Relatively Safe Schools

According to the Tennessee Department of Education’s “Report Card,” all Knox County schools are safe—by their standards

August 21, sophomore Ryan McDonald was shot to death in the cafeteria at Central High School, allegedly by schoolmate Jamar B. Siler. Move forward a week, and there were two highly publicized incidents of school officials recovering guns from different students on consecutive days at Austin-East High School.

But according to the Tennessee Department of Education Report Card 2007, both schools were rated as having Safe School Status—and under TDOE guidelines, they’ll have the same rating this year, too.

In fact, all Knox County high schools have state Safe School Status. As do the middle, elementary, and pre-K schools. As do all the rest of the schools in the entire state.

That’s because the designation “Safe School” doesn’t necessarily mean that such schools are crime-free havens—just that they’re not unsafe as per state-set criteria under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001.

“A Safe School Status means a school doesn’t have an extreme rate of aggravated assaults or aggravated crimes,” says Marty Iroff, administrative specialist for Knox County’s Office of Student Assistance Services (OSAS), which administers safety and drug-free programs. “It’s the equivalent of saying a school is decaffeinated—it still has caffeine, just not at certain levels.”

So why is school-child safety linked to NCLB? “The tie-in is that one of the things states are required to do is establish a policy that allows children who attend unsafe schools to transfer out,” says Mike Herrmann, executive director of the Tennessee Department of Education Office of School Safety and Learning Support in Nashville. As a condition for receiving federal dollars for programs funded under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, states must certify that they are complying with an Unsafe School Choice Policy as required by NCLB. “So you have to establish some sort of threshold of ‘persistent danger,’” says Herrmann. “But there’s not one NCLB definition of an unsafe school; every state has its own.”

The Unsafe School Choice Policy established by the Tennessee State Board of Education just in time for the start of the 2003-2004 school year (the latest deadline allowed by NCLB), only considers a school “persistently dangerous” and in need of state Department of Education intervention if it meets violence criteria for three consecutive years. “Violence-related disciplinary actions” are considered, including possession/use of a firearm; battery of a teacher or school employee (including a school resource officer assigned to the school) and possession/use of a weapon other than a firearm.

Students who have been the victim of a violent crime at school are also tallied, as long as the “offense occurred while the student was attending school or traveling to or from school on a school bus.” These include aggravated arson, aggravated assault, aggravated child abuse and neglect, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated rape, aggravated robbery, aggravated sexual battery, and the like, even incest. But just a couple of incidents in a single year are not enough to condemn a school, due to the “three-year consecutive” provision—and the all-important part three of the persistently dangerous school definition:

“The sum of violence-related disciplinary actions and/or incidents of student victimization identified” in the two violent crime groups combined must be “equal to or greater than 3% of the school’s average daily membership.”

For A-E, which has 761 students attending on an average day, for example, that would mean 21 violence-related disciplinary actions and violent crimes on school grounds in a single year, three years in a row; for Central, more like 37.

Even a quick skimming of other states’ policies reveal many that define school violence much more rigidly than Tennessee. Indiana, for example, requires just 2 percent of the school population be involved in violent crimes over three consecutive years; under North Carolina’s policy, a school would be flagged if five or more violent crimes were committed per 1,000 students during only the two most recent school years; and New Jersey, which could be supposed to be a higher crime state, sets its standards to include “Class B” infractions such as simple assault.

Tennessee cannot be said to be too strict with setting its standard for “persistently dangerous” schools—but Knox County, stresses Iroff, still uses state and federal dollars to improve school safety standards.

His department gets some funding from Knox County Schools and also from one federal and two state grants, all related to establishing a safe and drug-free learning environment for kids, he says.

“Our schools are so open, there is really nothing we can do that will absolutely keep a really determined person from bringing a weapon on campus,” says Iroff, who collaborates with the school system’s security department under Director of Security Steve Griffin to draw students, teachers, administrators, and even parents into a commitment to safe schooling. “Our schools are not on lockdown on a regular basis and I’m not sure that’s where we want or need our schools to be. A lot of school safety is relationship-based.”

The measures OSAS employs are just as academic in their way as a grant for reading instruction. “Kids coming from a troubled environment have an awful lot of static in their head related to their home life—not knowing if they’ll be able to go home tonight, not knowing if their parents will be sober,” he says. “Worrying about guns being shot in the neighborhood all evening so they can’t do their homework. It’s much more difficult to teach a child who has so many distractions that their brain has pulled away from their academics.”

Grants available to OSAS to cope with these difficulties come from the federal NCLB Title IV, Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act. “We use the considerable bulk of our funding for student assistance program counselors (SAPs)—support services for kids having trouble,” says Iroff. “Their job is to figure out why a child is misbehaving on a regular basis. We’re talking about students who are worried about food and safety, not worried about whether they get an A-plus.”

Just one middle school in the district is heavily involved, in their case with funding from the state Youth Violence and Drug Use Prevention Act. “We’re targeting Whittle Springs Middle with an effort focused on kids with extreme misbehaviors,” says Iroff. “Behavior consultant liaisons come to work with those kids and calm those behaviors down.”

In the old days, says Iroff, the role of the SAPs in the high schools was filled by the guidance counselors, but these days the guidance office is so overwhelmed by academic demands the SAPs fill a necessary supplemental role. “Their focus is so generic that every school uses them,” he says. “They deal with crisis situations, kids self-mutilating, using drugs—not the kind where the kid says, ‘I don’t like my mom right now’ but some real dysfunction.”

Just recently, Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre broached the topic of adding tactical measures for school system safety to the existing relationship-based measures. While he did use the system-wide voice mail system to assure county parents that “our schools are safe” in the days following the Central shooting, on Monday McIntyre asked Knox County School Board members to add a request to fund increased security measures such as handheld metal detectors to the voting agenda for Wednesday.

But liaisons from OSAS are already making life a bit safer at school, says Iroff, just because gradually students get comfortable telling them something dangerous or life-threatening is going to happen, or has already happened.

At least once last year, one of the counselors was able to learn of a weapon at a high school campus and alert the administration to its presence; it was disarmed. “Children are always looking for listening adult ears, people who are not judgemental,” says Iroff. “When they find them, they’ll share lots of information. They don’t want the guns in their schools, either.”

© 2008 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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