oversight

When the DOE is investigated, who should hear about it?

110 Livingston Street, home of the old Board of Education, now houses condominiums. But the Board of Education lives, however quietly.
110 Livingston Street, home of the old Board of Education, now houses condominiums. But the Board of Education lives, however quietly.

Earlier this month, I wrote about all the investigations into the Department of Education that happen every year but are never publicly reported. (In 2007, the Special Commissioner of Investigations into the DOE filed almost 300 reports that never became public knowledge.) A key to the reports’ remaining outside the spotlight: The only person besides the investigator who gets copies of them is the chancellor.

But it turns out that there’s another city group that might have the right to look at the reports: The Panel for Educational Policy, the 13-member group charged with voting on policy changes proposed by the chancellor.

The logic behind that possibility is buried inside the law that created the investigator in the first place, an executive order issued by Mayor David Dinkins in 1990. Here’s an excerpt from the order (PDF):

(e) The Deputy Commissioner shall, at the conclusion of any investigation that results in a written report or statement of findings, provide a copy of the report or statement to the Commissioner of Investigation, Chancellor, and the Board of Education.

What’s the Board of Education in an age of mayoral control? When the mayor first sought control of the schools in 2002, many pushed for the state legislature to abolish the board altogether. But at least one author of the law, Steve Sanders, who was then the chair of the Assembly’s education committee, resisted, and the board was maintained. (“The board of education of the city school district of the city of New York is hereby continued,” is the first sentence of the law.) The reason the word “board” hasn’t been spoken much lately is that, while it still exists, the Bloomberg administration gave it a new name: The Panel for Educational Policy. (See the PEP’s bylaws (PDF) for more on that.)

Does that mean that the PEP should receive reports from the Special Commissioner of Investigations?

The city law department’s position is that it should not. “The Panel for Educational Policy is not entitled to receive written reports or statements of findings issued by the Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation,” a spokeswoman for the department said in a statement. She said the decision was based on a section of city law that defines the board as having a purely advisory role on policy matters and no executive or administrative powers.

Others disagree. Sanders, who is now working as a lobbyist for the state school boards association, which is fighting to amend the mayoral control law, told me that he thinks the reports should be sent to the PEP. “To make the judgment that the SCI no longer has to make reports to the Board of Education is at best a real stretch of the intention of the law and at worst I think a conscious circumvention of the law,” said Sanders.

Sanders also denounced the administration’s decision to re-name the Board of Education the PEP:

“I almost fear that the mayor and the chancellor have been using certain terms so long, they actually believe that those terms exist, which they don’t. There is no Panel on Educational Policy; there is a Board of Education. That’s in law. The title Panel on Educational Policy is made up. It doesn’t exist in law.”

Update: I originally attributed the city’s decision on whether the PEP should receive SCI reports to the Department of Education, whose spokesman sent me the statement. But the statement actually originated from the city law department.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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