Last year, all 25 schools the Pennsylvania Department of Education designated “persistently dangerous,” out of 501 districts and 3,200 schools statewide, were in the School District of Philadelphia. In past years, a quarter of schools in the entire country labeled persistently dangerous have been located in Philadelphia.
Is it possible this accurately reflects school safety in the city, state, and nation? Or is something else going on?
The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 required states to define “persistently dangerous schools” to give students the option to transfer from them. Pennsylvania set particularly stringent standards.
First it defined “dangerous incident” to include not only confirmed arrests for committing a violent crime (including aggravated assault, rape, and robbery) but also any confirmed arrest of a student for possessing a weapon.
Then it set a relatively low bar for the number of incidents needing to occur in a year for a school to receive the designation. For schools with fewer than 250 students, the threshold is five incidents. A school serving between 251 and 1,000 students was considered dangerous if the number of incidents exceeded two percent of the enrollment. Schools with more than 1,000 students needed 20 incidents or more.
Former Superintendent Paul Vallas required principals to report every incident – including those occurring during travel to or from school – or risk sanctions. That policy continues today.
Between 2007-08 and 2008-09, the violent incidents in Philadelphia schools diminished in all categories, according to James Golden, deputy chief of operations for safety. Weapons offenses decreased 26 percent, assaults 13 percent, and robberies 12 percent, he reported to the School Reform Commission in September.
Even so, the number of persistently dangerous schools jumped from 20 to 25. Five schools left the list, but 10 new ones appeared.
Despite the overall improvement, Philadelphia remains the only Pennsylvania district with persistently dangerous schools.
That discrepancy frustrates Philadelphia’s officials who cannot control other districts’ reporting.
“Given the integrity of our reporting and diligence around reporting most violent incidents, I think that’s one reason why Philadelphia stands out,” Golden said.
In five years, only one Pennsylvania school outside of Philadelphia has made the list. A recent Auditor General report maintained that the state Department of Education doesn’t do enough to assure accurate reporting – a finding that DEP spokesman Michael Race hotly disputed.
Philadelphia’s former safe schools advocate, Jack Stollsteimer, was also at odds with DEP over reporting policies and discipline. Stollsteimer’s job was eliminated earlier this year, although Superintendent Arlene Ackerman resumed expulsions largely on his recommendation.
While acknowledging climate problems, Golden said the formula can be unfair.
Northeast High, for instance, with 3,100 students, made the list with 20 serious incidents last year – a figure less than one percent of its enrollment. To reach the two percent threshold that applies to schools with between 250 and 1,000 students, it would have needed 62 incidents to be declared persistently dangerous.
Golden believes the formula should consider “qualitative” factors including enrichment programs, academics and extracurricular opportunities “that render the schools, quite frankly, far less than persistently dangerous.”
Race said there are no plans to revisit the state’s definition.