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States Report Few Schools As Dangerous

September 24, 2003 9 min read

Philadelphia may not be the safest city in the United States, but it’s a little hard to believe the public schools there are as menacing—compared with other districts nationwide—as one new measure would suggest.

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See the accompanying map, “A Nation of Safe Schools.”

The large urban school system has as many “persistently dangerous” schools under federal law as the rest of the nation combined. That’s right: combined. No such schools were identified in Los Angeles, Detroit, Miami, Chicago, or many other urban areas with similar crime problems.

An overwhelming 44 states plus the District of Columbia say they do not have any persistently dangerous schools, according to an Education Week survey. Across the nation, only 54 schools were identified by states, which write their own definitions of “persistently dangerous” under the No Child Left Behind Act. That figure may go down, as two states with such schools say their findings are preliminary.

“I told my principals, there’s only two ways to get off the persistently-dangerous-schools list,” said Paul G. Vallas, who heads the 200,000-student Philadelphia district, which has 27 schools with the label. “One is to continue to crack down on bad behavior and continue to be aggressive [in combating school violence]. The only other solution is to move the school district to New York state or California.”

Under the wide-ranging 2001 federal law, states were to announce by this summer whether any schools met the criteria for persistently dangerous. Students in the identified schools must be allowed to transfer to safer schools within the same district. Any student who is the victim of a violent crime on campus also must be allowed to transfer.

With so many states failing to identify even one school, some analysts are beginning to wonder whether the new federal mandate has any practical meaning.

“It does not pass the laugh test, or maybe I should say in this case, the cry test,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, when told about the nationwide numbers.

“Everybody knows better,” said Mr. Finn, an assistant U.S. education secretary during the Reagan administration. “What this means is the defining and measuring of ‘persistently dangerous’ is too nebulous and too much in the control of those being measured.”

The law is vague about what it terms the “unsafe-school choice option.” The entire requirement takes up just two sentences in the lengthy No Child Left Behind law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The measure provides virtually no constraints on how a state could define persistently dangerous, simply saying that each state must work in consultation with “a representative sample of local educational agencies.” Guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education said little more about the definitions other than stating that states must use “objective” data, and making a few suggestions on how to do that.

State definitions vary widely, but generally rely on such measures as numbers of violent incidents, student suspensions and expulsions, arrests, and weapons discovered on campus.

A ‘Dangerous World’

Philadelphia’s schools deemed persistently dangerous account for all but one of the 28 schools on Pennsylvania’s list. State officials, concerned about the apparent discrepancy within Pennsylvania, plan to modify the requirements next year.

“This list does not represent an accurate [assessment] of public school safety,” said Keith Pierce, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. District interpretations of the mandate were “all over the map,” he said.

The state will clarify what constitutes an arrest, and what constitutes an incident that needs to be reported to the state, Mr. Pierce said. Also, districts will have to report their data more than once a year.

“Clearly, we’re the victim of our own aggressiveness,” said Mr. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the Philadelphia district. Still, he did not suggest that his school system lacks safety problems.

“We’ve actually targeted 20 percent of our schools for special intervention,” he said, including the 27 schools identified under the federal law and 23 others.

In neighboring New Jersey, seven schools were identified by the state as persistently dangerous. There, too, some have said the process penalized schools and districts that were the most aggressive in reporting incidents.

For instance, three schools were identified in the 18,500-student Camden City Public Schools, but none in Newark, Trenton, or most of the state’s other cities.

“We documented everything,” said L. Warren Sykes, the president of the Camden school board. “Many schools have not done that.”

“Camden City may be a hotbed of activity, but the world is persistently dangerous,” he added.

A different kind of district, New Jersey’s 1,350-student Clayton school system in a part- rural, part-suburban area south of Philadelphia, got word over the summer that its Simmons Elementary School was designated.

“I was personally devastated,” Principal Nancy E. Ward said last week. “Our school is not persistently dangerous, and I do believe that because of our literal interpretation of the data, the label was given.”

“There have been no weapons in our school at all,” she said.

New Jersey state education officials have been sympathetic to local concerns.

“We kind of share in the frustration of using the term ‘persistently dangerous,’ ” said Richard J. Vespucci, a spokesman for the state education department. “It’s a label no school wants to have. ... The seven schools we identified were selected because they met the criteria.”

