Defining Safety Down

Published January 1, 2008

It’s hard to believe, but roughly 580,000 violent student-on-student crimes and 407,000 violent student-on-teacher crimes took place in America’s public schools in the 2005-06 school year, according to a federal report.

It’s even harder to believe that fewer than 50 of America’s 90,000 public schools were labeled “persistently dangerous” that year. Officially, the schools in Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, St. Louis, Washington, DC, etc.–the list of major city school systems could go on–are all either safe or, at the very least, only sporadically dangerous.

A little-known provision of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law allows students in schools that have been designated as “persistently dangerous” to transfer to another public school in the same district, or a charter school.

The catch of the Unsafe School Choice Option, however, is that each state has been allowed to define for itself what a “chronically unsafe” school is. As a result, only six states reported having even one dangerous school in the 2005-06 school year.

Either schools aren’t reporting the incidents that occur, or the states have set the threshold for being labeled “persistently dangerous” so high that even a school located in a war zone would have a hard time reaching it.

Impossible Standards

In South Carolina, for example, to get that label a school must have two or more of the following crimes occur for three consecutive years: homicide, forcible sex offense, kidnapping, aggravated assault, robbery, or weapons violations.

In Michigan 2.5 percent of the total number of students must be expelled or suspended for more than 10 days, or 2.5 percent of students must have been victims of violent criminal offenses for three consecutive years, for a school to be labeled “persistently dangerous.”

By that definition, a school of 2,000 students having one sexual assault on campus every week for three years in a row doesn’t rate as “persistently dangerous.” It’s not surprising, then, that not a single school in the state received the label.

The reason states have created these blatantly absurd standards is to protect schools from losing students under the Unsafe School Choice Option. By setting the bar so high, states are preventing parents from exercising their right to transfer their children to safer public schools.

Protecting Schools, Not Students

Favoring schools over students is symptomatic of the larger crisis facing public education today. Public officials are protecting schools from sanctions when they ought to be protecting children from harm–bowing to pressure from school districts that can’t afford to lose more students and the funds that go with them.

These state definitions of dangerous schools may be within the letter of the law, but they clearly violate its spirit.

Analyzing the situation, the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities Advisory Committee–an advisory group created by NCLB within the U.S. Department of Education–offered two recommendations in December 2006 for correcting the situation.

The group recommended that state benchmarks for determining dangerous schools should take into consideration factors beyond violent crimes, such as drug use and bullying. It also said the U.S. Department of Education should take charge of the matter and set specific, uniform criteria for determining dangerous schools.

State Control

In creating the NCLB provision allowing parents to choose safe schools for their children, lawmakers were correct to avoid being overly prescriptive in dictating to states how they should run their schools.

In principle, this federalist approach is an improvement over past policies, but in practice Congress has left too much discretion in the case of the Unsafe School Choice Option. As a result, states and districts have failed to protect students.

While there are programs and resources that can be directed to reduce the violence that occurs in our public schools, in the meantime the very least we can do is ensure students can transfer to safer schools.

Matthew Carr ([email protected]), Nathan Gray ([email protected]), and Marc Holley ([email protected]) are doctoral fellows in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

For more information …

“Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2006,” National Center for Education Statistics:

“Second Preliminary Report of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Advisory Committee,” U.S. Department of Education, December 8, 2006: