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School-safety rankings - or just black marks?

By Noel C. PaulStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 20, 2003



SAN MARCOS, TEXAS

Normally at this time of year, Sylvester Perez is making last-minute phone calls to principals, trying one last time to make a budget work that doesn't want to, and doing whatever else he can to make sure the first week of classes goes smoothly.

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But this year the superintendent of schools in this sun-dappled Texas town has been acting more like a man trying to explain a bad haircut: He's spent most of his time fielding calls from angry teachers and worried parents, trying to assure them that one of his district's schools is, in fact, safe.

That's because Doris Miller Junior High School here has found itself ignobly - and wrongly, in Mr. Perez's view - on a federal list of "persistently dangerous" schools. It is one of only six schools in all of Texas, and perhaps fewer than 100 nationwide, to receive such a label.

The designation has proven to be a stinging blow to the district's reputation - and the entire town. It's also had a practical effect: By law, parents can now transfer their children out of schools labeled dangerous - and many here are doing so.

The tale of how Doris Miller Junior High received its inglorious designation - and many other schools nationwide that are, arguably, more dangerous didn't - is one increasingly concerning educators, administrators, and parents nationwide.

As the 50 states for the first time hand out the "persistently dangerous" label as part of the Bush administration's sweeping Leave No Child Behind Act, it is sharpening the debate over what exactly an unsafe school is. It is also raising moral questions within districts about how aggressive they should be in reporting incidents of violence.

To critics, the fact that so few schools nationwide were so designated indicates that administrators are ignoring - or simply not reporting - all the mayhem in their hallways.

"It is very likely that there is reluctance among schools to report incidents now because it would bring them too much trouble," say Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, a nonprofit advocacy group in Westville, Calif.

Even worse, experts say that disciplinary actions against students from Chicago's tony North Shore to the Bible Belt may now be carried out with less frequency so districts can avoid the federal list.

The genesis of a label

The classification of Doris Miller as "dangerous" is based on incidents of violent behavior recorded between 1999 and 2002, and evaluated by Texas education officials this summer. The junior high reported 15 incidents between in those three years that Texas officials deemed "expellable" felonies. The definition of "persistently dangerous" is determined by each state.

Texas qualifies schools as such if they report a minimum of three expellable offenses per 1,000 students per year for three years in a row. Common examples of such offenses include possession of a weapon, aggravated assault, and arson.

Schools must submit a corrective plan within 30 days. San Marcos officials have begun the appropriate steps, and are even meeting with the state to see if they can get the designation removed. But, according to many in the community, the school system's reputation is already irreparably tarnished.

"It makes it look like we've been hiding something from parents all this time," says Bertha Bailey, a second-grade teacher at Crockett Elementary School here.

The controversy has clearly roiled this placid town known by most Texans as simply a stop in the car trip between Austin and San Antonio. The largely residential community has a traditional core: A historic town square with red brick buildings and tiny storefronts.

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