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Danger Is In the Eye of California Education Officials

California education officials declared Wednesday that not one public school in the state should be called "persistently dangerous," a federal designation that would have allowed students to transfer to new schools to escape crime.

While local school officials welcomed the news as proof that California schools are safe, critics charged that the state's definition was designed simply to avoid negative publicity about campus crime.

Some parents and students were incredulous.

"There must be at least one," said Carla Nino, president of the California Parent Teacher Assn.

"I don't think there is safety here at all," said Lorena Guerrero, 16, a junior at Jefferson High School near downtown L.A. "There are always fights."

Like other states, California is required by the sweeping No Child Left Behind Act to permit students at crime-ridden schools to transfer to safer sites starting in September. But the task of defining just what makes a school dangerous was left to state education officials.

California officials defined the term narrowly, ruling that a school is persistently dangerous if at least one of its students has been caught with a firearm in each of the last three years. Also, it must have expelled at least 1% of its students each year for hate crimes, extortion, sexual battery or other violent acts.

Other states appear to have taken a similar approach. Officials in North Carolina and Florida told The Times this week that they have no persistently dangerous schools either.

California officials cautioned that some of the state's 8,000 schools could still make the danger list. Several districts, including Oakland's and Santa Ana Unified, have yet to report their crime data to the state. Oakland and Santa Ana officials, however, told The Times that they had no schools likely to make the list. Another state report on the issue will be released in September.

State officials said the findings released Wednesday mean that although schools in California may experience fights and other trouble, the problems are not engrained.

"We should feel good that so far our districts haven't allowed persistence to occur," said Reed Hastings, president of the state Board of Education. "[This] is not to imply that there are no unsafe schools. That would be a bit of an overstatement."

Hastings said earlier this week, however, that the state school board may revisit its definition of danger if it proves unworkable.

At least one critic scoffed at the current list, claiming that California has one of the nation's leading rates of violent deaths on campus.

"If schools are so safe, why are many schools using metal detectors?" said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, a Westlake Village-based organization that serves as a clearinghouse on campus crime issues. "Why are so many schools utilizing closed-circuit television surveillance? It's just an indicator out there that all is not well."

Stephens said he was not surprised that no schools were listed, because the state criteria have "been lifted to such a high threshold that it is difficult for any school to get on their list."

Other safety experts said they suspected that education officials were trying to avoid the hassle of large-scale transfers or the stigma associated with being crime-ridden.

California school officials insist that rumors of violence-plagued schools are simply that, rumors. They say the problems that really bedevil schools are significant but less menacing: truancy, graffiti, vandalism, traffic and students roaming around campus during classes.

"A persistently dangerous campus, boy, that's an awfully dramatic description," said Alan Kerstein, Los Angeles Unified's school police chief.

Kerstein said he believes that the assessment standards are fair and that district schools are safe. Surveillance cameras, which have been installed on three district campuses, are precautions, not signs of danger, he said.

"Are there campuses where there are fights? Yeah, these are kids," Kerstein said. "We do acknowledge that we have combat, or the occasional knife and gun But there are so few incidents."

The "persistently dangerous" label would be a disservice to students, making them feel like their schools are places "where you shoot your way in and shoot your way out," he said.

Kerstein cited Washington Preparatory High School in South Los Angeles, which was the scene of a brawl in March involving several hundred students who confronted baton-wielding officers. The incident resulted in 11 student arrests, and several students and officers suffered cuts and bruises.

"People will see [an article in] the paper and think, 'Gee, Washington is tough,' but overall, there were few violent incidents on that campus last year," he said.

According to district data, there were eight batteries, five instances of weapons possession, and one assault with a deadly weapon at Washington Prep during the 2001-02 school year.

But some teachers wrote to their union last year that the school was "OUT OF CONTROL" and complained, among other things, that students were regularly beaten and robbed there.

One parent, Patricia Pruitt, told The Times in November, "I tell my daughter protect yourself however you can. Pack a knife if you have to."

The school district has subsequently made strides to address those safety concerns.

At another Los Angeles campus, Jefferson High, students said the state's criteria seem unrealistic.

Just last month, a 15-year-old student was wounded in an accidental shooting during a science class.

The boy reached into the backpack of another student and inadvertently set off a gun.

"You can take a gun or drugs to school and they won't know. They don't check us; we just go in," said Angie Blanco, 16, an 11th-grader at Jefferson.

According to district data, there were seven assaults with deadly weapons and five batteries at Jefferson last school year. But crimes such as vandalism and chemical substance abuse were more prevalent than violence.

Some local school officials said the campuses are safer than the neighborhoods that surround them.

Jackie Wright, a spokeswoman for the 60,000-student San Francisco Unified School District, said about 99% of fights and violence involving students occur off campus. The district tries to address potential problems by providing family counseling, intervention and tolerance services to prevent violence from spilling over into campuses, she said.

"I'm not surprised that San Francisco is not on that list," Wright said.

The state's standards were designed by a committee mainly made up of local school district leaders, and adopted last fall by the state board with little discussion.

Given the lack of federal guidance, committee members said, they struggled to come up with a fair definition that would reflect consistently dangerous activity rather than one very bad incident or simply fistfights and other mischief.

William Modzeleski, director of the Safe and Drug Free Schools Program for the U.S. Department of Education, said that whether or not California and other states have schools on the list, the undertaking was worthwhile because districts were forced to gather data about their campuses that could be used to prevent crime.

"Let's look beyond the mere creation of a list and look at it as a potential to identify schools that are having problems where we need to intervene," he said.

So far only a few states have submitted their lists to the U.S. Department of Education, Modzeleski said.

— Duke Helfand, Erika Hayasaki and Cara Mia DiMassa
No Schools in State Overly Dangerous
Los Angeles Times
July 10, 2003


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