UPPER WEST SIDE — After the state department of education labeled a neighborhood school "persistently dangerous," local leaders claimed the city mismanaged the entire process — from hiding the data and advising the principal not to appeal the designation to not informing parents.
P.S. 191, a K-8 school on West 61st Street, was deemed "persistently dangerous" this summer by the state Education Department, which took into account incidents reported by the school over the last two years, officials said.
At the end of the 2013-2014 school year, the number of incidents reported at P.S. 191 and their severity forced state officials to warn the city Department of Education that it could be designated a "persistently dangerous school" (PDS) if the pattern repeated itself the following year.
But this past September, as new principal Lauren Keville prepared for the upcoming school year, the city failed to share with her any data regarding the previous year's incidents, said city DOE Superintendent Ilene Altschul. These included a spike in violent and disruptive incidents, which had nearly doubled from 56 the previous year to 97.
Moreover, the city also did not share with Keville the state's warning about the school facing a PDS designation, Altschul said.
The threat of a PDS classification was considered "confidential" by the DOE, she explained. Not only was Keville kept out of the loop, but Altschul herself didn't know about the incidents or the PDS warning until this spring, when it was too late to take effective action, she said.
The decision by the DOE to keep the information a secret infuriated Community Education Council 3 members, who argued the school could have changed course earlier had anyone at the school or in the district been informed.
"In order for any kind of data to be useful, it can’t just be put into a black box...This is how you use data if you’re an idiotic bureaucrat," said CEC member Daniel Katz.
"I agree," Altschul replied at a CEC 3 meeting on Wednesday.
"The problem was that information wasn’t transferred or shared with myself or the principal... [If it had been], we would have been able to address these incidents differently," she added.
Instead, in the fall of 2014, Keville took a "zero tolerance" approach, without knowing just how much state scrutiny the school was under, Altschul said.
"She was very proactive in addressing all the incidents and trying to improve the culture, and in turn had a very high [incident] reporting index for the first few months [of the school year]," Altschul explained.
The data stems from a few students responsible for repeated incidents, she added.
Additionally, when the state looks at incident reports, it can "mischaracterize" them, Altschul acknowledged.
"If there's not enough information, they sometimes assume the worst," she said.
When Keville learned in March that a PDS designation was likely to come down based on the previous six months, the only remaining option was to file an appeal, said DOE school safety adviser Stephanie Saunders.
The appeal — a Waited Index Exemption Process (WEEP) — allows the school to exempt certain incidents if special-education students were involved, she said.
However, for unknown reasons, Keville was counseled not to submit a WEEP appeal by DOE officials, Altschul noted.
"I think the DOE took the wrong course of action when they found out about it internally in March. They should have raised an appeal; they chose not to do that," said City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal at Wednesday's meeting. "It’s just mismanagement left and right."
While DOE officials knew about P.S. 191's forthcoming PDS designation throughout the rest of the spring, they nonetheless made the school an official "overflow site" for the roughly 100 children who were wait-listed at nearby P.S. 199 in April, Altschul said.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act, students aren't required to attend a PDS school and can request a transfer.
"The fact that they told people on the waitlist [they had to go to P.S. 191], knowing whatever was going to hit the fan — knowing that with such a designation, no one has to go there — is just an incredible situation, beyond belief," said Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, who also attended the meeting.
The DOE recently announced it would not place P.S. 199's remaining waitlisted students at P.S. 191, choosing instead to add more seats at P.S. 199 and move any additional students to other nearby schools.
Councilwoman Rosenthal, the PTA and CEC members also all insisted that there was an error in the way the incident data was reported and that they'll fight for the school's removal from the state's PDS list.
In the meantime, with the start of school less than three weeks away, the DOE has not yet told parents that P.S. 191 is considered "persistently dangerous," nor of their right to transfer their child to another school.
The designation was made public in late July by the state, putting the DOE in violation of a No Child Left Behind regulation that the department must inform parents within 10 days of the ruling.
Still, no plan has been made to inform P.S. 191 parents of the PDS designation, Altschul said. The DOE also hasn't decided yet where it is sending students who wish to transfer.
"It could be outside of District 3. It's not necessarily a D3 school. We’re not exactly sure where they’ll end up," she admitted.
Students could end up getting bussed to other districts or even outside boroughs, Altschul added. Moreover, wait-listed P.S. 199 students will be given priority ahead of the P.S. 191 students in being offered spots at other District 3 schools, she said.
"This gets more disturbing. Let’s say all 500 [P.S. 191] students say they want to leave. What’s the plan?" asked CEC 3 member Theresa Hammonds.
"I asked and didn’t get an answer...I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve had to try to get answers," Altschul responded.
The DOE's secrecy in not informing anyone in the district, including the CEC, alarmed members.
"We should all be on high alert. We are absolutely under attack in this district," said CEC President Joe Fiordaliso.
P.S. 191 does have a plan in place for getting off the list, Altschul said. The school is working with nonprofits to improve social and behavioral skills, and Councilmember Rosenthal has provided funds for a full-time school psychologist, among other measures, she said.
But while the label remains, noted P.S. 191 parent and CEC member Kim Watkins, "we are ruining kids' lives in the face of this designation."