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Why School Crime Stats are Dangerous

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Leave it to No Child Left Behind to further frustrate the path to actually helping and protecting students. As required under NCLB, a list of twenty-seven "persistently dangerous schools" was recently released by the New York State Board of Regents.

Twenty-five of those scarlet letter schools are in New York City, a jump of 11 city schools from last year.

However, list is actually an insidious diversion--one that says little about the real safety of schools, and actually encourages administrators to misrepresent how safe hallways, classrooms, and schoolyards are.

Here's why: No Child Left Behind allows each individual state to decide what "persistently dangerous" means. In New York, schools must voluntarily report either more than 60 "incidents," or a rate of 6 incidents per 100 students for two consecutive years. Dina Paul Parks, a spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Education is right when she calls the state's list misleading because it relies on schools to self-report.

Under such a set-up, schools are sent the clear message that they will be spared from this reviled list if they don't report incidents, and will be punished if they do. Self-reported suspension rates are a key statistic on the all-important "School Report Cards," upon which administrators' professional reputations and futures often depend. Principals thus have a vested interest in sweeping incidents under the rug.

And so we have an unwritten statewide policy to "cover your behind" by chronically underreporting incidents. It's no wonder that there are only two schools on both New York State's list of self-reported incidents and Mayor Bloomberg's list, which includes police data.

The cover-ups are real. When I taught at P.S. 85 in the Bronx, the basis for my memoir The Great Expectations School, we teachers were highly discouraged from filing incident reports or suspensions, as they would create unsightly statistics for the school and would thus invite unwanted oversight. Under the tacit threat of ostracism by our supervisors, teachers were forced to accept it time and again when our reports of students' fighting and threats met administrative brick walls. There were two guidance counselors for 1,200 students, and many incidents of violence and sexual harassment went unreported.

In March 2006, two second-grade students at P.S. 85 picked up a syringe off the sidewalk on the way to school and stabbed a classmate with it. The administration did not immediately call the police, presumably out of a twisted fear of repercussions on the School Report Card statistics. Absurd as it is, the school was ultimately rewarded for its unwritten cover-up policy by never making it on the shameful list. (The principal from that time has since retired, and the school's atmosphere has improved dramatically.)

My wife has taught at two Bronx public schools over the past four years and the second one, the small start-up M.S. 298 Academy for Public Relations, which enrolls less than 250 students, is on the Dangerous List. This academy was certainly no more dangerous to attend than her previous school--which is not on the list--where police cruisers and ambulances were regular fixtures and two security officers served 1,700 students. The difference was that the Academy for Public Relations actually reported their incidents by the book.

Many urban schools--not just the castigated New York twenty-seven--are persistently dangerous. A few ideas to make them all safer include:

1. Adding many more guidance counselors to work with kids before problems explode.
2. Decreasing class sizes so that kids don't feel anonymously lost in the shuffle.
3. Instituting more mentor and advisory programs at younger ages to give children direct relationships with positive role models.
4. Beautifying the school building so that the environs don't feel like a penitentiary.
5. Reforming the oppressive regime of high-stakes testing that drives down children's learning and self-images.
6. Employing sufficient numbers of well-trained security personnel.

The worthless yet widely reported "Persistently Dangerous Schools" list provides a smokescreen to sweeping, deep-seated issues by unfairly vilifying a select few schools. Once again, we have glaring evidence that both a state system and the influence of No Child Left Behind must be drastically changed, as they strike only at the branches of problems, and avoid the inconveniently expensive roots.

Dan Brown is the author of the teacher memoir "The Great Expectations School," released this month by Arcade Publishing.