walkout

What it looked like as students across America walked out of school to protest gun violence

Thousands of local students sit for 17 minutes during a nationwide student walkout for gun control in front the White House on March 14, 2018. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Students across America left their classrooms on Wednesday to take part in a national protest pushing for stricter gun laws and memorializing those who died in last month’s school shooting in Florida.

The event was rare in its scope, with students from hundreds of schools leaving class for at least 17 minutes in memory of the 14 teens and three teachers killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland one month ago. The event continued throughout the day, with students walking out at 10 a.m. local time across the country.

“People need to start realizing that there needs to be change,” explained Zhy’yon Hoover, a sophomore at Northwest High School in Indianapolis who helped organize that school’s protest, on Wednesday morning.

PHOTO: Dylan McCoy
Students at Northwest High School joined the National School Walkout on Wednesday, March 14, 2018.

In New York City, students in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood chanted and carried signs reading “How many more?”

Other demonstrations were quiet: elementary school students at P.S. 40 in Manhattan stood with their parents and observed a moment of silence.

At Stoneman Douglas, students had gathered on the school’s football field by 10 a.m. David Hogg, a student who has become one of the most prominent faces of student activism after the shooting, livestreamed the walk-out and thanked school administrators for supporting the effort to remember those who died.

“They don’t have their voices, but we still do,” Hogg said.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students from The SALK School of Science in New York City join Wednesday’s national walkout.

In Washington D.C., lawmakers at a U.S. Senate committee hearing on improving school safety acknowledged the event, too.

“Across the country, in a few minutes, students from across America will be exercising their First Amendment right to speak out about changes that they want on how we regulate our Second Amendment right,” said Florida Senator Marco Rubio, alluding to the uphill battle students may face in advocating for stricter gun control laws.

Moments earlier, Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and the judiciary committee’s chair, said that he was introducing a new bill — the “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Memorial Act of 2018” — in order to conduct research on school safety and threat assessment training for schools. But Diane Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the committee, focused her remarks on limiting access to guns.

“High school students who have lost their friends are literally begging us to take action to get these guns off the streets and out of our schools,” she said.

In several districts in the Northeast, a snow day — normally a cause for celebration among students — derailed walk-out plans. In Vermont, some students said they would delay the protest until Thursday, but in Portland, Maine, two dozen middle schoolers still marched with signs like, “Will your school be next?” and “Is it your opinion or the NRA’s?” In Massachusetts, despite widespread school closures, many students still planned to march to the statehouse in protest.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Students from the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology and Stephen T. Mather Building Arts Craftsmanship High School walked out Wednesday in New York City.

At some schools, protesting students needed to navigate school policies designed to minimize disruption. But some politicians and school officials have offered their support for the event: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and AFT President Randi Weingarten walked out of a Manhattan school and participated in a “die in.” Both the Boston and Philadelphia school districts tweeted support for protesting students.

Meanwhile, students who have long been fighting — and experiencing the consequences of — gun violence had mixed feelings about the national attention the Parkland shooting has focused on the issue.

In Detroit, many students participating were remembering their own, less-publicized tragedies. Darryl Erwin, 17, recalled his mother’s shoulder being grazed when someone fired bullets at several houses on his block.

Students at Western High School in Detroit gather as part of National Walkout Day, a student-led protest happening across the country.

“I don’t want the school shootings to overshadow the youth violence shootings that happen every day,” said Brandon Warren, a high school senior in Indianapolis who had two classmates killed last spring and started a local anti-violence group as a result. Students at his school were allowed to walk out of classes but not leave the school due to safety concerns.

In Colorado, which has a tragic history of school shootings, hundreds of Denver high school students marched out of class and converged on the state Capitol steps to chant and wave signs decrying gun violence.

Some were holding hand lettered signs: “Protect Kids, Not Guns,” one said. “Keep Your Guns Out of My School.” “Am I Next?”

“We’ve been existing in a world of violence since we were born,” one student said.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, briefly address the crowd, saying into a megaphone: “You look pretty fired up,” he said into a megaphone. “A big part is just the fact you took the initiative to come out here and show up. It’s a big part, but it’s not the only part.”

Another national protest is planned for next month: a “day of action” on April 20, the anniversary of the 1999 shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School. That protest, sponsored by the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Network for Public Education among others, encourages events at schools focused on pushing policy changes to reduce gun violence.

