after parkland

Findings are mixed from Tennessee’s first-ever security review of all public schools

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sumner County Schools safety coordinator Katie Brown and Lt. Billy Vahldiek of Gallatin police examine the window pane in a school hallway to make sure the glass is shatter-resistant. The review team is one of more than a hundred across the state who conducted security assessments over the summer of every Tennessee public school.

Tennessee schools meet or exceed most national safety standards for buildings and operations, but there are weak spots too that must be addressed, according to the findings of the state’s first-ever comprehensive security review of all of its public campuses.

Those weak spots include surveillance and controlling building access and the flow of vehicles, says a report released on Wednesday by the state education department.

And while schools conducted an average of 15 safety drills last year for emergencies such as fires, earthquakes, or intruders, the review revealed that many are still not meeting all of the state’s drill requirements.

The report culminates seven months of scrutiny of more than 1,800 school campuses statewide to assess security risks to students and staff. Gov. Bill Haslam ordered the unprecedented assessment in March following a shooting a month earlier at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 people were killed.

In conjunction with the work, Tennessee disbursed an extra $25 million in one-time funding to help schools address vulnerabilities and risks that were expected to be uncovered, as well as $10 million in recurring grant money for ongoing safety and prevention programs. The money — which Haslam acknowledged was modest given the scope of the need — already is being used in all 147 districts to make improvements ranging from upgrading door locks and updating visitor screening procedures to hiring more school resource officers and mental health professionals.

Tennessee’s largest district received an extra $3.5 million to bolster safety. Here’s how it’s spending it.

To receive the extra resources, districts had to assess their campuses and submit each school’s review, emergency operation plan, and drill logs to the state. Those on-site reviews were handled by local two-person teams from safety and law enforcement who were trained to complete an 89-point checklist of risks and precautions based on national standards. (Here’s what the process looked like.)

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, whose department spearheaded the review along with the state Department of Safety and Homeland Security, called the work a good start toward a more vigilant climate to safeguard school communities.

“We know that safety must be an ongoing process of continuous improvement,” she said in a statement.

Toward that end, the state is developing its own checklist of priorities to help districts and schools harden and support their campuses. It’s revising templates of drill logs and emergency operation plans to help schools better plan and document those activities. And it’s creating training and guidance options to help districts build capacity.

You can view the full report here.

Bullying in schools

New research finds link between districts that voted Trump and racist bullying post-election

PHOTO: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Students living in areas that voted for President Trump faced more bullying after the 2016 election, according to new research released Wednesday.

The study offers some hard evidence that the post-election months were a more fraught time in many schools — backing up the stories of individual teachers and students. But the effects were not spread evenly: In communities favoring Trump, reports of bullying were 18 percent higher than in communities that voted for Hillary Clinton, the study found. Reports of peers being teased or put down because of their race or ethnicity were 9 percent higher in those places.

Overall, 17 percent of students in areas that voted for Clinton reported being bullied, compared to 20 percent of students in areas that voted for Trump.

“We found differences in teasing and bullying rates that were linked to voting preferences, which we didn’t see prior to the 2016 presidential election,” said Francis Huang, an associate professor at the University of Missouri, who conducted the study with University of Virginia professor Dewey Cornell.

Huang and Cornell examined the survey responses of more than 155,000 seventh- and eighth-grade students across Virginia’s 132 school districts. Students were asked if they had been bullied at school and if they had observed harassment of others, including students being targeted due to their race or ethnicity. The data was collected in 2013, 2015, and 2017.

Their conclusions are limited for a few reasons. The surveys don’t say the race or ethnicity of the students being bullied, making it impossible to know how closely the incidents were tied to the derogatory language now-President Trump and his supporters used during the campaign about Mexican immigrants and Muslims, for instance.

And the data, published in the peer-reviewed Educational Researcher, only shows a link between bullying and voting patterns — it doesn’t prove cause and effect.

“Our data show there could be a relationship, but more research is needed to know that,” Huang said. “But what we can say is that bullying continues to be a problem in schools that’s only increased in the eyes of these students.”

There still isn’t much research yet to confirm the depth of such a “Trump effect,” said Deborah Temkin, director of education research for the nonpartisan Child Trends. She previously oversaw federal efforts to combat bullying in the Obama administration.

“This is a really complicated thing to disentangle,” Temkin said. “There can be so many factors into why bullying is happening and without a hyper-controlled study — which is hard to do when you may or may not have a presidential election in the mix — it’s hard to show causation.”

Virginia has taken steps to combat bullying in schools, before and after the election. A law implemented in 2017 requires principals to notify the parent of any student involved in bullying of the status of any investigation within five school days.

While schools do submit harassment data to the federal government every couple of years, the nature of such incidents isn’t made clear in those reports. Moreover, there is no uniform collection of hate crimes or bias incidents in schools by any federal agency, making it a challenge to understand how often students are targeted because of their identity.

A national data set released last year showed that bullying rates held steady in 2017, Temkin noted, adding that researchers should be cautious about assigning blame for any uptick fully to Trump or political rhetoric.

Indeed, Huang and Cornell found that bullying was present throughout the state of Virginia — a battleground state that Clinton won by 5 points.

