ARCHIVED - Unsafe School Choice Option Report
Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities Advisory Committee
Archived Information


December 8, 2006

Ongoing Committee Work and Focus

As outlined in the Committee's preliminary report of September 8, 2006, the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities Advisory Committee is working to fulfill its mandate to assess (1) the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities State Grant Program, (2) the Unsafe Schools Option and (3) the data requirements of No Child Left Behind with the aim of suggesting improvements in the programs of the Department carried out by the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools .

In addition, at its most recent meeting held October 22-23, 2006 at the Department, the Secretary identified areas for focus arising from the President Bush's Conference on School Safety. These are (1) promoting the discussion of school safety issues (particularly noting warning signs) and the dissemination of best practices, (2) better coordination with private and parochial schools, (3) data sharing between law enforcement, school officials and mental health professionals at all levels of government, and (4) factoring in differences in school types (i.e. urban, suburban and rural) and the unique challenges posed by these differences.

Committee Observations

The Committee's October meetings focused on the Unsafe Schools Option. In its hearings and discussion, the Committee noted significant consensus on a number of issues.

Witnesses before the Committee made clear that state criteria for determining what schools are "persistently dangerous" vary widely and many are nearly impossible to meet. As a result, although state officials may know what individual schools have problems the current designation process is not identifying these schools.

Based on testimony and Committee discussions, it seems clear that the term "persistently dangerous" is not helpful because it stigmatizes schools, may be misleading and may even penalize schools that accurately report incidents and are trying to address problems that are occurring.

The Committee heard concerns that school reporting of incidents may be misleading in the effort to determine since the number of incidents that occur do not necessarily reflect a school's climate or the overall level of safety within a school.

Importantly, the Committee noted a continuing need for parents to be made aware of safety issues at schools.

Testimony from state officials at the October and August meetings made clear that the states have a fundamental role in promoting partnerships among the relevant state and local agencies that are needed in aiding schools to solve their problems at the individual and school building levels of children learning, behaving well, and achieving their full potential. The states also have a major role in helping leverage resources to support evidence-based programs and conditions to accomplish this goal.

Finally, the Committee heard testimony from a number of sources indicating the states believe the current program creates an unfunded mandate by requiring the states to develop processes for identifying unsafe schools without providing any funding to assist the states in that effort.

Preliminary Recommendations

In its October meeting and subsequent discussions, the Committee considered recommendations regarding seven general categories. In future meetings, the Committee will prepare firm recommendations based on these initial ideas.

It should be noted at the outset that the entire basis and focus of the Unsafe Schools Choice option was severely criticized by both witnesses and members of the Committee. The Committee believes that there may be better approaches to the issue of school safety, focusing on student behaviors that are linked to later negative outcomes such as violence and drug use. The Committee believes the question of whether the current law is the best means for accomplishing the goal of ensuring safe schools must be addressed. Some of the recommendations that follow would be appropriate if the current approach is completely rethought. Others ought to be considered if the current law is retained.

Additionally, since some of these recommendations may require government expenditure and so the potential costs of some recommendations will have to be examined.

In regards to the designation of unsafe schools, the Committee is considering recommendations to (1) change the terminology "persistently dangerous" to different nomenclature that is not misleading or stigmatizing, (2) consider incidents of violence as only one (not the only) factor in determining whether a school is safe (for instance considering issues such as substance abuse), (3) usage of, in combination with other means, school climate surveys to assess safety in schools, (4) urge the Department to provide specific measure for determining school safety that would be uniform across states (although the states would be free to add criteria unique to the state), (5) ensure information is reported about individuals schools rather than at the district level, and (6) perform methodological study of the effectiveness of the USCO . In regards to the change in nomenclature, the Committee is considering a recommendation that would eliminate labeling schools, instead placing schools that need assistance on a "watch list." If the nomenclature was changed, the appropriate measure for reporting may be one year. If a school climate survey is utilized as one tool for gauging school safety, it could include multiple information sources (i.e. administrators, teachers, students, parents).

Recommendations focused on improving school safety in the context of the unsafe schools choice option include (1) moving the focus of school safety towards prevention of incidents, (2) providing examples of safe schools and their best practices including ways to address issues like substance abuse, truancy, dropouts and transient populations, (3) creating a program for school safety with similar characteristics as the National Blue Ribbon Schools effort (focusing on the positive aspect of that effort), (4) creating guidelines for school improvement when a school is identified as unsafe or of concern, (5) providing support and technical assistance to schools with safety issues, (6) provide guidelines and training for assisting students who victimize others and those who are victims to prevent further incidents, and (7) encouraging schools to collaborate with local community prevention programs on safety issues. One member of the Committee drew fellow members attention to an important example of the seventh recommendation in Ohio 's CORE/CARE teams. Ohio's effort involves teams of professionals from various disciplines (such as law enforcement, mental health, social services and law) work together at a school to assist at-risk students and their families to address obstacles to the student's effort to gain an education by identifying gaps in student development, then teaching skills to address these problems. In regards to recommendation six, the Committee noted the importance of addressing issues related to trauma experienced by students who are victimized.

An important part of the Committee's mission involves data issues, specifically collection and dissemination of accurate data. To this end, the Committee's possible recommendations include (1) providing clarification and basic guidance about how school safety information can be shared across community, state and national agencies and between schools and law enforcement, (2) encouraging legislative changes to allow for tracking of information relevant to school safety and sharing of this information among various stakeholders (including law enforcement, researchers and student assistance programs), (3) within the limits of federal law and respecting privacy concerns, building an integrated information system that might include school records while minimizing paperwork for schools, (4) standardizing data measures across federal funding streams, and (5) allowing school officials to certify the accuracy of their reports while noting that there may be weaknesses or holes in the data.

A central element of the USCO program is its requirement of parental notice when a school has been identified as persistently dangerous. To strengthen this element, the Committee has identified two potential recommendations: (1) ensure that accurate information on the transfer option is available to parents of victims of school violence quickly, and (2) give parents access to safety data of schools their children may attend, not only the schools determined "persistently dangerous."

In regards to the transfer option, the Committee believes the Department might consider (1) ensuring that the victims know of their rights to remain at their current school and even other movement options to promote choices for students rather than requirements for schools, and (2) also where possible, encouraging counseling to the victimizer. In regards to the movement option, there needs to be guidance offered for implementing the transfer option in districts with one high school, middle school or elementary school.

Given expressed concerns that the USCO creates a mandate for states without providing funding to help fulfill the mandate, the Committee is considering recommendations to (1) allow a waiver from the USCO requirement for states that have existing programs (assuming these programs meet minimal standards and requirements) for providing parent choice of schools, and (2) provide money for states to use in school safety measures, allowing the states to provide grants to local education associations.

Next Steps

The Committee will again meet at the Department of Education January 16-17, 2007 in addition to holding a teleconference meeting on December 18, 2006. At those meetings, the Committee will discuss the data requirements portion of its charge. Given the importance of the Committee's mandate, additional meetings may also be scheduled.

An important issue identified for further discussion in future Committee meetings is the relevance of FERPA and other privacy considerations in sharing of safety information. The Committee is planning to hear testimony on these issues in upcoming meetings.

Last Modified: 12/23/2015