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Special ed caution urged as personnel, funding changes loom

During her brief stint as city schools chancellor, Cathie Black pulled the brakes on a planned rollout of special education reforms. Now, educators and parents are asking the city to slow things down once more.

They say the departure of the city’s top two special education officials will leave the Department of Education ill-equipped to carry out the planned reforms. They are also charging that the city’s proposal to change the way special education instruction is funded could encourage schools to place disabled students in settings that are not ideal for them.

The special education reforms are meant to encourage schools to move disabled students to settings that are less restrictive. The shift is in keeping with best practices in special education, and students are supposed to have their services changed only if it makes sense for them. But the city wants to add an incentive: Under a proposal likely to be approved next week, students who receive special education services for only a portion of the day would bring more city funds than students in self-contained settings for the entire day.

It’s a proposal that has educators and parents alike concerned. “When it comes to special education we all know that as you move a child to a less restrictive environment, it’s a better thing, but it only works when it is appropriate for the child,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said at a union conference on Saturday. “When you start pushing to make that decision based on budget, then we have to start to question whether it’s appropriate or not.”

The elected parent council from Manhattan’s District 2 aired the same concerns in a letter sent last week to Laura Rodriguez, the outgoing deputy chancellor in charge of special education. “While it is difficult to tell exactly what the net result of the new Fair Student Funding formula will be, it seems likely that the proposed formula is neither sufficient nor flexible enough for schools to develop the best support structure for the students with special needs,” the letter reads.

The council is asking the city to delay the special education reforms until after Rodriguez’s successor, Corinne Rello-Anselmi, is firmly in place and a new deputy has been named. Lauren Katzman was the executive director of special education for the department until last month, when she left to head special education in Newark.

“During the time when a new initiative is introduced, a stable staff, particularly the architects of the reform, at the leadership level is critical in avoiding confusion and facilitating a smoother implementation,” the council’s letter says.

The Panel for Educational Policy, which has never rejected a city proposal, is set to vote on the new funding formula next Wednesday. The complete letter sent last week by District 2’s Community Education Council is below.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.