school safety

As de Blasio pushes fewer suspensions, advocacy group attacks school safety record

An advocacy group known for its opposition to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education policies says the mayor misled the public when it trumpeted a drop in violence in New York City schools.

The criticism and an accompanying report mark a new tactic for the group, Families for Excellent Schools, and highlight de Blasio’s potential vulnerability on the issue of school safety. His administration has been mounting an effort to overhaul school discipline, urging schools to give out fewer suspensions and use alternative approaches.

In a report released Thursday, Families for Excellent Schools points to state data showing that violence in schools is increasing. Almost 16,000 violent crimes were reported in schools in 2015 — almost 3,000 more than the previous year — and the highest number of incidents since at least 2005, according to the report.

At the same time, city data — which is collected and submitted in a different way, and has long differed from the state’s numbers — show a decrease in the total number of safety incidents since last year and over the last decade.

City officials said that the state’s metric is deceiving because it not distinguish between minor interactions and severe altercations.

“This data is misleading; the total number of incidents at NYC public schools decreased nearly 8% last school year to historic lows, and crime, arrests and summonses are down across the board,” said Toya Holness, a spokeswoman for the education department.

State officials implied that the metric can be problematic, since schools report their own data, and said the education department has already convened a task force to revise the system. The group’s objective is to make it less complicated to report incidents and emphasize violent offenses, state officials said.

“The Department’s ultimate goal is to ensure that we are able to report the most accurate school safety data possible,” said Jonathan Burman, spokesman for the education department.

Even as de Blasio’s critics say his discipline-policy changes have made schools less safe, advocates have raised a different set of concerns. They support the shift to a less punitive approach to discipline, but say the city has done too little to help schools make the transition. On Wednesday, the group Educators 4 Excellence-New York held a demonstration at City Hall to call for more guidance counselors and de-escalation training for teachers.

De Blasio’s push for alternative discipline strategies is part of a national shift away from “zero tolerance” policies, which called for harsh penalties even for nonviolent infractions. Such policies have been shown to disproportionately affect students of color, while doing little to improve student behavior.

Last year, the city required principals to begin getting approval before suspending students for insubordination, and de Blasio convened a task force to make policy recommendations around school safety and discipline. The mayor’s budget for next school year includes funding for some schools to be trained in “restorative justice,” which pushes students to repair any harm their behaviors have caused.

As some schools are just beginning to make the switch to this new discipline approach, critics of the shift are looking for signs that it is backfiring. One student caught with seven bags of marijuana was given only a warning card, according to a recent New York Post article.

Families for Excellent Schools, which has previously been critical of the administration’s stance on charter schools and its “Renewal” school program, is now joining the fray.

But others said say their claim has little backing. Dawn Yuster, the social justice project director at Advocates for Children, said she has seen little evidence that de Blasio’s reforms hinder school safety.

“[The NYPD] are the last people that want to risk safety of anyone and they have been real supporters of trying to make change,” she said.

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.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede