DOE turnover in District 17 as schools protest potential closures

During one week in October, District 17’s superintendent held “early engagement conversations” at three schools the department is considering closing.

At each school — M.S. 587 on Oct. 11,  P.S. 22 on Oct. 12, and P.S. 161 on Oct. 13 — the superintendent, Rhonda Hurdle Taylor, heard community members explain why their schools should get another chance.

Then she resigned, and Buffie Simmons took her place.

DOE officials said the personnel change would have little impact on school closure decisions because Hurdle Taylor, like all superintendents, was required to document thoroughly what happened in the engagement meetings.

But parents in District 17 are wondering whether Simmons, who is new to the district, understands the local issues, according to a parent leader, Barbara Simmons (no relation). In contrast, Barbara Simmons said, Hurdle Taylor had worked in the district for many years, including as principal of P.S. 390, now closed, when Simmons’s son was a student there.

The leadership change is just one of several reasons that the three schools are protesting their potential closure today in the latest in a series of rallies organized with the support of advocacy groups that oppose school closures. The city has not yet announced any closures but has named 20 elementary and middle schools that are eligible.

City Councilwoman Letitia James will join the parents at a press conference today outside P.S. 161, where parents plan to argue that the schools are struggling because of budget cuts and high numbers of needy students.

Tiffany Jones, an organizer with New York Communities for Change who helped plan tonight’s event, said each school has a different agenda. At P.S. 161, parents want the new principal, Michael Johnson, to have at least two years to restore the school to its former performance. Parents at M.S. 587, the Middle School for the Arts, say they want an adequate art program so the school can live up to its name. And at P.S. 22, parents are emphatic that the school would suffer if another school moves into the building.

Barbara Simmons, a trained parent leader, also said she encouraged parents at P.S. 22 to join in. They were initially “a little guarded” but ultimately signed on to the protest, Jones said.

“The parents want to take this opportunity … to tell publicly what they want for their school and what they don’t want,” Jones said. “The fact that they are doing it in a unified way says a lot.”

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

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.