Dear Judy,

I was recently denied the right to observe my daughter in her public high school. I was not given a reason. I contacted the district and filed a complaint with the District Family Advocate. She told me that by rule of the Chancellor I would have to get permission from every parent of every student in the classrooms I intended to observe. This directly violates the Supreme Court ruling in Owasso v. Falvo case. I also cited that parental classroom observation is provided for the in the NCLB Act, I have received no response from the school and am wondering what my next step should be. As a concerned parent, I am outraged that I'm being denied my legal right to observe my daughter's classes.

Brooklyn Dad

Dear Brooklyn Dad,

The Department of Education's rules on family visits to their children's classrooms are not exactly clear. The explanation that the district family advocate gave for refusing a visit to observe your child's classroom is not correct. It would be correct if the object of your visit had been to photograph, film, video, or record the class. In that case, it is DOE policy to protect the privacy of students by asking for parental permission. That policy is usually applied to the media, which might, for instance, publish the pictures or broadcast the films.

You are also correct, regarding the legal case you cited, that there is no prohibition on visits under the Family Education Records Privacy Act (FERPA). Under that law, privacy pertains only to written documents kept on file by the school. That was affirmed in an e-mail from Martine Guerrier, chief family engagement officer at the Office of Family Advocacy and Engagement. She went on to write that "principals may determine classroom visitation practices." That phrase is key, because no matter how often the DOE says it wants your participation, and the court says such a visit does not violate privacy, in New York City it is the principal who guards the classroom door.

In her email, Guerrier pointed to a document published on the OFEA website suggesting that to visit, parents make an appointment through the school secretary or parent coordinator, or if asked, put a request in writing, including a reason for the visit. Presumably, the principal could turn you down, and indeed that is what happened to you. Since you already took the first step of appealing to the DFA, your next step should be to the leader of your school support network.

To respond to this question, I re-read the Parents Bill of Rights and found that the right to visit the school and to be a member of the school community is not the same thing as a visit to observe a class. Although there is a specific statement that parents have a right to visit school during Open School Week (when parent/teacher conferences are held) there is no specific mention of the classroom, although it has been long standing practice to invite parents to observe. In fact, DOE directives on Open School Week urge the schools to provide special programs and exhibits during that week, which might not give a true picture of the class, or even leave much time to spend there.

The practice varies from school to school, with some schools having more of an "open door policy" than others. Overcrowding may be a factor in why some schools say "no" to parent visits.

In other cases, particularly where a child may be acting out or missing classes, school leaders even invite a parent to shadow the student for a day, hoping this will improve behavior. But this apparently isn't the situation with your daughter and school. Try appealing to the school's network leader, or the superintendent. If there is a specific class you want to witness, maybe the teacher will be willing to let you come in.

Good luck!

Published in News and views
Wednesday, 03 March 2010 07:08

City launches school violence hotline

New York City students can now anonymously report threats or acts of violence at their schools by calling 866-SPEAK-UP.

The toll-free hotline is operated by gun violence prevention group PAX, whose national service has received more than 35,000 calls since it was founded in 2002. City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn led the charge to promote 866-SPEAK-UP in New York City -- with help from the Department of Education and the NYPD -- in hopes of curtailing the popular "stop snitching" message among students.

“School should be a safe haven for students,” said Speaker Quinn in a press release. “Too many of our children fear retaliation if they report a violent incident that is about to happen and unfortunately authorities find out when it’s too late and innocent lives are affected. This program will empower students to take school safety into their own hands."

A small number of New York City schools will participate in a pilot program to promote the hotline in their building. If you'd like to promote the service in your school, more information is available on the PAX website.

Gotham Gazette this week features a detailed look at bullying in NYC schools, concluding that data remains scarce as to whether the Chancellor's Regulation designed to curb bullying has been effective.  The article came out in anticipation of Respect for All week, slated for March 8-12;

Is bullying or violence a problem at your school? Do you think this national hotline will be effective in curtailing it? And, is your school planning any "Respect for All" activities? Let us know in your comments below.

Published in News and views

safetyofficers.PNGIn our most recent poll, we asked how you felt about your school security officers. "Great!" said 35% of respondents.  But 63% had concerns, and of those, 18% felt police officers don't belong inside our schools.

If you or your child have experienced problems with school safety officers, and would like to communicate with a member of the NYCLU, ACLU, and Dorsey Whitney legal team about the recently filed class-action lawsuit -- which alleges that NYPD personnel assigned to New York City's public schools have repeatedly violated students' civil rights through wrongful arrests and the excessive use of force -- or share a story about policing in our schools, please click here. You can also contact the NYCLU's Johanna Miller at

Please continue to share your comments below.

