Beyond the Basics

School EMS referrals, on the rise, catch City Council's attention

Sonya Turner knew her daughter struggled in school, both socially and academically. But when an assistant principal called one afternoon last October  to say that her daughter, Cashmiere, had turned suicidal and needed to be sent to the Emergency Room for psychiatric evaluation, Turner said she didn’t believe it.

When she visited the school that afternoon to follow up, she was told she would not be allowed to speak with Cashmiere until she met with school administrators. Turner refused and angrily confronted school officials until she had to be restrained school safety officers.

“I was livid, I was cursing, I was very irate,” Parker said. “If anyone should have been admitted to a psychiatric ward it should have been me, not my child,”

In the end, school officials sent Cashmiere to the ER anyway. She is one of hundreds of students who each year are forcibly referred to emergency medical services by principals who believe that they could be dangerous to themselves or others.

Those numbers are on the rise, education department officials told City Council members at a hearing on mental health services in schools today. During the 2010-2011 school year, principals and assistant principals sent students to the E.R. 947 times, a 12 percent spike from the previous school year.

“We have work to do because that number is not going in the right direction,” said Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said in her testimony.

Mental health professionals who work with students told the council that the increase signals a deterioration of the system’s ability to deal with students who require mental health care services. Budget cuts and a disorganized patchwork of multi-level mental healthcare providers have made it increasingly difficult to appropriately serve the thousands of students who received mental health diagnoses each year.

The practice of referring students to the hospital is the most extreme kind of intervention for mentally and emotionally disturbed students in New York City public schools. Special education and mental health advocates say it is not only expensive and traumatizing, but, in many of the cases, they are also often unnecessary.

A survey of doctors and psychologists found that as few as 3 percent of students who were sent to the Emergency Room were actually admitted to the hospital. In most cases, including Turner’s, the students are discharged within hours and sent home.

Turner said her daughter, the oldest girl in her seventh grade, was bullied and had grown frustrated by her academic status. But she was not suicidal, Turner said, and a psychologist at the hospital quickly agreed.

“She was safe to be back in school the next day,” said Turner, the only parent to testify at the hearing. Several parents in the past month who has spoken publicly about cases when their children were similarly sent to the E.R. as punishment for disruptive behavior. One parent said her her 10-year-old son was repeatedly taken to the E.R. for angry outbursts, and two families are suing a charter school after it placed kindergarten-age students on “psychiatric suspension.”

“We have seen that schools are too frequently referring students to EMS where school discipline is the issue, not medical or mental health treatment,” said Keren Farkas, an attorney at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, which works with people with disabilities.

Nelson Mar, an attorney for Legal Services NYC – Bronx, said that there were plenty of solutions to the shortfall of mental health services. He called for the DOE to immediately create policy designed to minimize the use of EMS as an intervention practice. But he said more data was necessary. The DOE has so far declined to release disaggregated demographic information about students sent to a hospital emergency room and the reasoning behind it.

“Only with data can policy makers be able to quantify the depth of the practice and craft appropriate public policy to address it,” Mar said in testimony.

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.