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'No Child' Data on Violence Skewed

By Nelson Hernandez

A little-publicized provision of the No Child Left Behind Act requiring states to identify "persistently dangerous schools" is hampered by widespread underreporting of violent incidents and by major differences among the states in defining unsafe campuses, several audits say. Out of about 94,000 schools in the United States, only 46 were designated as persistently dangerous in the past school year.

Maryland had six, all in Baltimore; the District and Virginia had none.

At Anacostia Senior High School last school year, private security guards working under D.C. police recorded 61 violent offenses, including three sexual assaults and one assault with a deadly weapon. There were 21 other nonviolent cases in which students were caught bringing knives and guns to school. Anacostia is not considered a persistently dangerous school.

One high school in Los Angeles had 289 cases of battery, two assaults with a deadly weapon, a robbery and two sex offenses in one school year, according to an audit by the U.S. Department of Education's inspector general. It did not meet the state's definition of a persistently dangerous school, or PDS. None of California's roughly 9,000 schools has.

The reason, according to an audit issued by the Department of Education in August: "States fear the political, social, and economic consequences of having schools designated as PDS, and school administrators view the label as detrimental to their careers. Consequently, states set unreasonable definitions for PDS and schools have underreported violent incidents."

Critics of the law, including lawmakers who hope the policy can be changed as part of the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, say the low number is a sign the legislation is not working.

The District's definition counts only severe offenses -- generally felonies -- that have been officially verified by police. But many incidents are not formally reported by police. An investigation of the District's schools by The Washington Post this year has shown that more than half of teenage students attend schools that would meet the city's definition of persistently dangerous.

The problem is not confined to the District.

In Virginia, a school gets the label by having a single severe incident -- such as a homicide, sexual assault or bomb use -- or by exceeding a certain number of "points" for lesser offenses. A school's threshold of points is based on enrollment; if it exceed its allowed number of incidents for three consecutive years, it is deemed dangerous.

In Maryland, if the number of expulsions or suspensions for more than 10 days at a school exceeds 2.5 percent of the number of enrolled students for three consecutive years, a school is considered persistently dangerous. At Crossland High School in Temple Hills, officials reported 1,927 suspensions in the 2005-06 school year, among its approximately 1,600 students, according to state data. The majority were for disrespect, insubordination and minor infractions, but more than 200 suspensions were given for fighting and making threats, and 11 were given for bringing weapons to school.

Under Maryland's definition, Crossland is not considered persistently dangerous. Yet in a school climate survey conducted last year, 75 percent of Crossland's students responding disagreed with the statement "I feel safe at school."

Incidents of underreporting of violence are common nationwide.

A 2006 comptroller's audit of high schools in New York showed that at least one-third of violent and disruptive incidents listed in school records were not reported to the State Education Department. At several schools, more than 80 percent of the documented incidents were not being reported; in some instances, they included such crimes as sex and weapons offenses.

After the audit, New York began imposing stricter rules on reporting violence and following up. In August, the state announced that it had 27 persistently dangerous schools -- far more than any other place. Yet New York is still struggling with accountability: In September, a New York City comptroller's audit showed that more than 1 in 5 offenses at 10 high schools surveyed were not reported to the state.

The Department of Education's August audit, which looked at state school systems in California, Georgia, Iowa, New Jersey and Texas, found inaccurate reporting of disciplinary offenses in all five states.

Such reports undercut the trust federal and state officials say they place in local school administrators to record accurate statistics.

"We do have what I'd call trust and belief in the state," said William Modzeleski, associate assistant deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. "They say this is accurate data." There is some monitoring, he said, but strict auditing "would take an inordinate amount of staff time and resources, which we just don't have."

But that trust can be misplaced, especially among principals in schools at risk of receiving a negative evaluation, experts warn.

"You can't force them to do it," said Beverly Caffee Glenn, executive director of the Hamilton Fish Institute at George Washington University. "What's in it for them? You get a reputation as being an ineffective professional."

" 'Persistently dangerous' has been the scarlet letter of education," said Kenneth S. Trump, a school security consultant. "They don't want to do it because of the political implications. Even if you got the label, so what? There's no resources attached to that that help you get off the label."

Congress left it to the states to define persistently dangerous. All the Department of Education can do is provide guidance to the states -- advice that is often ignored.

"You have 50 different definitions," Modzeleski said. "There are similarities, but there aren't any that are alike."

In Virginia and the District, offenses that meet the threshold are those that would result in imprisonment: among them, homicide, arson and assault with a deadly weapon. In Maryland, they are offenses that would result in expulsion or a suspension of 10 days or more: bringing a weapon or drugs to school or engaging in repeated fights. Brawling, bullying and making threats generally do not count toward the designation.

One part of the Department of Education's guidance recommends that states consider only the most recent year's tally of violent incidents to determine whether a school is persistently dangerous. Fewer than 10 states do this. More than half of the states, including Maryland and Virginia, require their benchmarks to be met for three consecutive years in order to receive the label.

In Maryland, a proposed policy that would have defined persistently dangerous schools based on one year of data was thrown out because it would have identified 36 schools, according to the Department of Education report.

Modzeleski said the Department of Education was unable to force the states to adopt a stricter definition.

"If Congress feels the provisions aren't working well, they have every right to go in and modify them," he said. "We don't have the authority in the law to require that it's one year. We could show that that's the best practice, we could say we'd like them to go there, but we can't mandate them."

The reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act will give Congress a chance to introduce changes to the law or simply abolish it.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) has introduced a bill that changes "persistently dangerous schools" to "schools which do not have a safe climate for academic achievement," on the grounds that the name alone was causing anxiety over the policy.

"It's not going to be as threatening for schools," she said. "This will remove the stigma associated with high violence."

Chuck Buckler, Maryland's director of student services and alternative programs, said the original term is unpleasant -- akin to telling parents that they were sending their children to a war zone.

"I don't like the title at all," he said. "When this all came about, I said, 'This is something that's going to be a death knell for a school. Everybody will transfer out.' "

He said he was surprised to find that most parents at the six persistently dangerous schools in Baltimore didn't transfer their children to other schools.

The designation, he found, caused communities to rally around their schools and try to make them safer, an effort he said had brought improvements.

Nevertheless, McCarthy hoped that the softer title, which goes along with additional federal aid to unsafe schools, will encourage more states and school systems to take the policy seriously and address problems with violence.

"You can't keep hiding that and you wonder why kids are failing," McCarthy said. "No child should be afraid to go to school."

— Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post


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