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PA Questions "Dangerous Schools" Policy

HARRISBURG -- Some members of the state Board of Education yesterday questioned whether Pennsylvania can successfully implement a proposed policy that would allow students to transfer out of schools deemed unsafe.

The policy on "persistently dangerous" schools also would allow students who are victims of violence at any public school to seek transfers. All states are required to adopt similar measures by July 1 under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which includes a mandate for improving school safety.

Schools would be defined as "persistently dangerous" based on the number of arrests stemming from violence or weapons possession charges during two years of a three-year period, including the current school year.

The number of incidents that would trigger the designation would vary, based on enrollment. They are:

*At least five dangerous incidents in schools with 250 or fewer students.

*A number of incidents that represents 2 percent of the enrollment in schools with 251 to 1,000 students.

*Twenty or more incidents in schools with enrollments exceeding 1,000 students.

Students in unsafe schools would have the option to transfer to another public school or a charter school within their school districts. Districts in which students could not transfer -- for example, a district with only one high school -- would be encouraged to work with neighboring school systems to provide safer options.

State Sen. James Rhoades, R-Schuylkill, questioned how districts would be able to accommodate transfers within a district, even if they had other schools the government considered safe.

"Let's say I have a neighborhood where all my schools could fall into this particular category because of some incidents. ... It's asinine," he said.

Board member Wallace Nunn wondered whether large, urban schools were being held to inconsistent standards, based on the ratio of incidents to a school's enrollment. He noted that 20 incidents represented just half of 1 percent of the 4,000-student enrollment at Upper Darby High School in Delaware County, compared to the 2 percent standard that would apply to a school of 1,000.

"Somehow, it does not seem fair," he said.

Gerald Zahorchak, deputy secretary of the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, said 20 incidents in any school, no matter how large or small, was too many.

"There needs to be a threshold somewhere," he said.

Board Chairman Karl Girton acknowledged the frustrations of trying to devise a policy that could truly improve students' safety, but said the board was "trapped in a no-win situation" under the federal law. The board is expected to vote on the policy Wednesday.

"This probably is not going to do much to address crime," he said.

The Education Department will not know how many schools would be considered dangerous under the policy until July, when they receive school violence statistics for the current year, said Myrna Delgado, director of the department's safe schools office.

— Martha Raffaele
State officials question U.S. policy allowing students to transfer from 'dangerous 'schools
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
May 22, 2003


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