Schools Are More Dangerous Than Data Suggest

Published March 1, 2004

Last fall, every state was required by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act to identify schools with a “persistently dangerous” atmosphere so parents would have a better idea of whether their children were being educated in a safe learning environment. When 44 states denied having any such schools and the remaining states admitted to having a combined total of fewer than 50, one safety expert greeted the publication of the lists with a Bronx cheer.

“It’s a joke,” Kenneth S. Trump told Pamela M. Prah of Trump is president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm. “Parents are getting a very misleading message, which creates a false sense of security about the safety of their child’s school,” he said.

One reason most states found so few “persistently dangerous” schools is because NCLB allows states to define for themselves what “persistently dangerous” means. In California, for example, it means expulsion of students for committing federal or state crimes. In Pennsylvania, it means students doing something dangerous, like bringing a knife to school. A Pennsylvania-like standard–timely reporting of dangerous incidents by type by school by year–is what most parents would find helpful in identifying dangerous schools for themselves.

As well as differences in definitions and standards, data on school safety may also be misleading because of differences in the way dangerous incidents are handled at different schools, less-than-accurate reporting of such incidents, and school administrators who ignore signals that students are in danger from other students or from teachers.

Comparisons Difficult, Even Within a District

When the Austin American-Statesman analyzed five years of high school discipline data for the Austin Independent School District last September, the Texas newspaper found fights and assaults had increased at most high schools over the past two years, with reported incidents of violence increasing 33 percent across the district.

“But the total numbers in the discipline reports over five years tell an incomplete story about school safety,” wrote reporter Kathy Blackwell. “They fluctuate wildly from campus to campus because each has discretion over how to discipline all but the most serious offenses, making comparisons difficult.”

According to the American-Statesman analysis, almost half of the 70 possible violations of the discipline code are discretionary offenses. That means campus officials can choose the punishment–including punishments that do not have to be included on the school’s discipline record. “The number of reported discretionary incidents varies widely from campus to campus,” noted Blackwell. In addition, officials sometimes didn’t record a criminal violation for assault if the victim and/or the parents asked them not to.

After the on-campus murder of Reagan High School cheerleader Otralla Mosley last March by a fellow student with a history of on-campus assaults, the district hired a group of lawyers to study violence at the school. Their report found many fights and aggressive acts at Reagan and found the system for reporting violence to be inadequate–yet declared the campus safe.

“The present system of reporting disciplinary data is not fully appropriate for the purposes of evaluating the incidence of violence in Austin ISD schools,” they concluded.

Among their recommendations:

  • Focus on crisis prevention rather than crisis response.
  • Establish uniform reporting, maintenance, and evaluation of incident data for the school board.
  • Report all criminal activities by students to law enforcement.
  • Apply punishment consistently.

Reporting by campus still would give an incomplete picture of school safety because, as students told Blackwell, the “serious” fights take place off-campus after school.

Violence Not Confined to High Schools

An eighth-grade boy was left with multiple skull fractures as the result of an unprovoked assault by another eighth-grade boy at Citrus Springs Middle School in Florida two years ago, according to a lawsuit filed last October against the school board by the victim’s parents. The lawsuit alleges the incident could have been avoided if the school board had responded properly to similar incidents of fighting and assaults at the middle school.

According to the lawsuit, the victim was attacked from behind by the other boy, who was known to have violent tendencies. The victim was kicked in the back, knocked to the ground, jumped on, and kicked repeatedly on the right side of his face. The school board attorney denied the boy was injured as a result of the school board’s action.

In the 2001-02 school year, Drew Middle School in Detroit, Michigan reported 65 physical assaults, four sexual assaults, two arson incidents, and 12 occasions when weapons were found on campus. The data for West Bloomfield High School, in Oakland County, Michigan, were not much different: 94 physical assaults, two sexual assaults, and eight weapons found on school property. Neither was classed as a “persistently dangerous” school.

Violence occurs in elementary schools, too. By the time the current school year was four months old, the Philadelphia school district had experienced 19 reports of weapons possession and 42 assaults–not by high school students but by children in kindergarten or first grade. Twenty-one of the assaults took place in one elementary school during the first two months of school.

A Florida teacher last May sued the Orange County public schools because of problems she had with a single kindergartner. At lunch one day, he allegedly stabbed one classmate with a fork and started a fight with another. On another day, he hit three fellow students and took a swing at a fourth. On a third day, he hit two other students and poked a third in the chest with a pencil.

Coaches Who Prey on Girls

Washington State Senators Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle) and Don Benton (R-Vancouver) in January introduced a package of seven bills designed to close loopholes in the process for disciplining school employees accused of sexual misconduct or abuse with students. One of the bills would authorize the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association to post an Internet listing of coaches who have had disciplinary action taken against them.

Other provisions in the bills would require school districts to check criminal records and information on past sexual misconduct in background screening of potential employees. School officials would no longer be allowed to expunge misconduct findings from a past or present employee’s records. Most important, school districts would no longer be allowed to let an employee with a history of sexual misconduct transfer to another district without making the receiving district aware of the employee’s previous misconduct.

The bills were prompted by the publication in December last year of the shocking results of a year-long investigation by the Seattle Times, titled “Coaches Who Prey: The Abuse of Girls and the System that Allows It.”

The investigation found coaches who had sexually abused young girls not only have escaped prosecution but are still working in similar positions in other school districts. Out of 159 coaches in Washington who have been fired or reprimanded for sexual misconduct over the past decade, at least 98 are still teaching or coaching–“as schools, the state, and even some parents looked the other way,” according to reporters Christine Willmsen and Maureen O’Hagan.

In one report, Willmsen and O’Hagan detail how the Bellevue School District and Washington Education Association tried to conceal records of teachers and coaches accused of sexual misconduct. After the newspaper requested access to teacher misconduct records, the teacher union local in Bellevue organized a plan to destroy documents in teacher files to keep the information from the public.

The Seattle Times investigation covered incidents only in the state of Washington. As AP sports columnist Steve Wilstein noted, the number of victims on a national level could number in the “tens of thousands.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The results of the year-long investigation by Christine Willmsen and Maureen O’Hagan were reported in the series, “Coaches Who Prey: The Abuse of Girls and the System that Allows It,” in the Seattle Times December 14-17, 2003. The reports are available online at