School safety plays a prominent role in President Bush’s blueprint to improve education, which he unveiled Jan. 23so much so that he has proposed creating an entire section of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA) devoted to school safety when the act is reauthorized later this year.
Under the Bush plan, Title V of the new ESEA would be called “Encouraging safe schools for the 21st century.” Bush’s proposals under this newly created title include consolidating federal grant programs for school safety; empowering teachers to remove violent students from the classroom; relaxing federal restrictions on the sharing of information between schools and law enforcement agencies; and increased funding for character education.
Peter Blauvelt, president of the National Alliance for Safe Schools, said he is encouraged that the president made safety a top priority in his education plan.
“Making safety a separate title [of ESEA] is very important, because in the past, safety and security funding has always be the whim of Congress,” Blauvelt said. “I think this will lend stability to [funding levels for school safety programs] in the future.”
Blauvelt and other school safety experts contacted by Safe Schools Today expressed mixed opinions about some of the president’s other proposals. While they praised the idea of easing restrictions on the sharing of information, they were more wary of Bush’s plans to hold schools accountable for safety and give teachers more discretion.
Here’s a list of the Bush proposals, along with experts’ opinions:
• Consolidation of the Safe & Drug-Free Schools and the 21st Century Community Learning Centers programs into a single, performance-based federal grant. School districts would be able to use these funds for after-school learning opportunities and drug and violence prevention activities. The program also would be expanded to include eligibility of faith-based and community-based organizations.
• Increased accountability: In order for states to receive funds, they must develop a definition for a “persistently dangerous school” and must report on safety on a school-by-school basis. Victims of serious, school-based crimes and students trapped in persistently dangerous schools would be given the option to transfer to a safer alternative.
“I have some problems with this,” Blauvelt said. “For instance, how will we define a ‘persistently dangerous school?’ Each state will probably have to have their own definition, so does that mean we’ll have 50 different definitions? And, what happens if a school is up to par with achievement, but it is still deemed a ‘dangerous school?'”
Jane Grady, assistant director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado at Boulder, agreed. “When you talk about changing school climate, you also have to look at changing the community climate,” she said. “The governor here in Colorado is doing something similar to this, and there has been a lot of controversy.
“We do think that some definition of danger would be good, because it would allow for an examination of school climates, but there must be other ways to deal with [schools that are labeled as ‘persistently dangerous’]. I think we have to find answers within the school and the community. Student transfers may be OK in some situations. … But [they] should never be the first alternative.”
• Teachers would be empowered by the states to remove violent or persistently disruptive students from the classroom. To receive federal funding, states would have to adopt a “zero-tolerance” policy for violent or persistently disruptive students.
“This one really concerns me,” Blauvelt said. “I don’t want to give teachers that authority, because they aren’t administrators. They don’t have the training to deal with certain issues. Personally, I don’t think it’s a good idea to give blanket authority to anyone.”
“The problem I have with this is, when kids are expelled, they have nowhere to go, and they are not in an environment of learning. This kind of thing can cause that child even more problems in the future,” Grady said.
• The Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) would be amended to make it easier for public school districts and local law enforcement authorities to share information regarding disciplinary actions and misconduct by students.
“This is terribly important,” Blauvelt said. “When you look at warning signs, you see a continuum of behavior, often following a student from elementary school to middle school and on to high school. If you can’t share information between schools, then you can’t get on a track for intervention and prevention. You can’t see that warning signs have shown up before. There should definitely be a continuance of intervention from school to school.”
“We suggest what we call a ‘social support team,’ made up of administrators, mental health professionals, law enforcement, and community members,” Grady said. “They’d get together to share information about students at risk, in order to find help for them. That’s the first step.
“Sharing information is really important, and right now the law does not allow a lot of that. After Columbine, for instance, a lot of information came out about [Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the shooters] from law enforcement, community members, and neighbors, but there was not one entity that had all that information.”
• Project Sentry, a new federal-state pertnership, would be established to identify, prosecute, punish, and supervise juveniles who violate state and federal firearms laws.
• Funding for character education grants to states and school districts would be increased. These funds would be used to train teachers in methods of incorporating character-building lessons and activities in the classroom.
“What’s really missing from this [plan] is a major training emphasis to educate administrators about school violence and prevention,” Grady said.
Blauvelt found the overall plan encouraging: “Overall, [the Bush plan] has potential. We need more work done, and we need to make sure we employ people who’ve been in the field for a while. The time is right for some creative thinking about keeping our schools safe.”
“No Child Left BehindPresident George W. Bush’s Plan for Nationwide Education Reform”: http://www.whitehouse.gov/press/reports/no-child-left-behind.pdf
Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence
Institute of Behavioral Science
University of Colorado at Boulder
900 28th Street
Campus Box 442