Parents Deserve a Way to Get Their Children Out of Unsafe Schools

Published June 5, 2018

Roughly one in every 50 public school students in the United States was a victim of a physical assault, sexual assault, rape, attempted rape, robbery, or threatened with physical assault at school during the 2015–16 school year.

That’s the skinny from the Department of Education, which just released its “2015­­–16 Civil Rights Data Collection on School Climate & Safety,” a survey of every single public school in the country — more than 96,000 of them in total—to “evaluate how safe students are at school.” The researchers collected data on “serious offenses, law enforcement referrals and school-related arrests, harassment or bullying, restraint and seclusion, and school discipline.”

The deeper results are harrowing.

The survey found there were almost 1.1 million “serious offenses” during the 2015–16 school year on school grounds. These offenses include more than 789,000 physical attacks or fights without weapons, 11,900 physical attacks or fights with weapons, 24,000 robberies (including 1,200 with either a weapon or a firearm), 10,100 incidents of sexual assault, 1,100 rapes or attempted rapes, and 5,700 incidents of possession of a firearm or explosive device. Further, there were 214,000 threats of a physical attack on a student during the school year, with 13,600 of them being a threat of a physical attack with a weapon, firearm, or explosive device.

There were also 291,100 students either referred to law enforcement or arrested during the course of the school year, and 240 schools reported “at least one incident involving a school-related shooting,” including more than 100 schools that reported “a school-related homicide involving a student, faculty member, or staff member.”

On top of all that, there were more than 135,000 “individual allegations of harassment or bullying on the basis of sex, race, sexual orientation, disability, or religion” in 2015–16, a number that is most assuredly too low, as one in five middle- and high-schoolers reports being bullied in school.

While the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) permits students to transfer to another public school under ESSA’s Unsafe School Choice Option provision, it only does so if their current public school meets the state definition of a “persistently dangerous” school. Because states define unsafe schools narrowly, fewer than 50 of the country’s 96,000 public schools are labeled persistently dangerous each year.

It takes years for a school to be considered “persistently dangerous,” but students should not have to wait that long or become victims of violent crime before their parents are al­lowed to transfer them to safer schools.

One way to change the situation could be through a Child Safety Account (CSA) program. CSAs are a type of education savings account (ESA) program for parents who feel, for whatever reason, their child’s school is unsafe. A CSA would empower parents to transfer their children immediately to the safe schools of their choice within or beyond their resident public school districts — including public district, charter, and virtual schools — as well as private and parochial schools. CSA funds could also be used to pay for homeschooling expenses.

Under the program, students would be eligible for a CSA account if their parents had a “reasonable apprehension” for their children’s physical or emotional safety based on the experiences of their children, including bullying, hazing, or harassment. Parents could also determine their child’s school isn’t safe after reviewing the incidents-based statistics schools would be required to report. No longer would parents have to wait years until their school meets ESSA’s too-narrow definition of “persistently dangerous” or, worse, until their child becomes the victim of some form of violent crime.

Students are made to feel unsafe in their school in a variety of ways and for multiple reasons, including physical and emotional bullying, random acts of violence, hazing, sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of peers and teachers, gang activity, harassment over food allergies or other special needs, and unsafe classroom conditions. And the advent of cyberbullying, which is likely to expand in the coming years, has added a new and pernicious twist to school safety.

The U.S. education system’s failure to protect children and provide parents with reasonable alternatives is precisely why CSA programs are so desperately needed. As things stand now, the system only effectively allows wealthier families to move their child to a safer school when they feel it is imperative. This privilege should be afforded to all families, as every child deserves to have the resources available to allow them to escape an unsafe school environment.

It’s time to put an end to this unnecessary, cruel status quo by enacting Child Safety Accounts in every state across the country.

[Originally Published at The Hill]