being heard

Ahead of special ed hearing, advocates say many concerns need airing

Last May, Gloria Corsino was enlisted by a Spanish-speaking mother who needed help finding an occupational therapist for her son. Faced with an English-only list of therapists to call after his school couldn’t provide the services for her son’s disability, the mother was stumped.

Language wasn’t the only barrier that Corsino, president of the Citywide Education Council for District 75, found when she started calling.

“There was no provider who could take the child on,” Corsino recalled, noting that she dialed up more than 20 private therapists, all of whom told her they were no longer working with the Department of Education and could not help.

Corsino is among the many advocates ready to air their concerns at a special education hearing on Tuesday, which is being convened by the City Council’s education committee and is expected to touch on issues of equity, class sizes, and how best to improve instruction for students with disabilities.

To some, the hearing will be a chance to raise issues about the inequities that were revealed in data provided to Chalkbeat by the Department of Education showing that students living in some poorer and more far-flung neighborhoods received one category of required services less often than other city students.

“It’s unacceptable,” said former high school teacher Mark Treyger, now a City Council member representing Coney Island, where those services weren’t being delivered 2.5 times more often than the citywide average. “This data validates that the ‘outer’ outer boroughs don’t always get their fair share.”

Treyger is one of 13 elected officials sponsoring a bill that will also be up for discussion at the hearing. The legislation would force the city to annually release information about how often it is not meeting the requirements of students’ personalized learning plans.

The City Council doesn’t have the power to force the city to change its policies, but officials said they crafted the bill to mimic legislation that has required the city to reveal more school-discipline data — information that advocates believe has helped reduce suspension rates as the city worked to lower those figures.

“A big part of it is shedding a light on this so we can get to the bottom of this,” said Daniel Dromm, who chairs the education committee. “They’re doing some things that we’re happy about, but I think more needs to be done.”

Corsino’s testimony will focus on a dearth of therapists who can provide “related services,” the type of special-education support that includes physical therapy, counseling, and help for sight or hearing problems. Chalkbeat found that more than 15,000 different services went unprovided at the end of the last school year — about 6 percent of all mandated services. That figure is down 15 percent since 2010, though the numbers have crept up in some neighborhoods, especially in the Bronx.

“These services are a necessary thing to make our students much more functional,” said Corsino, a parent of two high school-aged sons with autism-spectrum disorders. “When you don’t receive those services, you aren’t going to get the outcomes that you could be getting.”

Also under a microscope will be the city’s broader special education reform effort, which has incentivized schools to serve special-needs students whom they might have referred elsewhere in the past. The changes are broad in scope: Nearly one in five city students is classified as having special needs, and over the last two years, the share of those recommended to receive only part-time support has jumped 10 percentage points.

Last fall, the teachers union received 151 complaints from teachers related to special education, a 60 percent increase over the same period a year before. The complaints, first reported by Chalkbeat, reflect the new demands that have been placed on schools by the overhaul.

Karen Sprowal, a parent advocate whose special-needs son is in sixth grade, said that she plans to lobby the education committee to seek more funding in the city’s capital budget for schools to reduce class sizes and hire more staff to help schools with the new guidelines.

Others see the hearing as an opportunity to get beyond the questions of legal mandates and ask questions about what those students with disabilities are learning.

Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children of New York, is waiting to hear about how the department can help schools lift academic achievement for students with disabilities. Just 6 percent of those students hit the state’s proficiency standard on its English and math exams in the 2012-13 school year, compared to 35 percent of students without disabilities.

“It’s really time to focus on preparing these schools pedagogically to meet the needs of a wider range of students,” Sweet said.

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.