Fighting Danger: A Federal Law to Make Schools Safer Finds Districts Setting the Bar Too High

By Covino, Jennifer K. | District Administration, November 2003 | Go to article overview
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Fighting Danger: A Federal Law to Make Schools Safer Finds Districts Setting the Bar Too High


Covino, Jennifer K., District Administration


It's meant to curb crime and keep the peace. But a new federal law allowing students to transfer from schools that are labeled violent and disruptive could be causing more discord than harmony.

Under the Unsafe School Choice Option, a component of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, states were required to establish definitions for "persistently dangerous" schools by July 1. Prior to the start of the school year, districts with "persistently dangerous" schools were required to notify parents that their children were eligible to transfer to sale schools within the district Students who are victims of violent crimes on schools grounds are also eligible to transfer.

The law is built on the belief that safe schools and academic success go hand-in-hand. "Kids can't learn in an em6ronment in which there is fighting, disorder or kids carrying guns," says William Modzeleski, associate deputy undersecretary of the US. Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. At the very least, he says, it gets states thinking seriously about school safety and forces them to devise accountable ways for reporting and recording crime.

But, this past summer, as states from Florida to Montana to California declared they could find no "persistently dangerous" schools in their districts, critics questioned the legislation's usefulness. They charged that some states were clearly setting the bar too high when it came to determining the presence of violence in schools--ostensibly to avoid the label's stigma.

Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm, says he believes school administrators would rather be in a school labeled academically failing than in one branded unsafe. A "persistently dangerous" label "is the kiss of death for a school administrator's career and for the school's image," says Trump.

He further argues that principals will be more apt to underreport crime under the new legislation. "An administrator is going to think twice before he or she reports each and every incident because doing so is going to put then one step closer to the persistently dangerous label," he says.

Trump says the legislation can only work effectively if it: establishes a national definition of "persistently dangerous" and specific guidelines for recording school crime, and is backed by federal funds for interventions and school improvements. Under the current law, no federal funding is available to transport students, and states are expected to reallocate funds or apply for federal grants to fund intervention programs for dangerous schools.

This legislation will lead to further laxness about reporting violent incidents on school grounds, fears Curt Lavarello, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, the largest professional association for K-12 school-based police officers.

"School officers know of crimes that are being swept under the carpet and the administrators are handling them internally," he says. Among 728 NASRO members surveyed in ]tree, 61 percent said the legislation would lead to decreased crime reporting and more than 88 percent said Congress should enact a federal law requiring mandatory, consistent school crime reporting by K-12 schools nationwide.

But Modzeleski argues for localized control; chances are school leaders in Wyoming would not agree with the standards for crime adopted by the District of Columbia, he says. "We feel very strongly that this should be done at a state level--not a federal level," he says. "If, in fact, we had a standard definition, we'd have more public outcry." He anticipates the legislation will prove its usefulness as states refine their definitions and methods of data collection.

Proactive vs. Reactive

The federal government is attacking the issue from the wrong direction, says Kevin Dwyer, a former school psychologist and co-author of Safe, Supportive and Successful Schools: Step by Step (Sopris West, 2003).

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