Can you name a school you would describe as “persistently dangerous?” You might think so, but according to official education statistics, there are only 38 persistently dangerous public schools in the United States, and these occur only in a small handful of states (see chart below). Even though parents consistently describe school safety as one of their most important priorities for their child’s school, policymakers can’t seem to figure out how to include safety in school accountability systems or report cards.
But statistics indicate many parents have good reason to be concerned. For instance, a survey by the Centers for Disease Control found that in 2007, 14.4 percent of high school students in the District of Columbia, and 16.1 percent of male students, had missed at least one day of school within the previous month because they felt unsafe at school or on their way to or from school — the highest rates in the nation.
The same report found 9.4 percent of male high school students, and 7.4 percent of all District of Columbia students in grades 9-12, had carried a weapon onto school property within the last 30 days (the sample included all public and private schools in the District). It also found that 11.3 percent of all high school students reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property within the last 12 months.
These statistics placed high schools in the nation’s capital fourth and fifth on the most dangerous list among cities studied. Nonetheless, no schools in the District of Columbia, or other cities at the top of these lists like Detroit or Milwaukee, are officially considered “persistently unsafe.”
Federal law requires states and the District of Columbia to identify “Persistently Dangerous Schools” according to guidelines issued by the federal Department of Education. Parents of students attending such schools must be notified promptly, and allowed to transfer their child to another school, including a charter school, within the same district.
A recent joint study by the Heritage Foundation and the Lexington Institute analyzed police department data to find that police responded to more than 900 emergency calls to D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) during 2007-08 specifically relating to reports of violence, and 3,500 total incidents at 129 school campuses. Serious incidents, including responses to assault reports, occurred not only at high schools, but at middle schools and elementary schools also, particularly those in higher-crime neighborhoods.
A 2005 law gave the Metropolitan Police Department responsibility for school security at DCPS schools. A report by the District of Columbia Office of the Inspector General determined that during the 2003-04 school year, there were more than 1,700 serious security incidents in DCPS schools, including 464 weapons offences.
The good news for District of Columbia schoolchildren is that the numbers, while bad, seem to be improving slightly from where they were four years ago. There is reason for optimism that the ongoing reform efforts led by Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee will continue to make a difference, including new partnerships bringing experienced “school turnaround” organizations into three of the city’s most challenged high schools. Certainly, there has been a strong correlation between the prevalence and seriousness of school safety incidents and other indicators, like academic results, which are continuing to measurably improve citywide.
The stakes are even higher for the families of 216 students who were notified earlier this year that they were no longer eligible for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program allowing them to attend private schools. The rates of police incidents for the 70 public schools to which these students have been assigned were well above the District average.
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