He stressed that those schools are not necessarily New Jersey’s most dangerous. One of the two ways New Jersey schools can be identified is if they have seven or more of what the state categorizes as the most violent offenses for three years in a row.

“Theoretically,” he said, “you can have a major manslaughter incident—or six of them—on the front steps of your school, and if you don’t have a seventh major incident each year,” the school might escape the label.

Changing Definitions

Meanwhile, the announcement in July that California, the nation’s most populous state, has no persistently dangerous schools has raised eyebrows.

“The reaction, I think, among most of the people I’ve talked to is incredulity that the [state] board could adopt a definition that includes no schools,” said Christopher T. Cross, a Danville, Calif.-based consultant to the Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy organization in Washington.

Mr. Cross, who was an assistant education secretary in the first Bush administration, continued: “People felt it was an insult to parents.”

To be judged persistently dangerous, a California school must, for three years in a row, have a firearms incident or a violent criminal offense, and have expelled a certain number of students— tied to the overall student population—for any of nine offenses, including assault, brandishing a knife, and robbery. A school with 1,000 students would need to have 10 such infractions for three years in a row to make the state’s list.

Lance T. Izumi, an education expert at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, argued that the state shouldn’t allow schools to get off the hook by simply falling below the threshold for expulsions, which he says may not accurately measure the safety of a school.

“Expulsions are totally within the control of school administrators,” he said, suggesting they may feel a variety of pressures to keep such figures down. "[T]he state has concocted a definition that they knew even violent-crime-ridden schools would [find] hard to meet.”

Not so, said Jerry Hardenburg, an education programs consultant at the California Department of Education.

“There was no intent to have a bar set so high [as to exclude schools],” he said. “We pulled together a statewide advisory committee,” which met four times, he said, to define persistently dangerous.

“That’s not to say that there aren’t schools that may have, at different times, school safety issues,” Mr. Hardenburg added.

Some states may end up changing their definitions.

In New York, which listed two schools, the identification is tied only to weapons incidents. A school for two straight years must have a number of such incidents equal to at least 3 percent of the student enrollment, said Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the state education department. A school with 1,000 students, for example, must have 30 or more weapons incidents for two years in a row to get labeled.

“We’re absolutely looking at expanding the types of offenses that would get a school designated,” Mr. Burman said.

Philadelphia’s Mr. Vallas questioned New York’s criteria.

“Three percent weapons incidents for a thousand kids?” he said. “We wouldn’t have been close to the list” under that definition.

North Carolina, which reported no persistently dangerous schools, also expects to alter its definition, said William L. Lassiter, a school safety specialist in the state’s department of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention.

“Right now, ours is completely based on [crime] incidents,” he said. “We’re looking at switching it to also [include] suspensions and expulsions.”

The combination of those two types of data will provide a more comprehensive picture, Mr. Lassiter said. That and other modifications will be aimed at identifying schools that truly pose safety problems, while leaving off those that might get flagged unfairly, he said.

Asked about the numbers of persistently dangerous schools being reported by the states, a U.S. Department of Education official said he was not troubled.

“The bottom line is that this is not a federal standard,” said William Modzeleski, the associate deputy undersecretary for the department’s office of safe and drug-free schools. “I don’t think it’s up to the federal government to [judge definitions].”

If residents of a particular state feel its definition is too lax, he said, they should call on state policymakers to change it.

“Look, I’m less concerned about the number of schools on there,” Mr. Modzeleski said. “The numbers become sort of a secondary issue to the fact that we now have 50 states saying: ‘Hey, as we concentrate on everything we do about teaching and learning, we also now have to ensure that the environments are safe.’ ... Not to say they haven’t done so before, but now there are consequences.”

But U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, a first-term Republican from Colorado, said she is alarmed about the numbers. She plans to conduct a field hearing of the House Education and the Workforce Committee on Sept. 29 to probe the matter.

“I don’t believe it,” she said, when she hears so many states claiming to have no persistently dangerous schools. Rep. Musgrave warned that Congress might have to rewrite the mandate if states don’t make their definitions more stringent.

“I think they’re trying to convince parents that their environment is good for children,” she said, “and sometimes it’s not.”


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