Melanie Asmar, Monica Disare, Dylan Peers McCoy, Amanda Rahn, Kimberly Hayes Taylor, and Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting. 

all clear

Newark’s North Star Academy charter schools are cleared after discipline policy investigation

PHOTO: Hafsa Razi

New Jersey’s largest charter-school network did not violate state regulations when it disciplined students with disabilities, according to a state investigation triggered by an advocacy group’s complaint.

The complaint, which was based on parent reports and state data, alleged that North Star Academy charter schools suspended students with disabilities for minor infractions, causing them to miss class and be separated from their general-education peers in violation of federal disability law.

After interviewing North Star officials and reviewing school documents, state investigators concluded that the network of 13 charter schools followed the appropriate procedures when disciplining students with disabilities, which includes continuing to provide required educational services after suspending students.

“North Star was able to demonstrate compliance with the procedural regulations for disciplining students with disabilities,” according to the Oct. 15 investigation report.

The report does not address North Star’s suspension rate for students with disabilities, which the complaint alleged was among the highest in the state during the 2016-17 school year. The complaint, using state data, said the rate was 29 percent; North Star said it was 22 percent. The report called that data “informational” but said it was outside the one-year timeframe of the investigation.

Esther Canty-Barnes, director of the Education & Health Law Clinic at Rutgers Law School in Newark, which filed the complaint in August, said the report did not delve into all the issues raised in the complaint. For instance, it called for an investigation into how North Star’s special-education students are affected by suspensions and how often they are forced to repeat grades.

“It only addressed whether the charter school followed procedures,” Canty-Barnes said, “which is a very limited scope of what we asked them to do.”

North Star serves nearly 5,000 students at its Newark sites. Founded in 1997, it is one of New Jersey’s top-performing charter-school networks. Part of the national Uncommon Schools organization, the Newark campuses are known for their rigorous academics and strict discipline policies.

About 9 percent of North Star students had disabilities last school year, according to the report — just over half the rate in Newark Public Schools, where it was 16 percent.

Thirty-eight North Star students with disabilities served 10 or more days of suspension during that 2017-18 school year, the report said. The network gave in-school suspensions to students who disrupted class or refused to do work. It issued out-of-school suspensions to students who used threatening language, stole staff property, or displayed “defiance and aggressiveness.”

The investigators found that North Star administered the suspensions properly. For instance, records indicated that schools held legally required meetings to determine whether students’ disabilities contributed to the behavior that triggered suspensions. The schools also came up with plans to help de-escalate the students’ behavior or give them “break time” to refocus or talk to a school staffer.

When North Star did suspend students with disabilities, it made sure they continued to receive their legally mandated support services, the report said. When students were suspended for 10 or more consecutive days, North Star sent teachers to the students’ homes to provide instruction.

Barbara Martinez, a North Star spokeswoman, said the network takes “great pride” in the education that it offers students with disabilities. Those students perform in the 75th percentile or above on the state PARCC tests, she added.

“We are glad to have the NJ DOE official confirmation after their thorough investigation that these baseless and biased allegations are unfounded and that North Star is fully compliant with all procedures surrounding discipline for students with disabilities,” she said in a statement.

Michael Yaple, a state education department spokesman, said the agency’s special-education office does not have any other open investigations into North Star. He added that complainants can appeal the office’s decisions.

The federal education department’s Office for Civil Rights currently has three open investigations into North Star’s special-education practices that were launched in July 2015, according to the agency’s website. Martinez, the North Star spokeswoman, said the agency “fully investigated” a complaint from 2015 involving one student and made no determination “that we are aware of.” The agency did not immediately respond to a request for information about the investigation.

Lauren Morando Rhim, executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, said that some schools’ strict discipline policies deter families of children with disabilities from enrolling. She added that even though North Star appears to be following special-education laws, it still serves a relatively small share of students with disabilities and has had a high suspension rate.

“It does raise questions as to why that’s the case,” she said, “and what could they do to increase access and success.”



down ballot

A guide to the critical education race you’ve never heard of

The Democratic and Republican candidates for the Michigan Board of Education (from right), Richard Zeile, Tiffany Tilley, Judy Pritchett, and Tami Carlone. Seven candidates from other parties are running.

It’s no secret that school closures are on the ballot in Michigan this November, with candidates for the state’s highest office taking different positions of that hot-button issue. But the gubernatorial race isn’t the only one on the ballot with sweeping implications for the state’s schools.

The race for the Michigan Board of Education will appear at the bottom of the ballot, but the winners stand to make a major impact on the lives of thousands of students. They will help shape state policy on issues like school closures, social studies standards, and the level of reading skill below which students will have to repeat the third grade.

