Most states call schools safe
WASHINGTON — Only 52 of the nation’s 91,000 public schools are labeled persistently dangerous by their states, findings that allow students in those few schools to transfer to safer places but deny a similar option for tens of millions of other children.
The lack of a label does not mean a school is without crime, but rather that there is not enough to merit the designation. There were nearly 700,000 violent crimes in America’s schools in 2000, the last year for which government numbers were available.
The new school year marks the first time that states must define and identify their most dangerous schools and let all students at those schools enroll elsewhere in their district. Most states have responded by declaring they have no schools fitting that description.
Forty-four states and the District of Columbia reported not a single unsafe school. The exceptions were Pennsylvania (28), Nevada (eight), New Jersey (seven), Texas (six), New York (two) and Oregon (one). Philadelphia’s 27 schools with the label represent more than half the country’s total. The numbers may change after final state reviews or appeals.
None of the schools in Western Pennsylvania was found to be persistently dangerous.
At a time when campuses use a range of tools to halt crime, from metal detectors to full-time police officers, 99.9 percent of schools got passing safety grades, based on self-reported data.
The order to designate unsafe schools is part of federal law designed to hold schools accountable and give students choices. But to some school advocates, the small number identified is so implausible it renders the ordered assessment meaningless.
Most states have determined that to merit the dangerous label, schools must meet at least one threshold, such as student gun violations or expulsions based on violent behavior. Typically, states tied the minimum number of incidents to enrollment — requiring a higher number at larger schools — and they only count schools that show trouble over two years or three years.
The states also based their definitions on the most serious crimes: murder, arson, robbery, kidnapping. A dangerous environment, not just unacceptable behavior, is the target, said Bill Modzeleski, school safety director for the Education Department.
“When you see what Congress said in the legislation, then clearly there probably aren’t as many persistently dangerous schools as the public may believe,” he said.
Marsha Smith, a physical education teacher in Rockville, Md., and a consultant on teenage health and school safety, added, “The public may believe that schools are dangerous, but it’s quite the opposite. Schools are the safest place for students to be.”
Government numbers show that students age 12 to 18 are facing fewer violent crimes at school — 699,800 in 2000, down 51 percent since 1993. Yet an increasing number of high school students, almost one in 10, reported being threatened or injured with a weapon at school in 2001.
The law allows students who are victims of a violent crime at school to transfer, regardless of whether their school is persistently dangerous.
California, whose 8,000-plus schools are more than in other state, listed none as unsafe. Neither did Colorado, where two young gunmen in 1999 killed 13 people and wounded more than 20 others before killing themselves at Columbine High School outside Denver.