Trapped in persistent danger

Liam Julian

Last Saturday in Newark, three young people--two of them enrolled in college, one just months away--were fatally shot, execution-style, on the playground of Mount Vernon School, where six-year-olds attend class during most of the year.

Last month, Senator Barack Obama was in Chicago, telling an audience that the number of public-school students who were violently killed in that city over the past year (nearly three dozen) exceeded the number of Illinois soldiers killed in Iraq during that time.

It's tragic when students are victimized outside their schools. But far too often, the nastiness outside school walls seems to find a way inside--even more tragic, if that's possible. And far too often, students have no way out. 

Urban classrooms may be safer than urban streets, but that doesn't mean they're safe enough or that kids feel secure in them. A 2006 national survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 6 percent of 14,000 high-school students said they had missed at least one day of class in the previous month because they felt threatened while in school or en route. Nor is school violence a uniquely urban phenomenon. (Columbine High School, for example, is in relatively bucolic Jefferson County, Colorado. Virginia Tech is in normally peaceful Blacksburg.)

The latest edition of the Education Department's Indicators of School Crime and Safety shows a rise in the number of school homicides, the percentage of schools experiencing violent crimes, and the percentage of students reporting a gang presence in their school.

Such problems are compounded when districts don't provide fearful kids and families with better, safer school options. Or when they won't attack entrenched interests and radically reform their unsafe schools by instituting promising reforms.

Last year, the Philadelphia Inquirer profiled two students--Deion Mendez and Gregory Allen--who struggled to transfer to safer schools. Allen endured months of harassment and threats from 18-year-old Michael Paris (who would end up shooting someone else in the leg). The district denied Allen's transfer request so he stayed out of school for six months. Mendez was jumped after class and severely beaten by fellow students. Before finally enrolling in a charter school, he missed almost an entire year while his mother tried to navigate the city bureaucracy.

It's bad when students who attend academically disastrous schools are not given opportunities to transfer to better ones (see here). It's inexcusable when the choice facing some parents is between sending their children to a school where they'll be attacked and keeping them at home.

No Child Left Behind ostensibly requires, via its Unsafe School Choice Option, that pupils in "persistently dangerous" schools be allowed to transfer to other public schools within their district. Individual students who are victimized may also transfer, whether or not their school carries the "persistently dangerous" label.

Alas, this turns out to be another unkept NCLB promise and unenforced federal mandate. Each state defines and measures "persistently dangerous" in its own way and school administrators have few reasons to report incidents that might lead to their being tagged as such--and much reason to keep most incidents off the record. Thus just 41 schools in the nation were deemed "persistently dangerous" in 2005-2006.

When individual students such as Mendez and Allen are victimized, too often they are then denied the transfers they need. In many cities, the safer schools are overenrolled, just like those with the best teachers. And because charter schools are few and private-school choice is verboten within the NCLB consensus, victims of school violence or intimidation (and their victimizers) are often simply shuffled from one bad and/or unsafe district school to another.

When reauthorization rolls around, legislators need to fix these problems--or acknowledge that school safety isn't important to them.