Unsafe Label Will Trigger School Choice

October 23, 2002 9 min read
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Persistently dangerous: Not exactly an attractive label for a school. It’s probably the last thing a principal would want.

But some schools could get that dubious distinction next year, thanks to a new federal mandate.

The provision—sort of a policy cocktail mixing equal parts school choice and school safety—says that any student attending a “persistently dangerous” public school must be allowed to transfer to a “safe” school in that district. In addition, any student who falls prey to a “violent criminal offense” at school may transfer.

That language in the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, especially the part on dangerous schools, has a lot of state and local officials nervous.

On the surface, the mandate sounds reasonable enough. After all, who would want to force a student to attend an unsafe school? But carrying out the requirement poses some difficult questions for states. And some experts on school security worry that, rather than aiding efforts to improve safety, the measure may actually undermine them.

“I have some real misgivings about this,” said John H. Weicker, the security director for the 32,000-student Fort Wayne, Ind., school district. “If you think this is going to cause [school] people to want to report their [crime] incidences, then you’re nuts, because this is going to have the opposite effect.”

The measure—just two sentences in the No Child Left Behind Act, under the heading “Unsafe School Choice Option"—has captured far less publicity than other aspects of the new law, such as its requirements on testing, school performance, and teacher quality.

On one level, it’s part of the law’s push to expand parental choice, a cousin of another provision that requires districts with low-performing schools to allow students to transfer to a better school.

“The legislation recognizes that children ... can face a number of different kinds of threats to their future,” said David Schnittger, a spokesman for Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “One threat is the possibility of going through life without having the opportunity to acquire the academic skills to be successful. Another is the more obvious physical threat to ... personal security and safety.”

‘A Very Serious Label’

Many states and school districts have been working hard in recent years to improve school safety by adopting stronger prevention and intervention strategies. The federal government has helped such efforts, in part through the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Program, which was funded at nearly $750 million in fiscal 2002.

Some states, such as California and New Jersey, issue annual reports on a range of school violence and crime data, district by district.

But the No Child Left Behind Act enters new terrain. First, it imposes new reporting requirements on states related to school safety, including data on a school-by-school basis.

And then there’s the mandate for educational choice for students in unsafe schools. Beyond the choice element, states for the first time would have to identify persistently dangerous schools.

The stakes are high, given the scarlet “D” it would brand on a school.

“This is a very serious label to put on a school, and schools would probably hate that ... more than the low-performing label,” said Elsie C. Leak, an associate state superintendent of public instruction in North Carolina.

The federal law doesn’t define “persistently dangerous.” It simply says states, in collaboration with a “representative sample” of districts, must come up with criteria.

The Department of Education offered a few suggestions when it issued draft guidelines in July. States should use “objective” data, the department said, such as referrals to law enforcement for bringing a firearm to school.

“It’s a very difficult thing to define,” said Kenneth S. Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm. “There are a whole lot of political implications.” He said that if a school is labeled dangerous, the designation might create fear and panic, besides being an embarrassment to school officials.

William Modzeleski, the director of the Education Department’s safe-schools program, said it’s easier to underreport theft and other less severe crimes, but the more serious the crime, the greater the likelihood that it would be reported. He also said victims often report incidents.

Overall, he acknowledged that there has been considerable debate on the accurate reporting of crime in schools. But he said such reporting is getting more reliable.

“Let’s not forget that there’s a growing number of police officers in schools,” Mr. Modzeleski said. “I think that’s going to improve the [reporting] situation.”

What Is ‘Dangerous’?

How states define “persistently dangerous” is key, said Mr. Trump, the security consultant. That process is still underway in many places.

“At least some states will probably be setting the definitions at a level or in a manner that simply will be nearly impossible to meet,” he said.

Mr. Modzeleski said he has seen no evidence of that so far.

“It can’t be that you raise the bar so high that it automatically excludes every school in your state,” he said.

The Education Department’s draft guidance says states do not need federal approval of their criteria, but the agency could write binding rules establishing such authority, Mr. Modzeleski said.

“We are seriously considering regulating this,” he said.

