The Obama administration recently announced its intention to ask Congress for significant changes to the little-loved No Child Left Behind law when it reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Sadly, the administration’s “blueprint for reform” doesn’t mention the NCLB provisions that should concern every parent: those designed to stop the rising epidemic of violence in the nation’s schools. This oversight is understandable, considering that the current U.S. secretary of education was a serial violator of federal rules designed to make public schools safe during his tenure as the Chicago schools chief.
In his defense, Arne Duncan was just doing what all other big-city schools chiefs have done since NCLB became law in 2002: misleading Congress and the public about the level of violence in their schools. At least that is what the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general found when he audited for compliance with NCLB’s “unsafe-school choice” provisions in 2007.
The only way to stop violence is to confront it. Make schools tell the truth about the violence in their buildings, and provide them with resources and solutions to address the problem—not just a label of failure.
The inspector general determined that each of the five states he audited had falsified its school violence report to hide the true level of violence in schools, and that 40 states had failed to follow the federal law in developing state rules requiring local schools to report their most violent schools as “persistently dangerous,” a designation so despised in the world of public education that the administrators of large urban districts—in Los Angeles, Washington, and, yes, Chicago—made sure not to report a single one of their schools as persistently dangerous in any year between 2003 and 2007. Are we really to believe that juvenile crime in those cities stops at the schoolhouse door?
I saw firsthand the lengths to which administrators will go to cover up violence in schools when I served as Pennsylvania’s school violence watchdog for the Philadelphia school district from 2006 to 2009. My experience was eye-opening: I found that Philadelphia underreported school crime by more than 100 percent a year; that the district violated federal and state law by refusing to expel kids who brought guns and other weapons to school; and that 70 percent of the violent students who committed felony assaults on their teachers went unpunished.
Despite this dismal record, little has changed in Philadelphia. The superintendent there recently described the rampant problem of violence in her schools as a “public-health issue” in the wake of another racially charged outflowing of violence at a perpetually dangerous neighborhood high school. This is the ultimate in buck-passing: The violence in Philadelphia schools isn’t her problem to solve, it’s society’s.
What should be done? First, policymakers must realize that safe schools are a critical first step in reforming public education, particularly in decaying urban districts where violence is a normative behavior students learn on the streets and bring into their schools.
Second, the only way to stop violence is to confront it. Make schools tell the truth about the violence in their buildings, and provide them with resources and solutions to address the problem—not just a label of failure. The New York City police department proved to the country in the 1990s that violence in the community can be reduced by combining smart tactics with accountability. The same approach will work in our schools if we put teeth into a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act to penalize districts that cheat by underreporting school-based crime.
Congress should also require the administration to hire a competent director of the Education Department’s office of safe and drug-free schools to investigate claims of underreporting or retaliation for reporting school crimes from students and teachers, and to force real change in our schools by leveraging federal funds to support programs that actually make schools safer, like alternative education for disruptive youths, while discouraging nonsensical ideas like “zero tolerance” policies that are unjust, ineffective, and make zero sense.
Most important, policymakers need to start listening to the teachers, nonteaching assistants, and school-based police officers on the front lines in the battle to make schools safer. These public servants dedicate themselves to making the American dream happen for the next generation—while toiling in a workplace that is, too often, simply not safe.
A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2010 edition of Education Week as Give Us the Truth About School Violence