Schools Labeled 'Persistently Dangerous' to Address Violence

The Maryland State School Board voted to label five schools in Baltimore "persistently dangerous," an allowance granted by the No Child Left Behind Act. But local school officials have been questioning the designation and how to avoid it. Maryland Department of Education official Charles Buckler and Baltimore schools' chief academic officer, Linda Chinnia, offer analysis.

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CHERYL CORLEY, host:

I'm Cheryl Corley, in this week for Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we take you to a Washington D.C. organization determined to feed healthy meals to hungry children.

And life without electronics, the results of one professor's media experiment.

But first, the federal No Child Left Behind Law allows states to label troublesome schools persistently dangerous for a variety of reasons. It's a stigma that brings with it a vast concern for safety.

Few states in the country have used the designation. Maryland is one of seven that has, and state education officials voted last week to put a number of Baltimore schools on the dangerous list.

Well, joining us to discuss the situation is Chuck Buckler. He's Maryland's director of student services and alternative programs. And Linda Chinnia, area academic officer for Baltimore City schools. Thank you both for being with us.

Ms. LINDA CHINNIA (Chief Academic Officer, Baltimore City Public School Program): Thank you.

Mr. CHARLES BUCKLER (Director of Student Services and Alternative Programs, Maryland State Department of Education): You're welcome.

CORLEY: Maryland is, as I mentioned, one of seven states in the country to label schools with that No Child Left Behind designation. As I understand it, states come up with their own description or definition of this. So, why don't I start with you, Mr. Buckler. And tell me, what exactly is Maryland's definition for persistently dangerous school?

Mr. BUCKLER: Well, I just wanted to say one thing, and that is actually that the No Child Left Behind Act requires states to have a definition for persistently dangerous schools. And the penalty for not having one is actually - puts all the federal funding in jeopardy. That's actually stated in the No Child Left Behind Act.

But our policy in Maryland is one which talks about a persistently dangerous school as a school that has a certain number of long-term suspensions and expulsions over a three-year period; it's two and a half percent of the student population enrolled in that school.

And the offenses are very serious type of offenses, and they include things such as physical attacks on teachers or on students. They include things like firearms, weapons, sexual assault. It's over three years, three consecutive years, and the offenses are actually not necessarily the number of students but the number of offenses that have occurred in that school. So you could have one student actually committing more than one offense.

CORLEY: What does it mean for the students and parents there to have this label?

Mr. BUCKLER: Actually - well, one of the things the law requires is that these students are given the options to transfer to another school within the system. One of the things is, when this law first passed, I thought, oh, this will be a death knell for a school or could be a death knell for a school.

CORLEY: Yeah.

Mr. BUCKLER: And that really upset me personally. But what we have seen, actually, is that what happens is, oftentimes, the parents and children elect to stay in that school because this designation, while it has a negative connotation, it also had the ability to focus light on issues that are going on in that particular school and community. And actually, it can be like a wake-up call. School officials in Baltimore City brought parents in, talked to them and said but this is what we're going to do, this is what we're working on. I think a number of students and parents have elected to stay in those schools.

So I am happy to say it has not been a death knell, at least our experience in Maryland, on any schools. I'm very happy about that.

CORLEY: Well, Ms. Chinnia, let's get your take on that. You help oversee academics in Baltimore City schools.

Ms. CHINNIA: Correct.

CORLEY: And it's a district that's had its share of struggles in the past. First, do you agree with this persistently dangerous school designation by the state board?

Ms. CHINNIA: It's a very difficult designation. I mean, I do understand - and we are all very aware of the needs that we want our schools to be safe. In order for students to do well, they need to feel safe in school. They also need to feel safe in their communities - getting to school. The frustration, I think, on our part is some of the areas that are listed under the violent offenses are some that, you know, really require that we take this kind of action. And once this action is taken, then the school seems to get a label that is opposite to the actual strategies and things that are in place for it.

So I guess what I would say is, in terms of schools that I know are effectively addressing issues, these are probably the schools that are doing that very well. Yet, they are listed as persistently dangerous. And that does give a negative feeling in the community at large about our schools and the school system as a whole.

CORLEY: Well, Mr. Buckler, how do you respond to that? You said it's a wake-up call to schools? She says that while we have schools that have already been awakened and know the problems that they have and are actively working to solve some of these problems, why still have the label then?

Mr. BUCKLER: Well, unfortunately, it's something that No Child Left Behind requires us to have. I do think a label such as this, it is a very negative - it has negative connotations to it. I would love to see as the Congress looks at reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, or perhaps examining this section of the law. And if they still feel it's necessary to have something like this to turn in to something more positive, like persistently safe schools perhaps.

