between the lines

What snow day policy tells us about the de Blasio administration's educational philosophy

This winter’s uncommonly bad weather has offered a view into the de Blasio administration’s conception of the purpose of schools.

Asked why the city had decided to keep schools open today while also warning against unnecessary travel, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña offered a vision of schools as tools for social welfare. They also said that parents, whom they have said they want to involve heavily in the school system, should be free to decide whether to send their children to school on snowy days.

“I am a public school parent — I see these decisions through the eyes of parents,” de Blasio said during a press conference this afternoon, adding that while safety is “obviously first and foremost,” he was also concerned about unsettling families’ delicately made plans.

“A lot of parents have very difficult schedules and rely on the consistency of the school schedule for a good and safe place for their kids to be,” de Blasio said.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña reiterated that idea, noting that “no big businesses in the city closed so I’m assuming all parents who work had to go to work.” (She also noted that New York City has closed schools only about 10 times in the last half-century.)

Like de Blasio, Fariña emphasized that schools provide more than instruction for some students. “What about the kids for whom the schools is a safe haven?” she said. “Many of our kids would not have had a hot lunch today if the schools hadn’t been open.”

Their tone — which resembles the one they have taken when discussing the need to expand pre-kindergarten programs quickly — was very different from the one that former mayor Michael Bloomberg took when he justified keeping schools open in the face of bad weather. While he acknowledged parents’ logistical needs and said he aimed to make snow day calls the night before to help them plan, he focused on schools’ educational mission.

“There was no reason to close public schools today. What we’re trying to do is to get our kids an education that they’re going to need for the rest of their lives,” Bloomberg said in 2006 on a day when 62 percent of students made it through two feet of snow to get to school.

About the same proportion of students attended school today, Fariña said during the press conference. (Only 47 percent of students made it on another snowy — but sunny — day last month.) She emphasized that parents could choose whether to declare a personal snow day and keep their children home.

“The decisions parents have, not to send their kids to schools somewhere, is their decision,” she said.

The idea of parental choice made it into the city’s press release early this morning announcing that schools would be open but field trips canceled. “Parents, as always, should exercise their own judgment with regard to their children,” the release said.

The city’s press release announcing Monday as a school day did not include that line, but the one it issued last week did. On all three occasions, most districts near the city closed schools or opened them with a delay.

Fariña offered the same explanation a week ago at her first Panel for Educational Policy meeting. “You’re damned if you and you’re damned if you don’t,” she said in response to questions about how the city decides when to close schools for snow.

“Parents can make a decision about whether to send their kid to school or not,” Fariña said. “And there were enough kids in school today that for the parents who need the schools to be open, we did a great job.”

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

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