School officials have publicly expressed concern in recent years about how President Trump’s language and behavior, including his reliance on false claims, may be affecting students’ outlook on what is socially acceptable. That presents new challenges for teachers pushed to address it.

“It is harder to have students behave respectfully toward one another when the nation’s chief role model consistently does the opposite,” Richard Stopol, the president of NYC Outward Bound Schools, wrote last week in the New York Daily News. “Through words and actions, he is profoundly affecting how teachers see their role and influencing both how and what they teach. With those words and actions, he is posing immense challenges that educators across the country are having to reckon with.”

Temkin said the research should push teachers and school administrators to acknowledge that what’s happening in politics doesn’t stay at home with their students.

“We have to be thinking of how the actions of adults transfer onto the behavior of kids as kids are always looking at how adults are acting toward others,” Temkin said. “So yes, more research is needed to see how deep these relationships go, and from what we see here in the study is a sustained need for bullying prevention in schools.”

Back to school

Kirby High students to return to school Monday four months after rats moved in

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kirby High School students and staff reunited before a scheduled return to the Memphis building Monday. The school had been closed because of rats and about 800 students were scattered to three locations as Shelby County Schools worked on the building.

Update on Jan. 10, 2019: This story has been updated to include the stipend amount for staff, more specific enrollment numbers, and a breakdown of renovation costs.

Walking around the building she once thought was a lost cause for the first time in four months, Kirby High School senior Princess Jones was impressed.

A rat invasion in the fall prompted Memphis school leaders to spend more than $3 million on renovations, and community members got their first look Friday at the improvements, which included a host of upgrades.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
While students were scattered to three locations, Shelby County Schools got new furniture for classrooms and the library shown here.

“Y’all, look at my chair!” Jones exclaimed inside her former English classroom as she ran to the corner desk she used to sit in. Instead of individual desks, there are now new tables made to fit together in groups.

Other improvements included a student lounge, five new computer labs, new laptops for teachers, a few cameras that will allow teachers to livestream and record lessons, new lighting, and paint.

The hallways were adorned with balloons in the school colors of white and blue Friday afternoon, and nearly every Shelby County Schools representative sported a T-shirt with the school’s rallying cry that sought to boost morale during a crisis that displaced about 800 students: “Kirby Strong.”

The welcome ceremony came three days before students will return to the Memphis high school after being scattered to three nearby locations while district staff and contractors worked to clear the building of pests and upgrade the school beyond the immediate needs. About $750,000, or 22 percent, of the $3.3 million the district spent on renovations was directly prompted by the rats.

“We wanted to ensure that when the students and the teachers came back to Kirby High School that we were giving them something to look forward to… to a certain extent to make up for the difficult time they went through,” said Natalia Powers, the district’s chief of communications.

Kevin Woods, the school board member whose region includes Kirby High, said he was happy with the result.

“The objective all along was that the Kirby family would return to a school better than they left,” he said. “I think we’ve accomplished that.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kirby High senior Princess Jones explores a new tool in the school’s library that responds to 3-D glasses.

The district demolished the adjacent greenhouse that officials say was the main rat attraction. When staff disturbed an old compost pile during some scheduled maintenance, about 80 rats fled into the building, officials said at the time. Since then, workers have removed rats that died behind the school walls and ceilings that had stunk up the hallways, and they sealed any crevices the rodents might be able to slip through. Crews stopped work for several days after an inspection to see if any rats would resurface once work quieted down.

To prevent rodents from entering other Memphis schools, Powers said the district hired six maintenance staff members devoted to pest control and bolstered contracts with existing businesses to be more proactive. The district did provide the total cost of those additions.

Students missed nine days of school altogether after the problem was discovered, partially resolved, and then resurfaced. Kirby High is one of 166 schools across the state that scored the lowest on state tests, so making up for lost instructional time was especially urgent. Shelby County Schools sought special consideration from the state to accommodate for the upheaval, but were denied, district officials said.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kirby High School Principal Steevon Hunter

Principal Steevon Hunter said increasing opportunities for academic support after school, Saturday school, and a tutoring program with University of Memphis helped students progress while away from their normal building.

“We really tried to keep it as normal as possible,” Hunter told reporters Friday.

Hunter said the school retained all of its teachers — in part thanks to $1,000 stipend for all employees. Still, the move took a toll on staff. Sheretha Wilkins, a special education teacher who has been at Kirby High for 10 years, characterized the experience in one word: tiring.

“You never knew moving would take so much out of you,” she said. “I’m just happy to be home.”

Before relocating, students received assignments online through district-issued laptops. As a result, students will keep those computers, making the high school one of few in the district with a laptop for every student to use at home.

Student enrollment initially dipped when students and teachers relocated to nearby schools, but as the situation stabilized, most came back, Hunter said. He’s expecting about 800 students Monday — about 100 fewer students compared to the beginning of the school year.

As Hunter and Powers went through the building Friday afternoon, Powers noted the new technology in the Kirby High classrooms is a foretaste of what new schools will look like in the district. Shelby County Schools is in the process of building two new schools and under a recent proposal could build as many as 10 others to consolidate 28 aging buildings.

“This is going to be the new way schools will look like,” Powers said. “This is the new norm.”

Below is a video from Shelby County Schools.