Published in News and views

Five students and their parents sued the city this week, claiming that kids have been wrongly handcuffed, assaulted, and arrested by school safety officers employed by the New York City Police Department.

In addition to damages, the class action lawsuit asks the court to order that schools, rather than safety officers, deal with disciplinary issues, and calls for the city to set up a complaint process and impose new disciplinary measures for officers found guilty of misconduct.

Have you experienced incidents where you felt school safety agents acted inappropriately? Or do the officers at your school behave professionally, keeping kids safe? What kinds of disciplinary issues are cropping up in your school, and how are they handled? Are kids cuffed, "perp-walked," and packed off to the precinct, or are they simply sent to the principal's office?

Kids, parents, teachers, and administrators: how do you feel about your school's safety officers? Take our poll at left and share your experiences below.

(If you would like to communicate with a member of the NYCLU, ACLU and Dorsey Whitney legal team about this lawsuit, or share a story about policing in New York City public schools, please click here. You can also contact the NYCLU's Johanna Miller at

Published in News and views
Monday, 05 October 2009 07:48

Sad setback for Campus Magnet schools

Our hearts go out to the families and students affected by the violence that took the life of a 13-year-old  freshman at the Humanities and  the Arts High School in Cambria Heights. According to The New York Times, young Kevin Miller was on his way to a McDonald's restaurant after school on Friday when "shooting erupted during a fight between two students" from the nearby school. A 16-year-old has been arrested and charged with his murder.

Humanities and the Arts is one of four small schools in  a school building now known as Campus Magnet. It was founded after the large and troubled Andrew Jackson High School was closed in the mid-1990s due to a long history of poor performance and violence.  During the 2006-2007 school year, the entire campus was designated as an "impact" school, a city designation for a dangerous school that requires extra security guards; the building apparently came off the list a year later.

On Insideschools' most recent visit to Humanities and the Arts last November, we found that student achievement was up and the building had benefited from a reorganization, which gave each school its own area for classrooms and separate times for lunch and gym. This tragedy, although it took place off school grounds,  is a sad setback for the challenged building.

Published in News and views
Wednesday, 29 July 2009 11:57

New principal for PS 20

Word comes from Joyce Szuflita of  NYCSchoolHelp that an interim acting principal was named at PS 20 in Fort Greene. The new principal, Lena Barbera, comes from a popular Boerum Hill school, PS 261, where she has been on staff since 1996, most recently as assistant principal. Check out the PS 261 website for more information about her. According to PS 20 PTA President Ayanna Blaize, Barbera has already reached out to both the PTA and staff .

PS 20 was in the news last  spring when it was slated to become one of three new citywide Gifted and Talented programs to open in September. The program was nixed after too few families applied. In May,  Principal Sean Keaton was arrested for allegedly assaulting a teacher(The New York Times Local Fort Greene/Clinton Hill blog covered the story extensively this spring but there's been no word on the fate of the former principal. According to Blaize, school officials say they are "still investigating.")

UPDATE (7/31): According to The New York Post, Sean Keaton, the former principal, "has been assigned to the district office pending the outcome of his criminal case." The article quotes Keaton's lawyer saying he expects his client will be cleared and return to the school "in good standing."

Published in News and views

This morning at 11 am, a coalition of students, civic leaders and advocacy groups plan to release a 'white paper' and report card on the incidence of bullying and bias-based harassment in the city's schools. Student leaders from the Sikh Coalition and other organizations will speak, as will representatives of the New York Civil Liberties Union and the New York City Bar Association's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Committee, which collaborated on the project, and City Council members Robert Jackson and John Liu.

The report card asks whether the Department of Education has made sufficient progress implementing the anti-bullying Chancellor's Regulation (number A-832), announced by the Mayor and the Chancellor in September 2008. More than 1,100 students and teachers contributed to the report-card assessment. Notably, three of every four New York City middle- and high-school students report bullying in their schools.

This afternoon at 4:30, vocal opponents of mayoral control plan to celebrate its demise, also at Tweed. Event organizers say they'll serve eviction papers at midnight to oust Chancellor Klein and his staffers; DOE spokesman David Cantor denounced the proposed gathering as "tribal" in an email response. Of course, everything depends on whether Albany legislators actually manage to meet -- forced to do so by a judge's order -- and hinges on new Democratic leader John Sampson's desire to spend more time evaluating mayoral control.

Published in News and views

brooks_teacherWhen I heard the disturbing news yesterday that a teacher's aide at Brooks's school had been arrested for child molestation, my neurotic parental instincts kicked in: how did anyone ever talk me into letting my innocent son venture out into this dangerous world?

