 children.

“The SAFE Act didn’t affect sportsmen, hunters or legal gun owners — but it reduced the risk to our children, to our families and to our communities,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement on Thursday.

While at least one New York lawmaker wants to post armed guards at schools as a response to school shootings, it is unlikely Wednesday’s shooting will dramatically change the city’s safety debate.

In New York, conversations about school safety in recent years have revolved around discipline policies and metal detectors, among other issues (though police have seized an increasing number of weapons from city schools).

Suspensions have sharply declined as Mayor Bill de Blasio has made it harder for teachers to suspend students, instead calling for them to mediate conflicts between students. While some educators welcome that so-called “restorative” approach to discipline, others say it has invited misbehavior.

Advocates have also pushed city officials to reduce the number of metal detectors deployed, arguing they are disproportionately located in schools that primarily serve low-income students of color and send students a message that they are dangerous.

Those advocacy efforts cooled somewhat after a student was stabbed to death by a classmate in a Bronx high school last September — the first time a student was killed by a peer inside a school in more than two decades. It is not clear to what extent Wednesday’s shooting will affect the debate about the city’s metal detector policies.

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 49 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 57 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

Out of the game

The businessman who went to bat for apprenticeships is out of Colorado’s governor’s race

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Noel Ginsburg, an advocate for apprenticeships and a critic of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, has withdrawn from the Democratic race for governor.

Ginsburg, a businessman who had never run for office before, always faced a tough road to the nomination. He announced Tuesday that he would not continue with the petition-gathering or assembly process after his last place finish in the caucus, where he got 2 percent of the vote.

In an interview with The Denver Post, Ginsburg said, “I don’t believe I have the resources to be fully competitive.”

Just last month, Ginsburg released an education platform that called for the repeal of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, the signature legislative achievement of former state Sen. Mike Johnston, also a candidate for governor.

Ginsburg runs CareerWise, an apprenticeship initiative of Gov. John Hickenlooper that allows students to earn money and college credit while getting on-the-job experience starting in high school. His platform called for expanding apprenticeship programs and getting businesses more involved in education.

He also promised to lead a statewide effort to change the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to retain more revenue and send much of it to schools. He said that schools, not roads, should be the top priority of Colorado’s next governor.

Ginsburg will continue at the head of CareerWise, as well as Intertech Plastics, the company he founded.

Johnston, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne have all turned in signatures to place their names on the ballot. Former Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the endorsement of two teachers unions, is not gathering signatures and will need at least 30 percent of the vote at the assembly to appear on the ballot. Kennedy finished in first place at the caucus earlier this month.