School Climate & Safety

Panel: ‘Persistently Dangerous’ Tag for Schools Needs to Be Reworked

By Alyson Klein — June 14, 2007 5 min read
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The provision of the No Child Left Behind Act aimed at helping students transfer out of “persistently dangerous” schools isn’t effective and needs to be reworked, a panel formed by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to study school safety issues concludes a report released this week.

Meanwhile, a separate report this week concludes that many educators and health-care providers are confused by federal laws regarding the privacy of medical and school records, impeding appropriate sharing of information about potentially dangerous students.

And a third report, an assessment of school emergency-management plans by the Government Accountability Office, says schools need additional help from the federal government in developing and implementing emergency plans.

The June 11 report by the secretary’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools Advisory Committee (requires Microsoft Word) found that schools cited as dangerous need targeted assistance, not just a punitive label. The advisory panel consisted of school superintendents, educators, researchers, federal officials, and others.

School Security

Districts have made a variety of security enhancements based on vulnerability assessments.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: Government Accountability Office

The 5-year-old No Child Left Behind law, which is scheduled for reauthorization this year, allows students to transfer out of schools deemed unsafe. So far, very few schools have been subject to the provision.

Each state currently sets its own guidelines for identifying unsafe schools. Schools have no incentive to report incidents that might lead to the designation, the panel found. States also don’t have systems in place to enforce or audit the reporting of violent incidents. As a result, just 41 schools nationwide were deemed “persistently dangerous” during the 2005-06 school year.

That “stigmatizing” label is part of the problem, the report says. The panel recommends that the designation be dropped in favor of a more neutral name. State and school district officials, with guidance from the federal Department of Education, should focus on improving school climates over time, not just on collecting snapshot data to determine which schools are unsafe, the report recommends.

Bill Bond, a safety consultant for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, based in Reston, Va., who addressed the committee last fall, said the law’s current language “punished schools with a degrading term, but didn’t really achieve any objective of changing the environment of the school.”

The report suggests that the federal government outline new, uniform guidelines for assessing a school’s climate. Instead of just looking at violent incidents, districts and states could examine other factors, such as bullying, substance abuse, gang activity, and racism, according to the panel. Schools could also survey parents, teachers, students, and administrators, it says.

To make the designation more uniform, the Education Department could develop criteria to assess safety in schools across all states, although states could add measures tailored to their specific needs. And the provision would be more beneficial if the information were reported about individual schools, rather than at the district level, as the current law prescribes, the report says.

Schools that appeared to be trending toward a dangerous climate could be placed on a “watch list” and perhaps become eligible for extra resources and other assistance, the panel says. To help promote best practices, the Education Department could establish a program providing examples of safe schools, similar to the National Blue Ribbon Schools program, which honors schools that have shown significant academic gains.

Listening Tour

On June 13, Secretary Spellings, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael O. Leavitt issued a report to President Bush about issues raised by the April 16 shootings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. The three had been tapped to travel the country on a listening tour in the wake of the rampage, in which a Virginia Tech student shot and killed 32 other students and himself. (“3 Cabinet Members Seek Solutions on Campus Safety,” May 16, 2007.)

A key finding in the Cabinet members’ report is that there is widespread misunderstanding about when information can be shared under such federal laws as the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, which generally protects student records from disclosure, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which addresses the privacy of medical records.

In some of the sessions during the officials’ tour, “there were concerns and confusion about the potential liability of teachers, administrators, or institutions that could arise from sharing information, or from not sharing information, under privacy laws, as well as laws designed to protect individuals from discrimination on the basis of mental illness,” the report says.

The report urges the Education and Health and Human Services departments to offer guidance that clarifies when information may be shared under the privacy laws.

Meanwhile, the GAO’S report, also released this month, found that even though most schools have some form of emergency plan in place, many such plans don’t reflect federally recommended practices. Schools have taken a variety of steps to prepare for emergencies, such as surveying school grounds to assess potential vulnerabilities and holding emergency drills.

But most schools haven’t come up with a plan for continuing instruction in the event of an extended school closure, which could occur during an influenza pandemic, the GAO says. Many schools—about one-quarter of those in the 27 districts studied by the congressional watchdog agency—have never trained with police, fire, and other public-safety agencies on implementing their plans, and more than two-thirds don’t engage in ongoing coordination with such “first responders.”

The study found that districts might be missing out on funding from the Department of Homeland Security, which awards grants to states and localities to improve emergency management. Some of that money can go to school districts, but in some cases, grant guidelines don’t make it clear that they are eligible recipients. The GAO recommends that the Homeland Security Department clarify that school districts qualify for the grants.

A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2007 edition of Education Week as Panel: ‘Persistently Dangerous’ Tag for Schools Needs to Be Reworked

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