UNSAFE SCHOOL CHOICE OPTION
Questions and Answers
How did the state develop the criteria?
In accordance with the No Child Left Behind Act, the state appointed an Unsafe School Choice Advisory Panel with representatives from schools randomly selected to represent a variety of school types, staff positions, and locations in the state. The advisory panel identified the types of incidents and agreed on the parameters for the criteria. The Department, based on the advisory panels input, developed the criteria for determining when a school is in the category of persistently dangerous. Department of Education staff met with members of the Attorney Generals Education Law Enforcement Working Group on three occasions to review the criteria. The professional education associations were also apprised of the criteria and given a chance to comment.
Are you satisfied that the criteria are adequate and fair?
The broad-based process for creating the criteria assured that it is adequate and fair. The department made sure that the criteria used showed a persistent pattern to acts of violence. DOE has worked with districts to promote safe schools for many years. We know there are problems, and we have worked to help districts address them. Providing assistance to schools experiencing unsafe conditions is not new to the Department of Education.
Are you surprised that the formula for determining the persistently dangerous schools identified only seven schools? Does that number correlate with your experience in helping districts that needed it?
We are not surprised because the state and the local districts take school safety seriously. We do not have schools where conditions are out of hand. The Department of Education has been assisting districts and schools with safety issues for decades. In 1994, that kind of help was formalized in New Jerseys Safe Schools Initiative. In the last decade, the department has also done the following:
- Developed and disseminated several major guidance documents such as a Guide for the Development of a Districtwide School Safety Plan and the Resource Manual for Intervention and Referral Services;
- Supported new violence-related statutes including the requirement for districts to conduct public hearings on all acts of violence and vandalism that occurred in the previous school year;
- Proposed to the State Board new regulations that will impose a penalty on a school employee who knowingly falsifies a report of an incident of violence or vandalism;
- Developed an Unsafe School Choice Option policy in accordance with federal law;
- Implemented many initiatives related to safe schools, including the Safe Schools and Communities Violence Prevention and Response Plan Initiative and the Character Education Initiative;
- Collaborated on violence prevention programs provided by the Departments of Law and Public Safety, Human Services, and Health and Senior Services, as well as counseling and mental health organizations, the courts, and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey;
- Continued to address the recommendations of the student discipline policy forums that included developing regulations; providing technical assistance; and
- Convened an advisory panel to consider consistent uses of alternative education policies and programs for general education students who have been suspended or expelled from school.
The department is committed to ongoing support for school districts to improve comprehensive school safety programs and further reduce incidences of violence and vandalism.
The state has based its criteria for labeling a school persistently dangerous on its data collection system. How accurate is that system?
The Department of Education has used its Electronic Violence and Vandalism Reporting System (EVVRS) for the last three years. School districts enter data into the system throughout the school year. The department annually provides a report to the Legislature in accordance with state law.
DOE has worked closely with schools to clarify definitions about what should be reported in each category, and we have tried to assure that a self-reporting system based on a subjective judgment is as accurate as possible. Specifically, the DOE has provided ongoing technical assistance and guidance in the form of training programs, videotapes and written materials. We feel that these efforts have steadily improved the reporting system, and we will continue to refine it.
The EVVRS is not meant to be punitive, but rather to assist districts and the state in understanding the scope and nature of school violence in order to guide state policy and local program decisions to make schools safer for all who work and learn in them. It is in no ones interest to misrepresent data on the safety of the school environment.
Do you know how New Jerseys data compare to other states?
It would be very difficult to compare data among the states because they have different collection systems and different criteria for meeting the law. Short of having the federal government mandate how the states collect data and what criteria must be applied, there is no way to compare data among states.
The state knows from the choice provision for students in schools in need of improvement that most districts, because of space constraints, would not be able to offer a choice to a lot of students within the districts other public schools. How is a school labeled persistently dangerous going to find spaces for all children who want to go to another school?
Since this process is new, the number of possible student transfer requests is unknown. When school choice options were put in effect last year for schools in need of academic improvement, there was surprisingly little movement from one school to another. One of the most important elements is the involvement of the community in the solution to make schools safer. The department will continue to help districts find creative solutions in their corrective action plans, so that all schools become as safe as possible.
Now that the schools have been identified, does the Department of Education have a continued role?
The department has placed high priority on safe schools for decades. In the last ten years it has launched many programs and initiatives to help keep students and staff safe in school. The state will continue to provide resources to support program implementation.
The schools that have been identified must create corrective action plans. The department will offer guidance and encourage the schools to make this a true community effort. The corrective action plans have to be well thought out, innovative, and include as many community resources as possible.