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Special ed and the school board

It was with interest and hope that I initially began reading your article "Another Special Ed Reboot." However, that interest and hope quickly changed to confusion while reading the comments from board members Van White and Willa Powell.

White, with 11 1/2 years on the board, and Powell, with 18 1/2, appeared to take no ownership for the deplorable conditions of the special ed program in the Rochester school district.

All of the issues White and Powell articulated are critically real, but neither board member seemed to own the problem.

I take issue with the statement suggesting that "school board members don't operate schools; they hire superintendents to do that." I wonder where the buck stops in the Rochester school district? White and Powell seem to take no responsibility for the years of hiring "experts" who were unable to "improve things."

You will not find me arguing that district staff, from the superintendent down through the ranks to teachers and paraprofessionals, are not responsible for the success of our students. However, is it not the role of the school board to hire and insure that all staff are doing their respective best for all children?

That is why I am confused by the responses that both White and Powell made in their comments. With a combined tenure of over three decades as members of the Rochester Board of Education, it perplexes me that neither board member, who it appears for years have cashed their paychecks as board members (yes they are salaried), took responsibility for the ongoing failure of the district's ability to comply with state and federal special education regulations.  


Police and the public

As an advocate for the Police Accountability Board in Rochester, I am writing to correct several misconceptions perpetuated in Dr. Cedric Alexander's comments in City's article "Alexander: Police-citizen partnership is key." Dr. Alexander, other city officials, and the article have repeated misinformation with regards to 1) state law and disciplinary power, 2) the Locust Club (police) collective bargaining agreement, 3) PAB access to officer personnel records, and 4) relationship building between the police and the community.

1) Dr. Alexander claims that "reform supporters" need to understand that review boards "do not have the ability to sanction or discipline" police under New York state law. This is false.

Section 75 of Civil Service Law outlines the procedures for disciplining public employees in New York State: "The hearing upon such charges shall be held by the officer or body having the power to remove the person against whom such charges are preferred." Therefore, Civil Service Law explicitly acknowledges that a governmental body such as the proposed Police Accountability Board can have disciplinary authority.

To date, neither Rochester's corporation counsel, nor any other public officials, have been able to specifically cite any state law or case that would prevent Rochester from enacting a PAB with disciplinary power. Further, PAB disciplinary power is absolutely essential given the long history in Rochester of officers escaping punishment for misconduct under the current process. (See The Case for an Independent Police Accountability System: Transforming the Civilian Review Process in Rochester, New York).

2) The City article stated that new oversight needs to be "negotiated with the police union." However, the New York State Court of Appeals has recently held that cities can make changes to police disciplinary procedures despite a conflicting collective bargaining agreement. (See Police Benevolent Ass'n of New York State Troopers, Inc. v. Div. of New York State Police 11 N.Y.3d 96 (2008) and City of Schenectady v. New York State Pub. Employment Relations Bd. 30 N.Y.3d 109 (2017).) Therefore, Rochester City Council has the power to enact a PAB and strengthen the disciplinary procedures without requiring the consent of the Locust Club.

3) The article states that state law says "police officers' personnel records are confidential." While it is true that New York's Civil Rights Law §50 prevents officer disciplinary records from being released to the public without a court order, this would not hinder the proposed Police Accountability Board, because under §50-a(4), government agencies are allowed access to officer disciplinary records in furtherance of the agency's official functions.

Therefore, just as New York City's Civilian Complaint Review Board and Syracuse's Citizen Review Board have access to officer disciplinary records, the proposed Rochester PAB would legally have access to officer disciplinary records.

4) Finally, Dr. Alexander told City that "building partnerships between police and the community" is difficult because "the perception is that police have gone overboard." Yet, the problem surpasses mere perceptions. Real lives have been lost and damaged.

Ultimately, trust is built upon mutual respect, consent, communication, and action. It is built upon people having equitable levels of power. Police have and have had an inordinate amount of power in Rochester for a very long time.

If Dr. Alexander and other public officials really value "police-citizen partnerships," they must prioritize a Police Accountability Board that is an independent agency of city government with the power to investigate complaints of police misconduct, with subpoena power to compel the production of evidence and witnesses, with disciplinary power to ensure that officers are actually held accountable for their misconduct, and with the power to evaluate systemic patterns, practices, policies and procedures to prevent misconduct from happening in the first place.

A strong PAB would be a good first step toward giving the community more equitable control over how they are policed. Until the community has such equitable control, a true "partnership" is impossible.


Forsyth is co-author of the report, "The Case for an Independent Police Accountability System."