CORLEY: I'm Cheryl Corley. This is TELL ME MORE. We're talking about last week's decision by the Maryland State Board of Education to label some Baltimore public schools persistently dangerous. And we're talking with Chuck Buckler. He is the director of Student Services and Alternative programs for the state of Maryland. And Linda Chinnia, she is the area academic officer for Baltimore city schools.

Ms. Chinnia, let's talk about what you think the federal government should do, if anything, to help local school districts improve safety records. After all, this is the federal law that's requiring schools to be labeled persistently dangerous.

Ms. CHINNIA: I think some of what Mr. Buckler said, you know, would be the same kind of things I would call for in terms of a revisiting of the definition of the persistently dangerous, a much more positive connotation toward that. This is one area. I truly believe in the No Child Left Behind Act in terms of the focus to see that we're doing what needs to happen for all students instructionally.

This is an area that is very much beyond just the schoolhouse because issues of climate really become community issues. And that's where were putting a lot of our focus to really have a community much more involved when we look at the root causes of some of what is listed as the violent acts in the schools. They are carryover from things that are happening within the community. It's the persistently dangerous community, not a school. The school is a reflection of the community that it's in. And so it's not something that the school can write a plan and handle. It really does become an issue that we have to have a lot of conversations with all elements of the community to help us to resolve.

CORLEY: Mr. Buckler, you talked about how parents and students could leave a school that is actually labeled persistently dangerous. And as I understand, these five schools that we're talking about in Baltimore were actually on the list last year as well. Do we know, at this point, how many students or parents took advantage of that and left, or did they, as you indicated earlier, Mr. Buckler, a lot of people just decided to stay in that system?

Ms. CHINNIA: I actually have the numbers for that.

CORLEY: Oh, okay.

Ms. CHINNIA: Last year, 172 students transferred from these schools.

CORLEY: So I'm assuming that's a small number.

Ms. CHINNIA: A small number. The previous year with that option we had 361 transfers. So that was quite a decrease to last year.

CORLEY: So is it that these students and parents have few options once their schools are labeled as such?

Ms. CHINNIA: I think it really is that in these particular cases, because even when you look at the data, the numbers of suspensions have gone down in each of these schools because of some measures we put into place. And so the communities and the parents especially have decided they want to make their school work. They really don't want to transfer to another place and take a chance on what that climate might be. This is a place - this is their school. It's in their community. They want to make it better. And so they decided to stay and help to bring the resources to the school in the community that they need.

CORLEY: And has that been the reaction - a question for you both - has that been, basically, the reaction from parents about these designations? They know what they are now and are just moving forward, or are they upset about the designation?

Ms. CHINNIA: From my end, I think that the reaction is pretty much the same. They know - they're disappointed. They know that they've worked hard this year and were hoping that the schools would not maintain the designation. But we're very clear as to what the causes are. I think there's a resolve to continue to work as a total community to continue to make the schools better.

CORLEY: And Mr. Buckler, what are you seeing? Do you think these schools are going to end up on the list next year, or are steps being made significantly enough that there will be improvement?

Mr. BUCKLER: Well, the schools are actually going to submit a corrective action plan to us within the next month and a half. And we'll be working with the school system, actually, you know, in getting the schools ready to submit those plans. I'm very hopeful, to be quite frank with you. There are some wonderful things going on in these particular schools that are really having - I think will have an impact. One of the things is, is that, you know, you just didn't wake up today and become persistently dangerous, and sometimes it takes a number of years to have the affect of changing the climate and the culture in a school to be able to, you know, get it to a place where a lot of these events just don't happen.

I also concur with Ms. Chinnia about that these schools are microcosms of the community, and so, you know, oftentimes they are asking children to behave in a different way than what their community has told them are modeled to them as far as ways to behave. And so that's a big uphill battle, to say - to try to say, well, no. This doesn't work. You cannot do this in this particular location, even though it may be condoned in another location. One of the other things is we have interviewed some of the students who go to these schools, and one of the things one of the students told us when we interviewed him, that he had a knife on him.

And the person who interviewed him said, well, why did you bring the knife? And the young man said because I'm afraid going to and from school. He has to traverse, you know, through what he perceives to be a dangerous, you know, area in which he doesn't feel that he would be protected. And so I think that just - you know, that really, really was hard message to hear in that, you know, while he may feel okay at school, he doesn't feel okay getting to school or going home from school. So a solution to that problem - I mean, if that is, you know, a perception of a lot of the students, is really going to require the whole community get involved.

CORLEY: Chuck Buckler is the director of student services and alternative programs for Maryland's board of education, and Linda Chinnia is the area academic officer for Baltimore city schools. Thank you both for being with us.

Mr. BUCKLER: You're welcome.

Ms. CHINNIA: You're welcome.

Mr. BUCKLER: Thank you.

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