The board was added to Michigan’s constitution when the state’s founding document was rewritten in 1963. It was designed to keep day-to-day politics out of the staid world of education policy, with each member of the eight-person panel insulated from electoral challenges by a lengthy eight-year term.

Much of its power lies in the single task of hiring a state superintendent, who will likely play a major role in deciding whether to close low-performing schools, not to mention in setting the standards for attendance and academic performance that could be used to close them.

That position is currently vacant, and the education department has said it won’t be filled until next year. That means whoever is elected to fill the board’s two open seats will play a crucial role in picking Michigan’s top education official.

The selection of the superintendent “is the single most important decision for the next year,” said Judy Pritchett, a Democrat and former chief academic officer at the Macomb County Intermediate School District who is among the 11 candidates running for a seat on the board.

Controversy over school closings exploded last year, when Gov. Rick Snyder used an executive order to assume control of the office responsible for closing schools from the state superintendent and ordered the office to close 38 low-performing schools, most of them in Detroit. The move prompted a public outcry, and Detroit’s main district sued to stop the closures. Snyder backed away from the plan, eventually handing the power to close schools back to Brian Whiston, then the state superintendent, who took the threat of closures off the table at least temporarily.

But Whiston’s death in May reopened the issue, leaving the future of Michigan’s lowest-performing schools in the hands of the person selected to replace him.

Snyder’s short-lived takeover of an office previously overseen by the board was just the latest sign that the board’s power has waned in recent years. For most of its history, the board’s recommendations on the state budget and learning standards were heeded by the legislature, says John Austin, a former board president who lost a re-election bid in 2016.

In recent years, however, politicians have become more willing to wade into education issues, and the legislature has increasingly ignored the board’s advice, making clear the limits of its power, Austin said.

The board “has few direct controls over policy,” said Austin. “It’s mainly policy recommendations and exhortations.”

The board’s scope is still too broad for some. The new state superintendent — and by extension the board — are responsible for technical decisions about state policy that will have enormous implications for students across the state. For instance, the superintendent would have the power to decide what it means for a third-grader to read on grade level, which will determine the number of third-graders held back under Michigan’s “read-or-flunk” law when it goes into effect in the  2019-2020 school year. The law, which Democrats have pledged to alter if they gain power in November, requires that third-graders be held back if they can’t read on grade level.

The state superintendent is also responsible for creating measures of student growth and chronic absenteeism, which would likely factor into a statewide A-F grading system for schools if the legislature succeeds in creating one.

What’s more, the board itself is tasked with approving state learning standards, giving them the final say in an ongoing controversy over an attempt by conservative lawmakers to remove references to gay rights, Roe v. Wade, and climate change from state social studies standards. The standards serve as a guide to local districts when they adopt new curriculum.

An education commission assembled by Snyder proposed that members of the board be appointed by the governor. Lawmakers followed up on the proposal, making attempts in recent years to eliminate the board and allow the governor to directly appoint the state superintendent, but those proposals have failed to win the votes they’d need to amend the constitution.

Speaking Wednesday night before a few dozen education officials in Lansing during a candidate forum, live-streamed online, the four major-party candidates insisted that they would honor the board’s history of remaining above the political fray. (Watch video of the forum here).

The Democratic and Republican candidates for Clockwise from top left: Richard Zeile, Tiffany Tilley, Judy Pritchett, and Tami Carlone.

Tami Carlone, an accountant and Republican education advocate who wrote a bill that would have forbidden Michigan schools from using the learning standards known as the Common Core, said: “politics is a huge part of the problem in education.”

Yet the candidates laid out starkly different visions for the future of Michigan’s schools.

Richard Zeile, a one-term Republican incumbent from Detroit who has spent his career running private Christian schools, said he has pushed to shutter struggling schools.

“I felt that most of them should have been closed,” he said.

Carlone, whose website promises to “hold people accountable for the failures, or our schools will never be excellent.”

By contrast, Pritchett and Tiffany Tilley, a former political director of the Democratic party in the 14th congressional district in the Detroit area, said they oppose school closures.

All four candidates insisted that experience is the main quality they are looking for in a potential superintendent, but Carlone made clear that she would also look for “someone who would push the goals in my platform.”

As the Nov. 6 election approaches, the candidates are posting their platforms online and attending forums where they explain their views. But they understand that because few voters know their names, the race will likely be determined at the top of the ticket. The benefits of a strong election for either party will likely trickle down to the members of that party in the school board race.