School Climate & Safety

Law’s ‘Persistently Dangerous’ Tag Weighed

By David J. Hoff — October 27, 2006 3 min read
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Of all the reasons so few schools are identified as “persistently dangerous” under the No Child Left Behind Act, the label itself may be the biggest, according to members of a federal advisory panel.

“The name has a very negative connotation,” David Long, the superintendent of the Riverside County, Calif., office of education and the chairman of the federal Department of Education’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Advisory Committee, said after the panel’s meeting last week. “The name presents a problem because it puts a hurdle in the way in the minds of educators.”

At the Oct. 23-24 sessions here, panel members reviewed research on the short section of the nearly 5-year-old law that requires states to identify “persistently dangerous” schools and requires those schools’ districts to offer students enrolled in them the opportunity to transfer to other schools.

In the 2005-06 school year, just 41 schools across the country received the label.

Schools have no incentive to report incidents that might land them on the list, researchers told the panel, which the federal school law created to advise the secretary of education on school safety and anti-drug programs. States also don’t have the data systems they need to audit whether schools are accurately reporting their school safety data, the researchers added.

But one of the simplest problems to fix is the stigma associated with the “persistently dangerous” tag, said Mr. Long and other educators, school safety experts, and public-health advocates on the 19-member panel.

Mr. Long said the “persistently dangerous” tag carries a much more negative implication for schools than the labeling of schools as “in need of improvement” under the NCLB law’s academic-accountability provisions.

Although schools “in need of improvement” are often portrayed by the media and others as failing schools, Mr. Long said the official name indicates that “they have a lot of work to do, but it isn’t that [negative] stamp” that comes from the law’s school safety section.

The advisory committee is formulating suggestions to amend the “persistently dangerous” provision. But the panel hasn’t settled on what name might be better than the current one. Mr. Long said something as benign as the “school safety choice option” would be an improvement.

No Danger?

Under the federal school law, states define what constitutes a persistently dangerous school. California, for example, puts schools in the category if they have had an incident with a firearm and a violent crime in each of three consecutive years.

Given the flexibility in setting definitions, very few schools have ever been tagged with the label. In the 2002-03 school year, the first year of the law’s implementation, states gave 54 schools that label. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia reported that they had no schools that met their definitions of persistently dangerous. (“States Report Few Schools As Dangerous,” Sept. 24, 2003.)

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has asked the advisory committee to recommend how to improve the law’s school safety and anti-drug programs, asking specifically for its ideas on the dangerous-schools section of the law by the end of the year.

Secretary Spellings briefly attended the committee’s second day of deliberations and outlined the Bush administration’s response to three fatal shooting incidents in schools this fall. (“‘Be Alert’ to Keep Schools Safe, Panelists Say,” Oct. 18, 2006.)

The Education Department wants to work with other federal agencies to tell educators about the danger signs they should look for in students’ behavior, and about the best ways to intervene to head off trouble, she said.

“Teachers feel that they aren’t armed with the latest, greatest information,” Ms. Spellings told the committee.

In addition to junking the “persistently dangerous” label, committee members suggested that the NCLB law should encourage schools to identify student behaviors—such as pervasive bullying—that could lead to shootings or other criminal episodes later.

“We need to focus on the culture of the school … so we can identify problems areas before [the schools] fit the ‘persistently dangerous’ classification,” said Hope Taft, the wife of Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, and the co-chairwoman of a statewide effort to prevent alcohol use by children.

And the federal government could reward schools that have taken significant steps to become safer, added Mr. Long, whose Riverside County regional education office works with 23 school districts serving 400,000 students east of Los Angeles.

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2006 edition of Education Week as Law’s ‘Persistently Dangerous’ Tag Weighed

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