school violence

Report criticizes violence in Rikers Island classrooms

PHOTO: Matt Green/Flickr

Updated (8:30 p.m.) Teenage inmates on Rikers Island face extreme violence in and around the jail’s classrooms, according to a new Justice Department report.

The report, released Monday by the office of Preet Bharara, the federal attorney in Manhattan, accuses the Department of Corrections of failing to protect the constitutional rights of its approximately 500 adolescent inmates, who are subjected to “unnecessary and excessive force” from jail employees. Some of the worst abuses have taken place in the classrooms, hallways, and stairwells of the facility’s school space where surveillance is lacking, according to the report.

“It is unclear why the Department has not installed additional cameras in these areas,” the report reads.

The investigation recounts one incident in September 2012 when a teenage inmate, “after shouting obscenities at an officer who had hit him in the ribcage with handcuffs while he was sleeping in class,” was pulled out of a classroom and “severely beaten” in the hallway by a second officer. “Two teachers in the area reported hearing Inmate H screaming and crying for his mother while being beaten,” the report says.

The investigation found that teachers rarely report violence or serve as witnesses in cases of abuse. Evidence suggests Department of Corrections employees instruct teachers to turn a blind eye to the violence, and that educators fear repercussions for speaking up, the findings say.

The investigation focused on 16-to-18-year-old inmates. Sixteen and 17-year-olds are required to attend East River Academy, a District 79 program at Rikers, though the report does not point to the school by name. NY1 reported in June that three students graduated from the school with a high school diploma, and 81 passed the GED exam this year.

The report also criticizes “punitive segregation,” a practice where inmates, many of whom suffer from mental health problems, are isolated for 23 hours of the day. Those inmates are “not allowed to attend school, and are instead given schoolwork on worksheets and are offered educational services telephonically.”

In the report, the Justice Department said it may investigate these educational methods in the future to see if they satisfy the requirements set out in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The report ends with the threat of a federal lawsuit if the city does not attempt to address issues like the lack of surveillance cameras in school facilities.

Department of Correction Commissioner Joe Ponte said in a statement that the department had cooperated with the federal investigators over the course of their two-year inquiry.

He also listed several measures he has put in place to improve conditions for young inmates since he took over the department in April, including the formation of a working group to study best practices for managing adolescent inmates, new trainings for staff that work with those inmates, the separation of 16 and 17-year-old inmates from 18-year-olds, and the installation of new security cameras. Between April and June, the jail saw a 39 percent decline in the number of incidents where guards used force against adolescent inmates, Ponte said.

“I am committed to the safety and wellbeing of all DOC inmates, but I am especially focused on radically improving security and outcomes for the adolescent population,” he said in the statement.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

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.