Public pressure may be another factor. Noting the new federal demands for reporting school-based crime, Mr. Modzeleski argued that a disconnect between such statistics and schools labeled unsafe is sure to raise questions.

Under North Carolina’s new policy, a school would be flagged if five or more violent crimes were committed per 1,000 students—that total would fluctuate for smaller or larger schools—during the two most recent school years.

“We tried to build in some safeguards, so that we don’t rush headlong into labeling a school,” said Ms. Leak of the state education department.

If a school meets the threshold, a team of state and local officials will evaluate the situation and report to the state board of education, which will decide if the school should be deemed dangerous.

California’s plan, meanwhile, would identify a school as dangerous if, for three straight years, it met criteria linked to violent crimes, weapons possession, and expulsion for any of nine offenses—including robbery or extortion, and sexual assault. The expulsion rate would be based on the school population, generally one per 100 students per year.

As part of being labeled, a school with 2,500 students, for example, would need at least 25 such expulsions for three years running.

Officials in some states had hoped they might have at least a couple of grace years before potentially labeling schools, given the emphasis on “persistent” danger.

But the Education Department has made clear that states must be prepared to make school choice under the unsafe-schools provision available by the start of the 2003-04 school year. Waiting longer for data apparently is not an option.

"[States] can go back and get retroactive data,” Mr. Modzeleski said. “You can’t use this as an excuse to push this off.”

South Carolina hired a statistics expert as part of its ongoing effort to define “persistently dangerous.”

“This is not the sort of task where you just pick a number out of [thin air],” said Susan G. Alexander, the director of the South Carolina Center for Safe Schools in the state’s education agency. Despite the challenge, Ms. Alexander said she believes the new measure is a good idea, and is meant to prevent violence, not punish schools.

The federal department’s draft guidance, for instance, says each district should draw up and implement a “corrective action” plan to make any dangerous schools safer.

Stephen L. Davis, the director of the Indiana Department of Education’s student-services office, is concerned about what happens when a school nears the threshold.

“At some point, you’re going to have the reality where some assistant principal is going to see a student and think about expelling that student,” he said. “Suddenly, that decision becomes ‘If I report this, there’s the possibility that this school could close down.’ ”

Also, Indiana is wrestling with the choice provision for students who are victims of violent crime.

“At what point is there sort of an official determination that a crime has occurred? Maybe when the prosecutor decides to file charges,” Mr. Davis said.

Bill Bond, a consultant on school safety for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, in Reston, Va., argued that the provision for individual student choice was more far-reaching than the part on dangerous schools.

“That’s going to affect a lot of schools, a lot of kids,” said Mr. Bond, who was the principal of Heath High School in West Padukah, Ky., when that school was the site of a shooting that left three students dead in 1997.

At the same time, Mr. Bond said, all five students who were shot and survived at Heath High opted to stay put. And, in recent conversations with principals in Michigan and Ohio, he learned that they already try to accommodate victims of crime who wish to transfer.

No Choice for Some?

Tying safety to choice has its challenges. Perhaps the biggest is the possibility of not being able to deliver an alternative.

The issue arose this fall with the school choice mandate for low-performing schools. Some urban districts have very limited space in higher-performing schools. Small districts and rural districts may have just one middle or high school, the places where crime is most likely to occur.

The law mandates school choice only within a district. School systems are encouraged, but not required, to explore other options, such as an agreement with a nearby district, according to the Education Department.

“For the 30 or 40 percent of [New York] districts that are small, ... choice might be a moot option,” said Arlene Sheffield, the director of the safe-schools program in New York state’s education agency.

Moreover, families may have to arrange their own transportation. While the choice mandate for low-performing schools requires districts to use some of their federal aid to pay travel costs, districts face no such requirement for the choice provision for unsafe schools.

Critics say the push in Congress for the unsafe schools provision was driven, at least in part, by a political desire to advance the choice movement.

But Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., said he was hopeful the measure will improve safety.

“This whole area of school safety is a continuing national experiment,” he said. “It shouldn’t require an act of courage for parents to send their kids to school.”


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