School safety

Five things to know about school resource officers in Tennessee

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Gov. Bill Haslam’s task force on school safety has identified expanded coverage by trained school safety staff — known as school resource officers, or SROs — as an immediate priority for Tennessee.

In response, the Republican governor, who is against a legislative proposal to arm some teachers with handguns, has set aside extra money in his proposed budget for state grants to help vulnerable districts pay for SROs and other security needs.

As Tennessee reviews the safety of its 1,700-plus public schools after this year’s fatal shooting rampage at a Florida high school, here are five things to know about its SRO program:

1. SROs have been around in Tennessee since 1993.

Rutherford County was the first to hire them, when then-Sheriff Truman Jones assigned five officers to keep schools secure and serve as safety resources to students and educators. That was five years before the Columbine massacre, where two students shot and killed 13 people at a Colorado high school and put mass school shootings on the national consciousness. “The [national] trend before then was to put officers in schools to build relationships with students and help with kids who were having problems,” said Terry Ashe, executive director of the Tennessee Sheriffs Association. “We knew school shootings were a probability, though. The research was out there.”

2. Tennessee’s program has grown to 991 SROs, covering more than half of the state’s school buildings.

Most schools without an SRO are elementary schools. “If you’re going to have issues, it’s typically been in high schools,” said Justin Grogan, who patrols Moore County High School and heads the Tennessee School Resource Officer Association. Sixteen of the state’s more than 140 school districts have no SROs. Some metropolitan schools are staffed with security officers, which Grogan said do not have to be sworn law enforcement officers, although they can be.

3. How they are funded is a hodgepodge.

SROs do not fall under Tennessee’s education funding formula. Some are paid for by their local school districts, while others are funded by individual counties via the sheriff’s budget. “It’s really all over the map,” said Ashe. Because law enforcement pay varies widely across the state, there’s no accurate figure on how much it would cost for every Tennessee school to have one, according to Ashe.

4. SROs are sworn law enforcement officers.

They must have at least two years of experience in law enforcement, which means that they’ve graduated from one of Tennessee’s police academies with more than 400 hours of training. In addition, they must complete 40 hours of training to obtain their SRO certification, and another 16 hours annually to keep it. Much of the annual training is conducted by the state SRO association at its annual conference in June. SROs also must undergo annual training in firearms.

5. They answer to their sheriff or police chief, not their principal or superintendent.

Like any law enforcement officer, SROs carry a gun and a badge and have the authority to make arrests. They also must file a report on any crime or arrest with their local law enforcement department, which then sends the information to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. “There are a lot of bad situations that SROs have stopped that you never hear about,” said Ashe. “Eighty-five percent of these incidents is somebody coming in from the outside — maybe a parent, maybe a former student. We’re intervening every day. You just don’t read about it in the newspapers.”

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.