By the numbers

Grim statistics show city still failing to evaluate, serve many students with disabilities

Newly released data show that New York City is still struggling to monitor and provide services to many of its students with disabilities — a swelling group that is larger than Hawaii’s entire student population.

Nearly 30 percent of students with disabilities had to wait longer than the legal limit to receive their first plans outlining the services they need, while 40 percent of students were given none or only some of the services called for by those plans, according to the data from the 2014-15 school year.

The city education department released the data in a report Monday under the terms of a 2015 City Council bill, which followed years of complaints by advocates and lawmakers that the city was withholding vital information about the nearly 188,000 city students in kindergarten through high school who have disabilities.

But the report comes with a major caveat: Because of serious flaws with the city’s $130 million special-education tracking system, officials warned that some of the information in the report may not be reliable. In fact, the system’s limitations meant that education department employees had to spend several months manually compiling information from different databases in order to comply with the reporting law.

“It’s mind-boggling that the system, at this stage after so many years, is still not efficient,” said Mark Alter, an educational psychology professor at New York University and an expert on special education.

Because much of the data has not previously been released to the public, the report sheds new light on how well the school system is meeting students’ needs.

According to the report, 60 percent of students last year received the full range of services called for in their Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs. But 35 percent, or more than 60,000 students, only received some of their mandated services. Another 5 percent, or almost 8,600 students, did not get any of the services they were entitled to.

Special-education laws give schools 60 days after receiving parental consent to hold an IEP meeting, where a student’s annual goals and required supports are determined. The report says that less than 70 percent of those required first-time meetings occurred within that time window, while about 77 percent of follow-up IEP meetings happened on time.

But that means tens of thousands are students with disabilities are waiting longer than the law permits to get IEPs, which they need to receive specialized services. That delay is a longstanding challenge for the city: Since a 1979 class-action lawsuit, a federal court has repeatedly ordered the city to provide special-education services in a timely manner. Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has promised to reduce those delays.

“This has been going on 40 years,” said Alter, the NYU professor. “You have so many youngsters who are waiting. And what’s happening to them while they wait?”

The report also shows that in New York, in line with national trends, certain students are more frequently identified as having disabilities than others. Black and Hispanic students, boys, and students who are still learning English are targeted for special-education services at higher rates than their peers. Other than Staten Island, the school districts with the largest shares of students who are targeted for special-education services tend to be in areas where many low-income students of color attend school, such as East Harlem and the South Bronx.

Experts say that many of these students are misidentified as having disabilities when in fact they just need extra help to catch up academically or to follow classroom rules.

“This is a failure of general education; it’s a failure of classroom management,” said Ellen McHugh, a member of the the Citywide Council on Special Education, adding that the districts with the highest identification rates should get extra funding to help properly identify and serve students with disabilities.

Beginning in 2010, the city began ordering schools to include more students with disabilities in general-education classrooms. According to the report, nearly two-thirds of students with disabilities now spend 80 percent or more of each day in those classrooms.

Since it was rolled out in 2011, technical flaws have plagued the city’s expensive Special Education Student Information System, or SESIS. Last month, Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit against the city claiming that problems with the database have left some students without services and caused the city to lose federal funding.

The report acknowledges “major deficiencies” with the system, and notes that information related to students with disabilities is still stored in separate databases that are not linked. An education department spokesman said a multi-agency task force is currently looking for ways to improve SESIS.

The spokesman also listed several ways the department is working to improve services for students with disabilities. The actions include hiring more school psychologists and social workers to help create IEPs, adding more service providers, and launching more specialized programs for students with autism.

“Today’s report serves to reaffirm our commitment to ensuring all students have access to a rigorous and inclusive education with appropriate services and supports,” Deputy Chancellor for the Division of Specialized Instruction Corinne Rello-Anselmi said in a statement.

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