'No Child' Data on Violence Skewed

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) has introduced a bill to soften the term "persistently dangerous schools" and remove the stigma. (By Stephen J. Boitano -- Associated Press)
By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 18, 2007

A little-publicized provision of the No Child Left Behind Act requiring states to identify "persistently dangerous schools" is hampered by widespread underreporting of violent incidents and by major differences among the states in defining unsafe campuses, several audits say. Out of about 94,000 schools in the United States, only 46 were designated as persistently dangerous in the past school year.

Maryland had six, all in Baltimore; the District and Virginia had none.

At Anacostia Senior High School last school year, private security guards working under D.C. police recorded 61 violent offenses, including three sexual assaults and one assault with a deadly weapon. There were 21 other nonviolent cases in which students were caught bringing knives and guns to school. Anacostia is not considered a persistently dangerous school.

One high school in Los Angeles had 289 cases of battery, two assaults with a deadly weapon, a robbery and two sex offenses in one school year, according to an audit by the U.S. Department of Education's inspector general. It did not meet the state's definition of a persistently dangerous school, or PDS. None of California's roughly 9,000 schools has.

The reason, according to an audit issued by the Department of Education in August: "States fear the political, social, and economic consequences of having schools designated as PDS, and school administrators view the label as detrimental to their careers. Consequently, states set unreasonable definitions for PDS and schools have underreported violent incidents."

Critics of the law, including lawmakers who hope the policy can be changed as part of the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, say the low number is a sign the legislation is not working.

The District's definition counts only severe offenses -- generally felonies -- that have been officially verified by police. But many incidents are not formally reported by police. An investigation of the District's schools by The Washington Post this year has shown that more than half of teenage students attend schools that would meet the city's definition of persistently dangerous.

The problem is not confined to the District.

In Virginia, a school gets the label by having a single severe incident -- such as a homicide, sexual assault or bomb use -- or by exceeding a certain number of "points" for lesser offenses. A school's threshold of points is based on enrollment; if it exceed its allowed number of incidents for three consecutive years, it is deemed dangerous.

In Maryland, if the number of expulsions or suspensions for more than 10 days at a school exceeds 2.5 percent of the number of enrolled students for three consecutive years, a school is considered persistently dangerous. At Crossland High School in Temple Hills, officials reported 1,927 suspensions in the 2005-06 school year, among its approximately 1,600 students, according to state data. The majority were for disrespect, insubordination and minor infractions, but more than 200 suspensions were given for fighting and making threats, and 11 were given for bringing weapons to school.

Under Maryland's definition, Crossland is not considered persistently dangerous. Yet in a school climate survey conducted last year, 75 percent of Crossland's students responding disagreed with the statement "I feel safe at school."

Incidents of underreporting of violence are common nationwide.


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