The Washington Post
“Is my child’s school safe? Is it a good school?” These are the first questions most parents, and especially most urban parents, want to know at the start of a school year.
In the District of Columbia, reliable student performance data on individual schools is not difficult to find. Scorecards for the DC Public Schools and school performance reports for DC public charter schools are easily accessed online, each containing clear, straightforward information about academic outcomes, including test scores and graduation rates (for high schools), for students at every school. Other indicators about a school’s learning environment, such as student attendance and re-enrollment rates, are provided as well.
But when it comes to information about school safety, families in the District of Columbia are still pretty much on their own.
The District’s public safety officials are quick to reassure that “our schools are safe.” This does not clash with the general impression readers of The Post or other news outlets receive.
But how safe is that exactly? Compared with what?
DCPS school scorecards do include a line for school safety, but they do not offer any information about actual incidents. Instead, they include the results of a survey of students, parents and staff about their perceptions of safety and order at each school. The survey is taken every two years. The average perception for a DCPS school is “65 percent safe” and the largest high schools had scores between 50 percent and that average.
Certainly this information has value for parents. But does it show them how safe their child’s school actually is? As well as, say, data on the number of actual incidents in which safety was an issue?
To their considerable credit, both DCPS and the DC Public Charter School Board now also publish data on student discipline – particularly the rates at which students are suspended or expelled – online for parents to see.
By contrast, in Virginia online reports for individual schools clearly list information such as the number of weapons offenses, disruptive behavior offenses, and offenses against both students and staff that occur every school year, alongside the numbers for previous years. Broad categories help to safeguard the privacy of the victims of these incidents.
Such data would be even more useful in the District, where, unlike in Virginia, families have numerous opportunities to choose alternatives to their neighborhood schools if they feel that would best meet their needs. And the District’s public transportation system makes choice relatively practical.
As decisionmakers consider the soon-to-be-announced slate of proposed school closings, reliable, accurate information on school safety would benefit affected families as they consider their options. The comprehensive report published earlier this year that largely informed those decisions, commissioned by the Mayor’s office and conducted by the nonprofit Illinois Facilities Fund, contained a wealth of objective information and analysis about every school in the city. It was described as the first step in a process to evaluate how to adapt public education here to best address the city’s educational needs. But the IFF report did not include any data on school safety.
Is this because no such data exists? It is difficult to believe that the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) could not provide accurate and timely data about the number of incidents it was involved with at every school location in the city.
In Virginia, school districts are required by law to report school safety data to the state. A DC reporting system need not be burdensome to schools, especially if MPD already maintains such a database.
An analysis I co-authored in 2009 based on such comprehensive MPD data found that police incidents responding to violent crimes at DCPS schools occurred at an average rate of 1.9 per 100 students each year, with the total rate for all police incidents averaging 7.4 per 100 students during the 2007-08 school year. The rates varied widely at schools across the city. The rate for public charter schools was much lower, but it is important to remember the police department’s designated first responder responsibilities for DCPS schools, while charter schools have a variety of different school security arrangements.
So just how safe are DC schools today? Why not make this information available to parents on school report cards as well?
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