diversity of opinion

Council increases pressure on city to address school segregation

PHOTO: Mary Ellen McIntire
City Councilman Brad Lander at a parent forum on school diversity in June 2014.

City lawmakers introduced a slate of legislation Wednesday meant to prod the administration to boost diversity in the city school system, which is among the most segregated in the country.

One resolution calls on the city to prioritize racial and ethnic diversity in its decision-making, while another urges state lawmakers to pass a bill amending the admission policy for the city’s most selective schools, which admit few black and Hispanic students. A bill would require the city to issue annual reports with demographic information about each school and district — including data about students’ race and family income — along with steps the city is taking to make schools more diverse.

The council must still hold a hearing and vote on the legislation, which would also require the city to release demographic data about accelerated programs and charter schools. But it’s unclear whether city officials are interested in wading into the jumble of zones, district rules, and citywide policies that together determine which students attend what schools.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has spoken broadly about the importance of diversity and said she was “disappointed” after a report this spring found New York state’s schools to be the most segregated in the country, with segregation in city schools on the rise. She also endorsed a state bill that would require eight of the city’s specialized schools to consider other measures beyond a student’s score on a test when making admissions decisions.

But she has not hinted at policy changes that would promote diversity across districts or across the entire school system. In May, Fariña told parents at a town-hall meeting that trying to increase diversity is “a school-by-school decision right now.”

“The scandal here is not that we’re failing; the scandal here is that we’re not even trying,” said Councilman Ritchie Torres, who sponsored the resolution calling on the administration to make diversity a top consideration when setting admissions guidelines, creating new schools or school zones, and other policies. He added that, based on Fariña’s actions to date, “It’s unclear whether this is high on her list.”

On Wednesday, Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye said that the city recognizes “the critical value” of a diverse student body. “We are exploring additional ways to reflect this diversity in every zip code, and look forward to reviewing the package of legislation,” she said.

Under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Department of Education created a new high school admissions process that allows students to attend schools across the city. Over the years, the department pushed districtwide choice down to the middle-school level and even the elementary-school level in a few areas.

But most elementary-school students are still assigned to a single school based on where they live, complicating efforts to diversify schools in a city where many neighborhoods are not diverse at all. To change that, some advocates want the city to allow schools and districts to adopt “diversity-positive” admission policies like those in place at Brooklyn’s P.S. 133.

“The advocates have been a little disappointed in what we’ve heard” from Fariña on those issues, said David Tipson, the director of New York Appleseed, a group that promotes policies that foster school diversity. “We’re really pushing the DOE to exercise more leadership.”

The council has little authority over the school system, so its proposals could only push the education department to tackle school segregation.

Councilman Brad Lander, who introduced the reporting bill, said the administration has many options. He pointed to P.S. 133, which sets aside a portion of its seats for English-language learners and students from low-income families. The city could also increase the number of “education option” high schools that reserve slots for students at different academic levels, Lander noted.

“The problem is a big, massive problem, so I don’t have a silver bullet to create integrated schools in the near term,” he added. “What I think is that there are a lot of steps that we can take in that direction that we aren’t currently taking.”

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.