Nevada educators work on dangerous-schools list

Nevada educators are rushing to complete a federally mandated list of dangerous schools -- after hastily revising new state standards to avoid unwarranted designations.

Nevada's tentative list, which won't be completed until next week and could be revised further, includes eight designated dangerous schools out of some 600 public elementary or secondary schools in the state, about 1 percent.

Nationally, only 52 of 91,000 public schools are labeled persistently dangerous by their states. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia reported no unsafe schools.

Nevada was one of only six states to designate unsafe schools under the federal No Child Left Behind initiative, prompting critics to call the listings meaningless.

"It just strains credulity," said Washoe County School District spokesman Steve Mulvenon, noting that neighboring California listed no dangerous schools.

Nevada's Department of Education initially devised a formula this summer that labels a school "persistently dangerous" if criminal citations during one school year equal 2 percent of the students in schools with up to 750 students, 1.75 percent in schools with 750 to 1,500 students, or 1.5 percent in schools of more than 1,500 students.

Under the state's standards, crimes range from hazing or harassment to sexual assault, kidnapping, mayhem or murder at schools, on school buses or at school-sponsored events.

State schools chief Jack McLaughlin said educators added a variance procedure because it didn't seem fair to include "a very small school and only one incident."

A battery charge against one student in the only public school in tiny Gerlach in northern Washoe County could have qualified that school for the unsafe list because it has so few students. The one Gerlach case worked out to 2 percent because only about 50 students were enrolled there in the 2002-3 school year.

Department of Education consultant Michael Fitzgerald said changes in the standards were needed because "We're looking at circumstances that we hadn't predicted."

Fitzgerald said variances are warranted because the "dangerous" designation is "important enough -- and hurtful enough" to students, parents and teachers.

Once a school has that designation, any students can seek a transfer to another school.

Nevada wanted the transfer option to start in 2005, but the U.S. Department of Education told state officials that the transfers should be available this fall.

Of the eight schools on the state's tentative "dangerous" list, seven are in Washoe County and one is in Clark County. However, McLaughlin said that's based on incomplete crime reports that show only incidents from last school year.

Federal education officials called for a review of three consecutive years, and that analysis won't be completed before Tuesday, McLaughlin said.

The higher number of Washoe schools compared with a lower figure in Clark -- the county that encompasses the populous Las Vegas area -- also raised some concerns about reporting methods from the state's school districts.

Washoe County school officials might have been "more proactive" in trying to designate schools, Fitzgerald said.

McLaughlin said he didn't think there's a problem with underreporting by Nevada's schools.

"Our standards are so specific. They involve citations that are dealt with by police," he said. "Underreporting is not an option in the state."

Gibson Middle School is the only Clark County school on the tentative list. Washington and Biltmore continuation high schools were included but Brad Reitz, assistant superintendent of student support services for the Clark County School District, said the two alternative high schools were exempted because they're designed to handle many students who are habitual discipline cases.

The Washoe schools on the tentative unsafe list include O'Brien, Pine, Sparks, Swope and Traner middle schools, Cannan Elementary School and Hug High.

Mulvenon said the district is complying with the law, but local school officials are unhappy that different reporting standards in other states have "clearly been designed to exclude any school."

Reitz questioned the request from the state and federal government to look at three years of student crime data.

"I just think they're overstepping their authority," he said. "In good faith, we attempted to comply. It took several weeks of counting and sorting by offense (for the last school year) for about 300 schools."

D.J. Stutz, president of the Nevada PTA, said that despite problems with the new federal act "it's a good start, we're heading in the right direction. I'm sure we're going to see some changes down the road at all levels in how they're dealing with this."

"It's going to take a couple of years to get definitions and consistency that we can be comfortable with," she added. "Even within the state, I'm not convinced that their designations are consistent."

Even without a "dangerous" designation, the new law gives any student who's a victim of a crime at one school the right to transfer to another school, Stutz said.


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