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.
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 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.
But San Marcos is growing at the fringes. New retail stores and fast-food chains spread out from the town's edge. Mexican immigrants continue to pour into the city. Sixty-five percent of students in the school system now receive food stamps.
People here may not have much money, but like parents everywhere, they want their schools safe. Many are looking for private schools or voucher programs at the last minute as a result of the new designation. At least 18 students have transferred out of Doris Miller so far.
"It's really scary," says Tammy Cain, whose daughter, Kyle, is beginning school at Miller this year. "I'll keep an eye on things and if I think it's right, I'll pull her - fast."
To supporters of the labeling system, that's exactly what's supposed to happen. Schools either straighten up or parents pull their kids, in theory forcing change.
But Superintendent Perez believes Miller doesn't deserve the label it's getting - especially when so many other schools aren't on the list. "I know what an unsafe school looks like," says Perez, who worked as a principal in a low-to-middle-income area of San Antonio. "You can't tell me that Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Austin don't have any unsafe schools."
Other educators point to similar anomalies, including the entire state of California, which reported no dangerous schools among its more than 9,000 campuses. "It's very, very difficult to believe that Los Angeles doesn't have any schools that are persistently dangerous, given the gang activity in that city," says Kenneth Trump of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm in Cleveland.
While the US Department of Education (DOE) has not tallied the total number of schools reported as dangerous, at least nine states have listed no schools at all. New Jersey has designated the most, with seven.
But national statistics of school crime, say experts, seem to indicate that more schools should qualify for the classification. In 2000, 72 of every 1,000 students ages 12 through 18 reported being victims of crimes at school. The average far exceeds most states' requirements for a dangerous school.
At the heart of the discrepancy may well be a reluctance on the part of educators to report campus crime fully. A survey by the National Association of School Resource Officers found that 89 percent of school police believe crime is already underreported. "It's the scarlet letter in education today," says Mr. Trump. "Administrators have said to me privately that they would rather be academically failing than be a dangerous school."
Other critics believe states have intentionally set the bar for the designation too high. In Virginia, a school shooting would be cause for a dangerous designation only if a similar act occurred in each of the following two years.
Texas officials say preventive programs put in place are responsible for holding the number of dangerous schools to only six. "A lot of schools have metal detectors and are lockerless since Columbine, and we've seen more discipline in schools as a result," says Debbie Ratcliffe, director of communications of the Texas Education Agency.
Despite arguments that the policy is toothless without a stricter federal definition of what's "persistently dangerous," the DOE defends the need for states to establish their own parameters. "Each state has unique needs and conditions and collect crime data differently," says spokesperson Don Langan.
Without offering special funding for dangerous schools, Perez believes the law will not improve the atmosphere at many schools. "This is an unfunded mandate, so it's difficult to see how, if we belonged here, we would at all benefit from it," he says.