Reports May Soft-Pedal Extent of School Violence

 

Parents concerned over public school safety may be shaking their heads skeptically over new state lists of "persistently dangerous" schools, as critics assert the states are soft-pedaling their reports on the issue.

Fewer than 50 public schools in the entire country are rated as having a "persistently dangerous" atmosphere, according to reports filed by all 50 states in September under a new requirement of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind education law.

The danger list aims to give parents a better idea of whether their children's public schools are providing education in a safe learning environment. Parents are allowed to transfer their children at the schools' expense -- if their school makes the list.

Forty-four states reported this fall that they have no schools rated "persistently dangerous" -- reports that coincided with a deadly start to the 2003 school year. The number of students killed nationwide on school property since that year began in August has already surpassed last year's total count, according to both state government and private statistics.

"Parents are getting a very misleading message, which creates a false sense of security about the safety of their child's school," said Kenneth S. Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting company. "It's a joke," he said, referring to the dangerous-school lists.

Up-to-date school safety statistics are hard to come by. Using newspaper accounts and other reports, Trump's organization estimates that 22 students have been killed at school so far this school year nationwide compared to 16 the previous school year. The Center for the Prevention of School Violence, a state agency within the North Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in Raleigh, estimates 16 students have died violently at school nationwide since August. The spike concerns researchers since school violence normally tends to increase in the spring, not the fall.

Only six states Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Texas reported having any "persistently dangerous" schools. One reason California has zero, New York has two and Pennsylvania leads with 28 may be that the federal law allows states to write their own definitions of "persistently dangerous."

And those definitions vary widely, said Gloria Zradicka, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based group made up of state education officials.

In Pennsylvania, for example, a school with fewer than 250 students can land on the list if, over a two-year period, it has five dangerous incidents, which can include a student bringing in a knife. But to make the list in California, a school with fewer than 300 students must expel at least three of them for committing federal or state crimes for three consecutive fiscal years.

The U.S. Department of Education said it didn't really know what to expect from the new lists. However, since states defined "persistently dangerous" differently, the department said it knew it would get "some contrasting info," said Bill Modzeleski, associate deputy under secretary of the department's Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools.

Data from the federal government suggest schools are getting safer, but the most recent data is two years old. The percentage of students who reported being victims of crime at school decreased from 10 percent to 6 percent between 1995 and 2001, the departments of Justice and Education said in the October report, Indicators of School Crime and Safety.

Many school violence experts say students generally are safe at their places of learning. "Schools are not where the most serious violent crime is occurring. The most violent crimes are occurring in the communities where kids live,and most often, in their homes," said Jason Ziedenberg, research director of Justice Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

Some experts, however, are concerned that the new "persistently dangerous school" lists will encourage school administrators to underreport violence at their schools to avoid making that list.

"No school administrator wants to be slapped with the label of operating a persistently dangerous school," said Trump, the consultant. "That label is the kiss of death to the school administrator's career."

Under pressure from the schools that made the dangerous lists in Nevada and Texas, both states took another look and decided those schools were safer than first reported. These states revised their lists and now have no persistently dangerous schools.

The preoccupation with meeting all the mandates of No Child Left Behind in a time of budget cuts also may divert time and money from school reforms that try to make schools a better and safer place to learn.

"People are so obsessed with short-term test results that they are not doing the things that will really produce longer-term learning results," said David Osher, an education expert at the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit headquartered in Washington, D.C., that specializes in behavior and social science research. "People may want their scores to look good rather than create a place that's safe," he said.

"This is a classic example of well-intended legislation, at best, being lost in the politics of implementation," Trump said.

 
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