WASHINGTON — Only 52 of the nation's 91,000 public schools are labeled persistently dangerous by their states, findings that allow students in those few schools to transfer to safer places but deny a similar option for tens of millions of other children.
Schools not on the list are not necessarily crime-free. There were nearly 700,000 violent crimes in America's schools in 2000, the last year for which government numbers were available.
The new school year marks the first time that states must define and identify their most dangerous schools and let all students at those schools enroll elsewhere in their district. Most states have responded by declaring they have no schools fitting that description.
Forty-four states and the District of Columbia reported not a single unsafe school. The exceptions were Pennsylvania (28), Nevada (eight), New Jersey (seven), Texas (six), New York (two) and Oregon (one). The numbers may change after final state reviews or appeals.
At a time when campuses use a range of tools to halt crime, from metal detectors to full-time police officer, 99.9 percent of schools got passing safety grades, based on self-reported data.
"I don't think most parents would be surprised to find out that schools aren't persistently dangerous because they believe their schools are safe," said Jo Loss, mother of two public-school children in Castro Valley, Calif., and a leader of the state's PTA.
The order to designate unsafe schools is part of federal law designed to hold schools accountable and give students choices. But to some school advocates, the small number identified is so implausible it renders the ordered assessment meaningless.
"The states are sending a false sense of security to parents, and it creates a laxity among educators in terms of school safety," said Kenneth Trump, a national school safety consultant who has worked with officials in more than 35 states. "It's like a government Grade A stamp of approval saying everything is safe and fine."
To get the label in Washington state, for example, a 1,000-student school would have to expel three students per year for gun violations and 10 additional students per year for other violent offenses — and that would have to happen for three straight years.
Washington's policy was purposely set high because of the "significant consequences of being defined as persistently dangerous," said Martin Mueller of the state's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Connecticut gives schools three years to fix problems.
"If they do not improve, then they can be named, but we are not automatically condemning a school," said Thomas Murphy of the state's Education Department.
Most states have determined that to merit the dangerous label, schools must meet at least one threshold, such as student gun violations or expulsions based on violent behavior. Typically, states tied the minimum number of incidents to enrollment — requiring a higher number at larger schools — and they only count schools that show trouble over two years or three years.
The states also based their definitions on the most serious crimes: murder, arson, robbery, kidnapping. A dangerous environment, not just unacceptable behavior, is the target, said Bill Modzeleski, school safety director for the Education Department.
"When you see what Congress said in the legislation, then clearly there probably aren't as many persistently dangerous schools as the public may believe," he said.
Marsha Smith, a physical education teacher in Rockville, Md., and a consultant on teenage health and school safety, added, "The public may believe that schools are dangerous, but it's quite the opposite. Schools are the safest place for students to be."
Government numbers show that students age 12 to 18 are facing fewer violent crimes at school — 699,800 in 2000, down 51 percent since 1993. Yet an increasing number of high school students, almost one in 10, reported being threatened or injured with a weapon at school in 2001.
The law allows students who are victims of a violent crime at school to transfer, regardless of whether their school is persistently dangerous.
California, whose 8,000-plus schools are more than in other state, listed none as unsafe. Neither did Colorado, where two young gunmen in 1999 killed 13 people and wounded more than 20 others before killing themselves at Columbine High School outside Denver.
In Philadelphia, school officials say they are paying a price for aggressively disciplining misbehaving students. The city had 27 of the state's 28 persistently dangerous schools, which unfairly gave them all a "big black eye," said Paul Vallas, the chief executive for the school district. Vallas has asked the state for a one-year exemption from having to offer transfers to students.
William Craigo cannot think of a single violent crime, let alone a pattern of dangerous behavior, during his eight years as principal at Terrace Hills Middle School in El Paso. Yet the school is one of six campuses out of 7,734 in Texas deemed persistently dangerous.
Craigo blames faulty school data, including rock-throwing incidents counted as serious weapons violations. El Paso school district leaders, in disbelief that four of their schools got tagged as unsafe, have appealed to the state.
"It's a shame people didn't take a look around before they put such a heavy-duty label on us," Craigo said. "You look at the inner cities — much bigger cities than El Paso that didn't get named — and it kind of makes you wonder: What's going on here?"