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NCLB Outrages

What's Makes a School Persistently Dangerous Under NCLB?

Dangers lurk on all sides at Locke High School in Los Angeles, where scores of students are battered, robbed or sexually victimized by classmates and intruders every year. Last spring, several students were injured in a riot, and in June the school district settled a lawsuit with a student who required eye surgery after he was beaten by bullies.

Yet Locke is not "persistently dangerous," according to the definition adopted by California officials to comply with a federal law requiring educators to notify parents about dangerous schools. For that matter, none of California's 8,000 schools are persistently dangerous.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, parents across the nation can transfer their students from dangerous to safer schools, but 44 states have set the legal threshold for persistently dangerous so high that no schools in those states fit the definition. Only six states identified a total of about 50 schools among the nation's 90,000 public schools as dangerous under the law: New Jersey, New York, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Texas.

"We know significant crime and violence continue in many schools around the country," said Dr. Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, a nonprofit group established by order of President Ronald Reagan to monitor and prevent school crime. "So its been surprising to see states set the watermark for `dangerous' so high that few schools are even listed."

The dangerous standard took effect at the start of the school term, which school safety experts are calling one of the bloodiest in years.

Just this month, a 15-year-old in Cold Spring, Minn., killed a fellow student and wounded another; SWAT officers shot and wounded a student wielding a pistol in a high school in Spokane, Wash.; three students were stabbed in a high school parking lot brawl in Oakdale, Calif.; a teenage intruder stabbed a 13-year-old student at a high school in Annapolis, Md.; and a 16-year-old boy died after a fight at a Tucson school.

At least 14 students have been shot at bus stops and just outside schools since the fall term began, 5 of them fatally, according to reports gathered by Kenneth S. Trump, a school safety consultant in Cleveland.

"Normally the school year starts calmly and you see a spike in incidents in the spring, after kids have met each other and conflicts have developed," Mr. Trump said. "But this year we're seeing significant violence in the first weeks."

One reason may be that schools have fewer safety officers patrolling hallways, Mr. Trump said, because many state governments have drastically cut money for school safety.

The concern of federal and state officials and Congress over school safety, which was intense after the shootings at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colo., in 1999, has seemed to diminish as the war on terror has been pushed. But on Monday, Representative Marilyn Musgrave, Republican of Colorado, will convene hearings of the House Education and Workforce Committee in Denver to investigate how state governments developed their regulations defining dangerous schools.

"It's incredible that Colorado has determined that there are no persistently dangerous schools," Ms. Musgrave said. "We know there are dangerous schools in Colorado, as there are in other states."

Dave Smith, a director at the Colorado Department of Education, said a broad panel of educators and law enforcement officials had worked hard to draft the state's definition of persistently dangerous.

The Colorado definition lists crime thresholds that schools of varying sizes must exceed for two years in a row to be labeled persistently dangerous. For a school with 1,000 students it is 180 offenses, which can range from weapons or drug violations to felonies like assaults and homicide. A school with 1,000 students could have 179 homicides every year and, without other offenses, still not qualify as dangerous.

"That's technically correct," Mr. Smith said, when told of the figure. "Our problem was a total lack of guidance from the federal level. They just said, `Define it as you like, and we'll tell you whether we like it or not.' "

Ohio's definition is similar to those of many other states. Under its terms, a school with 1,000 students could experience four homicides and seize a weapon from students on 19 occasions each year without qualifying as persistently dangerous.

"This has become a joke in Ohio," said Richard A. DeColibus, president of the Cleveland Teachers' Union. "State education officials just wanted to protect the reputations of their schools, so they said, `We'll write the regulations so that no school could ever be considered dangerous.' "

J. C. Benton, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education, said officials developed the state's criteria after a thorough process that included discussion among teachers' unions, law enforcement officials and others.

California officials tied their definition of persistently dangerous to the number of students expelled from a school. In the school years 1999-2000, 2000-2001 and 2001-2002, students at Locke High School experienced 33 assaults with a deadly weapon, 116 beatings, 66 robberies and 17 sex offenses. But in the same years, only 11 students were referred for expulsion, far below the state's threshold of about 30 expulsions per year for a school its size.

Critics accused the California Department of Education of writing the definition so no schools would qualify as dangerous.

But Jerry W. Hardenburg, a Sacramento consultant to the department who helped write the state's definition, said, "There was no preconceived idea to formulate a criteria under which no school would be identified as persistently dangerous."

Tim B. Buresh, the chief operating officer of the Los Angeles Unified School district, said the federal law "is not a tool that helps me keep kids safe." He added: "We're seeing kids shot, stabbed or shot at every single day, but the violence is happening mostly in the neighborhoods outside and not in the schools themselves. This law ignores the larger context and presents a misleading picture of the violence."

Bill Modzeleski, an associate deputy under secretary of education, said the fact that few schools were identified as persistently dangerous had not undermined the law's intent.

"I'm not willing to say that this law is not working, because we've not given it a chance yet," Mr. Modzeleski said.

— Sam Dillon
Threshold for Dangerous Schools Under New Law Is Too High, Critics Say
New York Times
2003-09-28
http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/28/education/28DANG.html?tntemail1


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