But since I also understand that locking him inside our two-bedroom apartment is not a feasible solution, I have been trying to settle my queasy stomach and find a middle ground. There is no escaping the harsh reality of this incident nor its complexities, especially in terms of how schools should behave in its wake. But this morning, when the principal, Dede Budd, invited parents to a meeting to hammer out these issues, I was comforted -- as much as any parent in these exceptional circumstances can be comforted, that is.

Ms. Budd began by presenting the facts and correcting misinformation. Mr. Benitez had been a paraprofessional at the school for eight years. On the day of the incident, the two teachers in his classroom were absent, so there were two subs. Those subs, who had worked at the school before, witnessed the "inappropriate touching" and immediately reported it. Mr. Benitez was quickly removed from the classroom, and the children's parents were called, as was the police. According to Dede, none of the children, including the ones directly involved, were traumatized or even aware of what had transpired. Mr. Benitez was never allowed back into the classroom after the incident. To Dede's dismay, she was not able to share any of this information with parents since it was initially classified as confidential. It is only now, after the arrest, that she is finally able to speak.

There was talk of providing resources to parents to help them talk to their kids without alarming them, which most parents found challenging. There was also talk of strategies within the classrooms regarding how to address Mr. Benitez's sudden departure and about more general "what's appropriate and what's not?" issues. Dede assured us the teachers have had long and substantive discussions about the best way to deal with the students' questions and concerns.

The meeting concluded with the parents' general agreement that the school administration behaved impeccably. They were as distressed by this incident as we were, and their priority is and always has been to create a safe environment for our children. Even the representative sent by the Department of Education expressed genuine concern: he listened closely to all of us, he acknowledged the fine balancing act of protecting children without trouncing on teachers' rights, and he provided answers that were thoughtful, smart and heartfelt.

Parents were clearly dismayed to hear of the arrest first from the media, rather than the school, and there was a discussion about how to better tackle that complex issue. There must be some way to prevent your first-grader from learning that his teacher was arrested from another child's chatter on the school bus.

Of course, I am still troubled, especially by an anonymous parent in a TV news report who insists that she knew this was coming because her daughter had complained about Mr. Benitez back in 2006. During the meeting, Dede clarified that accusations in prior years had been unfounded. But all agreed that "unfounded" means unproven -- not necessarily untrue. Given the current situation, it's certainly looking more and more like the "unfounded" charges were, in fact, true.

Thankfully, Brooks didn't know Mr. Benitez, so he is largely unaware of these unsettling events. Along with many of his peers, my son is celebrating the end of his school year and the start of summer vacation. But Mr. Benitez's former students don't have that luxury: a man they trusted has suddenly been arrested.

I wouldn't know how to begin to explain to a first grader what I'm having trouble grappling with myself as an adult, but I'm confident that the extraordinary staff at PS 178 will somehow figure it out.

Published in News and views
Thursday, 23 April 2009 03:30

Guidance counselors: solace or punishment?

Last week one of my teachers raised a topic that brought up some difficult questions: He reminded us that if he knew a student was cutting him or herself, he was legally required to report them to a higher authority. He expressed his own contradicting feelings on this issue, which prompted an extremely emotional class conversation. In general, my classmates understood the reasoning behind the rule; school authorities have a responsibility to keep young people safe. But teachers are not necessarily trained in dealing with serious issues, like cutting, that may be life-threatening to the student and surely signal deeper troubles. However, many students were extremely opposed to the idea of being sent by a teacher to the guidance counselor against their will. Though there are wonderful exceptions, I have heard from students in many different schools that going to "their" guidance counselor is something they generally seek to avoid.

I think one of the biggest problems is that guidance counselors in many schools do not know their students on a personal level. Big schools and low budgets make it hard to get enough personal attention to every student. I believe in the idea of a small-group advisory period each week, led by counselors, who would have the chance to get to know students and build relationships over time, before a crisis. Additionally, individual meetings should be arranged at some point so every student can meet their guidance counselor.

I know there are some really great guidance counselors out there, and I respect their efforts and their important role in students' lives. However, many schools need to find a way for counselors to become more involved with their students -- not on a disciplinary level, but on a personal one -- and really provide the 'safe space' students need.

Published in News and views

Our question about the Community Education Council vote drew an anemic response -- in itself, perhaps a reflection on the Department of Education's fledgling effort at online parent engagement. About half of the respondents said they planned to vote, but the next largest group said they flat-out wouldn't, because they didn't know enough about the CECs or about the process.

This week, we ask about an issue that affects every child in every school in the city: School safety officers, who are often the first faces students and parents see when they enter the school building. Uniformed safety officers are a fact of life in the city's schools. Many find their presence controversial (to put it politely) and advocacy groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union have proposed the Student Safety Act, which seems, for the moment, to be stalled in the City Council.

What do you think of the uniformed officers that guard our school doorways? Take the poll - and as ever, share your comments here.

Published in News and views