Guidance Urges Input on ‘Dangerous Schools’ Definitions

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The Department of Education is urging states to seek advice from parents and other community members when defining "persistently dangerous" schools under federal law, and to "review and revise" those definitions every year to make them more reflective of the actual threats students may face, according to new federal guidance.

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The document, issued last month, was praised by key House Republicans who had raised concerns about the lax criteria they said most states had developed to meet a mandate that students in such schools be allowed public school choice. Last year, under that provision of the No Child Left Behind Act, only four states reported having any persistently dangerous schools, for a total of 38 out of some 91,000 public schools nationwide. ("Persistent Analysis," Federal File, Oct. 22, 2003.)

"The guidelines ... should help states do a more effective job of implementing this requirement, and should in turn help more parents get the information they deserve about the safety of their children," Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a press release.

But the operating phrase in the guidance, which updates a 2002 version, appears to be "strongly encourage," as states have great leeway in how they implement the federal mandate.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, each state was required to define persistently dangerous and identify schools that met the criteria. Districts must allow students in such schools to transfer to a safer public school in the system. The law also says a student who is the victim of a violent crime must be allowed to transfer.

Data Sources

The new federal guidance says that when a state reviews its definition, it should collaborate not only with school district representatives, as the law spells out, but also with "parents and other community members."

In addition, the document offers advice on the types of data states may use.

While recognizing that states were "initially limited by the data they were already collecting" and had available, the department notes that "it is possible to utilize data from other sources, including referrals to the juvenile courts and reports by law-enforcement personnel, including school resource officers." The department says many state definitions focus on suspension and expulsion data, and it urges states to also use data on offenses even when the perpetrator is not apprehended and disciplined.

The guidance makes clear that districts may not reclassify violent incidents as less serious and therefore not subject to reporting for purposes of identifying a school as persistently dangerous.

Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo., who chaired a field hearing on the unsafe-schools policy last fall, said she was pleased by the revised guidelines.

"The increase in parental involvement in determining what constitutes persistently dangerous and keeping unsafe incidents from being reclassified are particularly critical in keeping our children safe in taxpayer- funded public schools," she said.

Reps. Musgrave and Boehner were joined by 38 other House Republicans in writing to Secretary of Education Rod Paige last fall urging the department to give states more specific guidance on how to implement the choice policy for unsafe schools.

Limited Federal Role

Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok expressed frustration with the definitions crafted by many states.

"In far too many states, [officials] have chosen a way to define persistently dangerous schools so they don’t have any, and that’s ludicrous," he said.

Mr. Hickok cautioned that the federal government has little influence on the matter.

"The law doesn’t give us sign-off on the definitions," he said.

William L. Lassiter, a school safety specialist with North Carolina’s juvenile justice agency, said his state was reviewing its definition of persistently dangerous.

A North Carolina school now may be identified as dangerous if, for two straight years, five or more criminal offenses were committed per 1,000 students. But before a school is officially labeled, the state allows for an appeals process. Twenty- seven schools were placed on a "watch list" last year for meeting the criteria for one academic year.

North Carolina may not heed all the federal advice. For example, the guidance urges states to use just one year of data when identifying schools. But Mr. Lassiter suggested it was unlikely his state would make such a switch.

"If you really look at what the legislation says," he noted, "it says persistently dangerous. To us, that means more than one year."

Vol. 23, Issue 39, Page 31

Published in Print: June 9, 2004, as Guidance Urges Input on ‘Dangerous Schools’ Definitions
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