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Texas Schools on Unsafe List Say Rating Wrong

The reporter doesn't seem to note any discrepancy between the official list of dangerous school and schools where actual shootings and stabbings took place.

EL PASO -- In the breezy slang common to middle-schoolers in this border city, the prank is called "shooting mosquitoes."

The kids take straightened-out staples, load them into mechanical pencils, and eject them at each other. The result stings, and it's against the rules in the El Paso Independent School District.

But the principal of Terrace Hills Middle School says his campus made a state list of "persistently dangerous" schools because the data they were judged by lumped "shooting mosquitoes" and rock throwing in the same category with knife and gun assaults.

"We're definitely guilty of having bad data," said principal William Craigo. "But we're not dangerous."

Six schools in Texas made the "persistently dangerous" list, a designation that can ruin reputations and lead to student transfers from those schools. All six are appealing to the Texas Education Agency on the same premise: that the state computer coding failed to differentiate between minor and serious offenses.

The Texas Education Agency calls a school persistently dangerous if the campus has reported three or more felony offenses (which require mandatory expulsion) per 1,000 students in each of the three preceding three school years, with adjustments for size of school. Those offenses include:

Possessing a firearm, club, switchblade, brass knuckles or Mace.

Arson, murder and attempted murder.

Indecency with a child.

Aggravated kidnapping, aggravated assault of a student or school employee.

Sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault of a student or school employee.

Felony controlled substance violation, felony alcohol violation.

The new reporting was required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Each state must identify campuses with a persistent pattern of serious, expellable offenses and allow any concerned parent to transfer their child to another school.

This was the first year for the state-by-state safety assessments, using criteria set up by each state.

Most, like Texas, came up with criteria that labeled a school as having persistent safety problems if administrators recorded a certain number of serious, violent offenses several years in a row. Adjustments were made for school size.

Forty-four states reported no unsafe schools; none in California, Florida or Illinois. No schools in Houston, Dallas or San Antonio were deemed "persistently dangerous."

But Texas put six campuses on the dangerous list, including four middle schools in El Paso ISD; Miller Junior High School in San Marcos; and the only high school in the Rio Grande Valley town of Crystal City.

The TEA analysis of computer-coded discipline reports found 279 applicable incidents over the past three years in the four El Paso schools. El Paso ISD officials say their records show that none of those incidents was a felony and most were minor.

The TEA says it will rule on the appeals as soon as this week.

El Paso officials question how they made the list while none of the big city districts did.

"There's something wrong if in the whole state of Texas there are only six, and four end up in one school district," said El Paso ISD spokesman Luis Villalobos.

"Nothing could be more detrimental to a reputation for a school," Villalobos said. "The slightest thing can ruin that reputation, and that's what occurred."

TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said it would be a mistake to assume that public schools in Texas' largest cities would be more likely to earn the "dangerous" label.

"If you think about it, after (the school massacre at ) Columbine, a lot of the big urban school districts either got metal detectors or increased the number of law enforcement officers on campus," Ratcliffe said. Smaller districts cannot always afford sophisticated security, she said.

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, thinks Houston-area schools are safe and agrees that the presence of on-campus police officers in urban schools is a major deterrent.

Though some Texas parents saw the ratings and transferred their children to different schools (24 in El Paso, 30 in San Marcos, none in Crystal City), administrators' real fear is that the designation will mean less funding as student populations drop.

On a sunny morning last week, principal Craigo was watching his sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders stream to their classes. His is an open-air campus that takes advantage of El Paso's mild winters; its corridors are built around a grassy courtyard that allows a clear view of the students between classes.

The building is well-maintained, quiet and clean, without graffiti. The school has a strict dress code.

Craigo said the TEA telephoned to tell him of the rating and wanted "an action plan" to correct the problem. The TEA counted 94 serious incidents at the school in the past three years. The school says none of those incidents should have been counted.

The designation was based on the school's regular disciplinary reports submitted for the previous three years to the TEA. That data was loaded into the state's Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS).

But when Craigo had his staff pull the incident reports from the previous school year, the mandatory expulsion incidents they had reported were dominated by rock-throwing incidents but coded under a PEIMS category for "weapon."

At Hornedo Middle School, in a fairly affluent section of El Paso, principal Victoria York is furious. Her school has been rated "recognized" or "exemplary" every year for the past 10 years, but a wave of kids "shooting mosquitoes" got them on the dangerous list.

"You don't have that level of excellence when kids are afraid to come to school," York said.

She pulled two tiny toy guns from her top desk drawer and said, "These are the kinds of weapons we find here."

"I'm just hoping TEA is big enough to admit they made a mistake," York said.

The San Marcos school district makes the same complaint as El Paso: bad data, not bad kids. The TEA said Miller Junior High School in San Marcos had 15 serious incidents over three years.

And in Crystal City, the school board has vowed to appeal the designation to federal court if the TEA does not grant its appeal.

"We told TEA, you have not identified unsafe campuses, you've identified campuses that submitted bad PEIMS data," superintendent Alberto Gonzales said. "And why don't you just admit it?"

Gonzales says his small-town school with only 535 students got nailed after several students were caught bringing pen-knives to school. "Our district believes in strict discipline, and making sure that our children are safe," Gonzales said. "So we took the strictest policy of saying any knife, any size, you're going to get expelled."

Texas Board of Education Chairwoman Geraldine Miller of Dallas said this week that the appeals, and the information gleaned from subsequent TEA site visits, were being evaluated by TEA Interim Commissioner Robert Scott.

"It sounds like it will end up being a positive solution for everyone," Miller said. "So we're very hopeful."

But administrators like Gonzales are resentful that their schools have taken criticism for a situation they blame on TEA.

"TEA has almost every year changed the coding data we need to submit for discipline, and the software companies are having a hard time keeping up with it," Gonzales said.

TEA senior adviser Christi Martin said her agency made its "dangerous" designations based on data reported by the districts themselves.

"I think the PEIMS data standards are specific enough that if used correctly, they give us a good description of what the conduct was."

But Gonzales disagrees. "I think we were railroaded," he said. "They needed to identify some districts, and they did."

An official with the Education Commission of the States, a national clearinghouse for education issues and policy analysis, says problems with school data are likely to crop up for the next several years, and not just in Texas. As long as states are judging schools as dangerous based on data collected before the "persistently dangerous" criteria was established, some states will likely under-report and others over-report their problem schools, said Kathy Christie, an ECS vice president.

"It's kind of like dropout data collection," Christie said. "Until you have the system in place to report more accurately and against some particular standards, it's pretty squishy data."

By using the following sidebar with the article, the paper increases public anxiety about school violence.

Some violent incidents at Texas schools in the past 12 months:

A 16-year-old boy was stabbed in the chest April 23 outside Booker T. Washington High School in northeast Houston.

A Cy-Fair fifth-grade boy was accused of bringing a pellet gun to Jowell Elementary, waving the weapon and pointing it at students while pretending to shoot.

A 16-year-old boy pleaded guilty in June to stabbing his 16-year-old former girlfriend in the hallway of Austin's Reagan High School. Marcus McTear killed Ortralla Mosly, 15, on March 28, a day after she broke up with McTear.

A 14-year-old boy brought a gun to Dallas' South Oak Cliff High School Nov. 22, 2002, fled the campus when confronted, and reportedly shot a student who helped chase him down a few blocks from school.

— Kim Cobb
'Guilty of having bad data' Schools on unsafe list say rating wrong
Houston Chronicle


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