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Security: Fighting Danger

A federal law to make schools safer finds districts setting the bar too high

It's meant to curb crime and keep the peace. But a new federal law allowing students to transfer from schools that are labeled violent and disruptive could be causing more discord than harmony.

Under the Unsafe School Choice Option, a component of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, states were required to establish definitions for "persistently dangerous" schools by July 1. Prior to the start of the school year, districts with "persistently dangerous" schools were required to notify parents that their children were eligible to transfer to safe schools within the district. Students who are victims of violent crimes on schools grounds are also eligible to transfer.

The law is built on the belief that safe schools and academic success go hand-in-hand. "Kids can't learn in an environment in which there is fighting, disorder or kids carrying guns," says William Modzeleski, associate deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. At the very least, he says, it gets states thinking seriously about school safety and forces them to devise accountable ways for reporting and recording crime.

"An administrator is going to think twice before he or she reports each and every incident, because doing so is going to put them one step closer to the persistently dangerous label." -Kenneth Trump, president, National School Safety and Security Services

But, this past summer, as states from Florida to Montana to California declared they could find no "persistently dangerous" schools in their districts, critics questioned the legislation's usefulness. They charged that some states were clearly setting the bar too high when it came to determining the presence of violence in schools--ostensibly to avoid the label's stigma.

Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm, says he believes school administrators would rather be in a school labeled academically failing than in one branded unsafe. A "persistently dangerous" label "is the kiss of death for a school administrator's career and for the school's image," says Trump.

He further argues that principals will be more apt to underreport crime under the new legislation. "An administrator is going to think twice before he or she reports each and every incident, because doing so is going to put them one step closer to the persistently dangerous label," he says.

Trump says the legislation can only work effectively if it: establishes a national definition of "persistently dangerous" and specific guidelines for recording school crime, and is backed by federal funds for interventions and school improvements. Under the current law, no federal funding is available to transport students, and states are expected to reallocate funds or apply for federal grants to fund intervention programs for dangerous schools.

This legislation will lead to further laxness about reporting violent incidents on school grounds, fears Curt Lavarello, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, the largest professional association for K-12 school-based police officers.

"School officers know of crimes that are being swept under the carpet and the administrators are handling them internally," he says. Among 728 NASRO members surveyed in June, 61 percent said the legislation would lead to decreased crime reporting and more than 88 percent said Congress should enact a federal law requiring mandatory, consistent school crime reporting by K-12 schools nationwide.

But Modzeleski argues for localized control; chances are school leaders in Wyoming would not agree with the standards for crime adopted by the District of Columbia, he says. "We feel very strongly that this should be done at a state level--not a federal level," he says. "If, in fact, we had a standard definition, we'd have more public outcry." He anticipates the legislation will prove its usefulness as states refine their definitions and methods of data collection.

Proactive vs. Reactive

The federal government is attacking the issue from the wrong direction, says Kevin Dwyer, a former school psychologist and co-author of Safe, Supportive and Successful Schools: Step by Step (Sopris West, 2003). Change must come from within the school, he says, not as the result of an externally imposed label.

"It's critical that schools take more of a proactive approach to these problems rather than a reactive one," says Dwyer. "Every principal should know how safe their school is and should have good data systems to collect that information." Principals should also examine the culture in their hallways and classrooms, re-deploy resources if necessary, train teachers to diffuse arguments before they become fist fights, and partner with community agencies, police and parents, he says.

"The major goal of No Child Left Behind is to set high standards and improve achievement for all students," says Maree Sneed, a former secondary school principal and a partner in Hogan & Hartson, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm well-versed on the No Child Left Behind Act. "I don't see any relationship between the persistently dangerous schools provision of the law and these goals."

"It also suffers from the same problem as some other aspects of the law: there's lots of unevenness," she says. "We're going to have different standards" from state to state.

Three key states illustrate her case:


The Keystone state released a list of 28 persistently dangerous schools--27 of them in the 200,000-student Philadelphia school district. The numbers out of Philadelphia--dramatically higher than those reported by other urban centers--are likely the result of tougher accounting initiated under Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas. His motto, according to a spokesman, has been, "I want everyone to report everything." The district's code of conduct, which is in effect 24/7, is one of the toughest in the nation. School officials keep track of everything from shoves in the cafeteria to crimes committed by students beyond school hours.

As a result of more accurate reporting and tougher enforcement, more incidents were reported and more weapons were seized during the past school year than during the previous year, according to the district's Public Safety/School Climate Summary, which was released in August. There was a time "when principals didn't want to report because they thought it demonstrated they didn't have the capability to run their schools," says Dexter Green, a former Philadelphia deputy police commissioner who is now the district's chief safety executive. All that has changed under the new administration. "We're going to keep on doing what we're doing," Green says.

On top of the tough reporting standards in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania set a more stringent definition of "persistently dangerous" than some other states. Education officials decided that schools with an enrollment of 250 or less must have reported at least five dangerous incidents; and schools with more than 1,000 students must have reported 20 or more in order to be labeled persistently dangerous. A dangerous incident is defined as weapons possession resulting in arrest, as well as violent incidents such as homicide, robbery and assaults resulting in arrest.


Meanwhile, in California, the state came up with zero persistently dangerous schools, using a definition based on two conditions and three years' worth of data. To make the persistently dangerous list, a school must have had a gun violation or violent criminal offense on school property and expelled students (in large schools, one for every 100 students enrolled) for offenses such as assault of a school employee, drug sales and sexual battery--for three consecutive years.

The Los Angeles Times called the definition too narrow, noting that not even Banning High, a 2,800-student school in Los Angeles, would qualify as dangerous, even though it had 289 battery cases, two assaults with a deadly weapon, a robbery, and three sex offenses reported during the 2001-02 school year.

Asked whether the numbers seemed accurate, Carla Nino, president of the Los Angeles-based California State PTA, says, "I just could not answer that question. I have not seen newspaper reports of schools that have high levels of violence." Nino says she believes the numbers reflect the work being done to improve safety on school grounds.

"I know there are many school districts in California that have been trying to address issues of expulsion and have been addressing issues of violence on campus," she says.

Her group advocates attention to all schools--label or not--to reduce the issue of greatest concern to parents: the safety of their children. "I don't think a definition should be key to saying this school needs our attention," she says.


To arrive at its "persistently dangerous" standard, New York state held a series of regional meetings and convened a formal advisory group in April that includes administrators, teachers, parents and law enforcement officials. In New York, a persistently dangerous school is considered one that has had at least three weapons incidents per 100 students for two consecutive years. That means a 1,000-student high school must have 30 weapons violations each year for two consecutive years. Only two schools made the list, both in Brooklyn. They are the 300-student Street Academy, an alternative high school, and the Lillian C. Rashkis School, a high school for learning disabled and emotionally disturbed students. Street Academy Principal Thomas Baskin-Bey says the label was a shock, in part because the school hasn't had a homicide, the dropout rate has decreased 10 percent in two years, and "if we have one fight a semester that is a lot."

Only weapons incidents were taken into account, but other offenses such as sexual assaults, may be included in future selection criteria, according to Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. "Our data collection system is evolving. As it becomes more sophisticated and accurate, we will incorporate more data into what is collected," Dunn says.

The state is also compiling a "watch list" as a preventative strategy--a second tier of schools that must take steps to improve their safety, according to Dunn. To be placed on this list, a school must have two consecutive years with a ratio of 2 percent or greater of weapons incidents to enrollment--more simply put, 20 weapons incidents for two consecutive years in a 1,000-student school. Schools that don't improve could be placed on the persistently dangerous list for the 2004-05 school year.

Jennifer Covino is a contributing editor.