Missouri sets guidelines for school safety

Thursday, April 17, 2003

Students trapped in schools labeled "persistently dangerous" by the state will have the option of learning in a safer environment under a proposal approved Wednesday by the Missouri Board of Education.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002 by President Bush, labeled schools must pay for students to attend a safe school within the district or provide home schooling.

Each state was given the leeway of defining persistently dangerous. The state's board of education finalized its definition Wednesday.

Reactions to states' work to define persistently dangerous schools have varied. Some educators say the level of violations needed to be dangerous is too high to be useful -- currently no school in Missouri would fit the label.

Cape Girardeau School District superintendent Mark Bowles said he is concerned that the new provision will hold schools accountable for something they're already trying to improve upon, and that giving a school a heavy-handed label will not have a positive affect.

"No school wants an unsafe environment. In the end, I wonder about the impact this is going to have," Bowles said. "We're already as motivated as we can be to create a safe environment without additional consequences."

School standards

Taking into account suggestions made by Missouri educators and models from other states, officials with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education began developing standards last fall for determining when a school should receive the label.

"We tried to choose indicators of possible trouble areas and also consider the term 'persistently,'" said Dr. Dee Beck, coordinator of federal programs with DESE. "We just tried to be fair to schools."

To be labeled persistently dangerous in Missouri, a school must have a guns-free school violation or a violent criminal offense on school property for three consecutive years as well as have a certain number of students expelled within two of those three years.

Schools with less than 250 students must have more than five expulsions; schools with 250 to 1,000 students must have more than 10 expulsions; and schools with more than 1,000 students must have more than 15 expulsions to be considered persistently dangerous.

Once a school has received that designation, students at that school must be given the option of transferring to a safe public school within the district.

A student who has been the victim of a violent criminal offense, such as assault, sexual abuse or robbery, while on school property also has the right to transfer to a safe school within the district.

In both instances, the district must provide tuition and transportation or a teacher to home school students. The new rule will take effect at the beginning of the 2003-2004 school year.

"We're very fortunate in Missouri," Beck said. "Our schools are really very safe because districts recognize the potential for unsafe conditions and have guarded against that."

The new rule also calls for DESE to provide technical assistance to schools that have any gun violation or violent criminal offense.

According to Beck, that assistance will take the form of a team of DESE officials training school employees in preventative measures.

Too strict

Similar provisions in other states have received criticism from educators, who say officials are sidestepping the true intent of the law by intentionally making the guidelines so strict that no school will ever receive the designation.

The rule will have little impact on local schools, where officials say there have been no major incidents of violence in recent years.

"I understand what they're trying to do with this, but I think it's geared toward bigger, urban schools," said Diann Bradshaw, superintendent of Scott City School District.

Scott City, Jackson and Cape Girardeau schools already have a variety safety measures in place: Staff are required to wear identification badges, officials hold campus security meetings, at-risk student evaluations are given and employees are receive emergency and crisis training.

"I think we're better prepared than we've ever been before," said Dr. Ron Anderson, superintendent of Jackson School District. "We don't taken anything for granted."


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