Friday, January 19, 2007

The Most Dangerous Schools In America?

USA Today reports that the U.S. Department of Education thinks it has identified the "most dangerous schools in America." But they aren't located where one might expect them to be:
WASHINGTON — The schools identified as the nation's most dangerous during the past five years can't be found in Los Angeles, Chicago or most of America's other urban centers.

They're in communities such as Vineland, N.J., Augusta, Ga., and Todd County, S.D.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires states to identify "persistently dangerous" schools and give parents the option of moving their children to other schools. But it gives so much leeway to states and school districts that only those schools diligent about reporting ever come close to making the list.

States can penalize districts by withholding money if they don't do enough to improve safety.

What's evolved, safety experts say, is a system where states have made it very hard for schools to be classified as unsafe and schools can report incidents as they see fit. Fewer than 100 of the nation's 90,000-plus public schools have ever been slapped with the label since the law took effect in 2002. Although studies indicate school crime has been declining since the 1990s, many experts say schools underreport incidents.

"It's unfair," said Allan Bernardini, a school board member in Vineland, a working-class city in southern New Jersey where Solve D'Ippolito Intermediate School made the list two consecutive years before coming off in July. "Generally, we have good children in Vineland. We got 10,000 kids in the district and maybe 75 that give you a problem."

He said the school got on the list because administrators wrote everything down: "hair pulling, punching, wrestling on the ground." They got off by improving discipline, implementing new safety programs involving students and redefining what incidents are serious enough to be reported, district officials said.

No Child Left Behind requires schools to test their students, improve teacher training and provide free after-school tutoring. It also includes a lesser-known provision directing states to draw up safety standards but leaves it up to them to decide what is a dangerous school and how to enforce it.

It has produced a mishmash of definitions.

Defining 'persistently dangerous'

Gannett News Service contacted the education agency in every state and most said their schools would get the "persistently dangerous" label if reported crime reaches a certain level for three consecutive years. Most concentrate on reporting serious incidents, such as murder, rape and assault. Few mention bullying, though safety experts say it's a big problem in many schools. And many say incidents that happen on the school bus should be counted.

But the similarities end there.

A school with 1,000 students in Colorado would be labeled dangerous if it reported at least 180 serious incidents per year for two straight years. In Massachusetts, a school is considered dangerous if a student is expelled three straight years for bringing a gun or if at least 1.5% of the student body is expelled or suspended for more than 45 days. Wisconsin schools earn the distinction if, for three straight years, they suspend at least 5% of the student body for weapons-related offenses or expel 1% for "assault/endangering behavior" or weapons.

These policies are aimed largely at urban schools, where security precautions — X-ray machines, cameras and police officers — are in place. The irony, school safety experts say, is that the schools where the bloodiest shootings have occurred, notably Columbine High in the well-to-do Denver suburb of Littleton, Colo., where 12 students and one teacher were killed in 1999, would almost never qualify.

More problematic is the reporting.

The stigma of a "persistently dangerous" label is enough to keep most schools from being completely honest, said Beverly Caffee Glenn, executive director of the Hamilton Fish Institute on School and Community Violence at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

"There's realty prices to be considered. Would you want to move into a school district where you knew it was unsafe?" said Glenn, referring to the importance schools have on home values. "There's also the issue: Do you want to be the principal of a school where you can't control your kids?"

A U.S. Department of Education committee is exploring the issue and may recommend changes when Congress takes up reauthorization of the law this year. So far, members have debated whether to reword the "persistently dangerous" label to something less negative such as "safe schools option" so schools might be more willing to report incidents.

Accountability at issue

Alan Bersin, a former federal prosecutor who just stepped down as California's education secretary, said the entire issue should be re-examined. None of his state's roughly 9,000 public schools have ever made the list.

"There's a problem with the way the question's being asked, the standard that has been given and the reporting," he said.

Paul Vallas, who once ran Chicago's school system, says at least a few of that city's schools should be tagged as dangerous. As Philadelphia's current school system chief, Vallas has directed schools to report any serious incident that happens on school grounds — no matter the time or day. They also must report any incident involving a student traveling to and from school.

The result: 29 different city schools have made the list since 2002-03, though only nine are still on the list. No district has logged more.

"I would rather be aggressive about identifying schools that do not have satisfactory school climates rather than somehow try to get around the mandate because other states aren't being aggressive about enforcing the mandate or setting the standard," he said.

New York state added 17 schools to its list in August after state auditors found severe under-reporting of incidents at most of the districts they examined.

One that wasn't added to the list was White Plains High School, which has never been tagged as "persistently dangerous." The school reported 22 serious incidents to the state for the 2003-2004 school year, even though school records indicated there were 289 others unreported, including 35 assaults with physical injury and one sexual assault.

David Fattah, a community activist in west Philadelphia who has worked to make "persistently dangerous" Overbrook High safer said the term hurts even though he knows the school has made great strides.

"I just really feel as though these labels need to be kind of put in perspective," he said. "I want to hear (students) say: 'I want to go to Overbrook, Mr. Fattah, can you help me out? I don't want to hear them say 'Overbrook' like we're talking about Iraq."
Heh. Maybe the folks who work spend their time in the plush office suites of Washington's Department of Education ought to get out from behind their desks once-in-a-while and actually venture forth and visit a few schools from that haven't been hand-picked for the propaganda purpose of ballyhooing the Administration's No Child Left Behind Act. They should "drop in" on schools that are more representative of the conditions in which the country's young people and their teachers actually find themselves on a daily basis.
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