Hallway Patrol

Students, advocates rail against suspension trends at hearing

Nilesh Wishwasrao, a former student at Flushing High School, said he’s been suspended from school so many times that he finally lost count.

“Their first reaction was always a suspension,” Wishwasrao recalled Wednesday at a City Council hearing about the Department of Education’s suspension data released last month.

Wishwasrao said he was suspended “constantly” for what he said were small infractions, such as chewing gum and wearing a hat in school. Sometimes he was more disruptive, “talking back to a teacher, yelling at a dean.”

Finally, Wishwasrao testified, a guidance counselor met with his father to explain that high school probably wasn’t right for him and “it would be better if I get a GED rather than a high school diploma.”

Wishwasrao never graduated and is now pursuing his GED.

Wishwasrao was part of a chorus of criticism from students and advocates who testified at the hearing, held by the City Council’s education committee. Their testimonies came directly after DOE officials shed more light on suspensions in the city schools and promised changes to how some suspensions are handled.

At least 45,939 students — or 4.5 percent of the city’s student population — were suspended during the 2010-2011 school year, Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said in her testimony. The majority of them — 70 percent — were suspended just once, she said, but more than one in 10 — about 6,000 students — were suspended three or more times.

Grimm defended the data against criticism that principals and superintendents were unnecessarily punishing students. She cited trends that showed long-term suspensions for more severe behavior and suspensions were declining and said that preliminary data for the 2011-2012 school year indicated a 13 percent decrease in all suspensions.

“Our schools are safer, suspension rates are declining, and students and staff are embracing more positive and progressive approaches towards high-quality learning environments,” Grimm said in her testimony.

But she acknowledged concerns about suspensions for certain groups, particularly young students. At least 814 suspensions were issued to students in third grade or below. Grimm said the department would monitor elementary schools with higher-than-average suspension rates.

“We have identified our younger children in particular as those who we want to pay attention to,” Grimm said.

In addition, Grimm and Elayna Konstan, who oversees long-term suspension centers known as alternative learning centers, announced that the DOE will try to ease the transition back into schools from ALCs by using transition coaches. The program is part of the city’s Young Men’s Initiative to aid black and Latino youth. The DOE sent about 15,000 students to ALCs last year, but just over half ended up attending, meaning that thousands of students spent their suspensions outside of a school environment.

Council members zeroed in on racial disparities in the suspension numbers. Black students, who make up about one third of the student population, represented half of all suspensions. At one point during the hearing, Councilman Charles Barron ordered every DOE official in the room to stand, then chastised Grimm because she and her colleagues were not black.

“Not a single black man is here to give you his perspective,” Barron said. “All white. Why wouldn’t you bring a black man here to give us insight?

Later in the hearing, Councilman Robert Jackson pressed the issue of race with advocates, including representatives of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which pushed for the data’s release.

“Why do you think black students are being suspended at such a high rate?” he asked. “Is it because they’re black? Is it because of racial discrimination? Is it because they’re more troubled? Is it because they’re more intimidating to teachers because they’re bigger?”

Udi Ofer, the NYCLU’s advocacy director, said there many factors could help explain black students’ higher suspension rates but noted that national research has found that black students are suspended more often than white students for the same infractions.

Council members did not address the fact that the suspension data the DOE released is incomplete. Citing federal privacy laws, the department did not release data about suspensions at hundreds of schools where there were fewer than 10 suspensions.

Another student who testified, Chanwatie Ramnauth, a senior at Hillcrest High School, said she did not believe that the school’s administration was accurately recording suspensions. According to official data, Hillcrest had fewer than 10 suspensions last year, so the DOE did not release details about the infractions. But Ramnauth said she saw suspensions issued daily at her school. She said she saw a dean on Monday confront one student who wanted to know why she was being suspended.

“He told her ‘It’s like a give-and-take marriage,'” Ramnauth recalled in her testimony. “You give me the authority to suspend you and I allow you to go to class.”

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