MANHATTAN — A little-known letter that's supposed to be used to protect schools from unruly parents in the wake of aggressive incidents is actually being used to unfairly silence outspoken parents in low-income black and Hispanic schools, critics say.
"Limited access letters," which an Education Department staffer advised should only be used in case of a “serious incident at the school that required the involvement of School Safety Agents,” have been given out without any apparent oversight or supervision to parents across the city, DNAinfo New York has learned.
The letters, which effectively serve as temporary restraining orders against parents, can be given out by principals or superintendents who feel a parent has threatened them or a staffer in some way.
Once a parent has been given the letter, the school has the right to restrict that parent's access to the school for as long as they see fit. That means parents who receive them must call a school to make an appointment any time they want to visit — and they must register at the front security desk and remain there until a staff member can escort them around.
For those dropping off or picking up their kids at school, they must leave their child with the School Safety Agent at the front desk, according to a sample letter.
But unlike restraining orders, limited access letters don’t need to be vetted by a judge and have no apparent recourse for parents to appeal them.
Many fear these letters are sometimes doled out to push families out of a school and that they are overwhelmingly given to low-income parents of color, who may not know their rights or how to navigate the system on their kids’ behalf.
“White parents don’t know about limited access letters,” said East Village mom Stephanie Thompson, who is black and sits on the racially diverse Lower East Side/East Village District 1 Community Education Council with other parents.
A white man on her CEC board asked her recently why she remained quiet during so many public meetings. She told him, “When you say stuff as a white man, you’re seen as expressing yourself. You’re passionate. You’re smart and challenging. Whenever I do anything, I’m seen as an angry black woman and aggressive. I’m a 'pit bull.'”
She added that she's been given three limited access letters in the past three years, including once for complaining about her principal and another time for criticizing her superintendent within earshot.
“I’m young and by myself — and think they can run over me,” said Thompson, 25. “The schools bank on us not knowing things and taking advantage of it.”
Department of Education officials did not respond to requests for comment and information about the number of limited access letters that have been distributed to parents.
In response to a Freedom of Information Law request seeking data on the letters, the DOE's FOIL request officer was unable to provide any information, stating, that "diligent searches and inquiries for data in response to your request have been conducted. I am informed, however, that responsive data is not tracked or compiled in a computer storage system, as the letters in question are maintained by individual schools."
In cases where third party groups have tried to get the DOE to mediate between parents who've gotten the letters and their principals, the DOE has refused to do so, some said.
Nequan McLean, who heads the CEC for Bed-Stuy’s District 16, said parents in his district were all too familiar with limited access letters.
At one school, after the principal two years ago “was giving out limited access letters like candy,” McLean said, his local Community Education Council held a meeting with city school officials and the National Action Network to discuss the issue.
For parents who get such letters and then don’t have opportunities to interact with their child’s teacher, they end up simply moving their kids to another school, he said.
“From my understanding, the principal can generate the letter but then [the city's Law Department] has to OK it,” he said. “But I bet 75 percent don’t go to legal. Parents don’t know their rights and don’t know what they can do about it so they leave. Parents don’t fight. We leave.
“That’s why this district is full of charter schools,” he continued. “It’s not that charters are better. It’s that they’re tired of fighting with the DOE.”
Charter schools, however, also give out limited access letters, according to Randi Levine, of Advocates for Children, whose organization gets occasional complaints about the process from parents at traditional public schools and charters.
Advocates for Children recently worked with a family from an Upper Manhattan public school given a limited access letter after the father sought the nonprofit's legal assistance because the school wasn’t providing his child mandated special needs services.
“We think the letter was used in retaliation,” Levine said.
"We think parent involvement is critical for a school’s success and schools should make every effort to work with them and not ban them," she added.
East New York dad Gregory Grant said he has seen parents physically threaten school staffers — incidents, he said, that merited limited access letters.
But he didn’t think he deserved one after he sparred with a fellow member of his parent association, who he thought was treating his son unfairly by barring the child from the parent room that he had always gone to when waiting for pick-up.
“I told the president of the parent association, ‘Don’t do that to him,” Grant recounted. “She had her hand in my face. I pushed it out of my face. She said ‘He hit me.’ The principal decided to give me limited access.”
Grant never actually received a formal letter, he said, but he stopped going into the building “because I don’t want that negative energy.”
Thompson, who is looking forward to sitting on various committees this year through the Community Education Council on such issues as safety and bullying, believes the more that parents feel empowered, the less likely they’ll get such letters.
“I got involved with the CEC to learn how to fight,” she said. “Otherwise I would have still been crying and screaming at this.”