Six Baltimore schools tagged as `dangerous'


State education officials yesterday labeled six Baltimore middle and high schools "persistently dangerous," meaning suspensions there for serious offenses were too high.

Of the six, Calverton, Thurgood Marshall and Highlandtown middle schools have been considered dangerous by state standards for the past four years. Highlandtown is closing this summer.

At first blush, the rankings would seem to make Baltimore's school system one of the most dangerous in the nation. But Maryland is one of only six states that reports having any dangerous schools under the No Child Left Behind Act, largely because its rules are more stringent than those of many other states.

In recent years, for example, neither Chicago nor Los Angeles had any schools labeled as dangerous.

A year ago, six schools - also all in Baltimore - were labeled as dangerous. But since then, the number of suspensions and expulsions for dangerous offenses went down at five of them. This year, three schools lost their designation as dangerous, but three were added.

In the 2004-2005 school year, Maryland had a fifth of all the persistently dangerous schools in the nation, second only to Pennsylvania, which had nine, according to a report by Education Sector, an nonpartisan education think tank.

"The provision may have been well-intended, but it is not being implemented in any manner that makes much sense," said Jack Jennings, an authority on federal law and president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based nonprofit organization. "Many states ignore it. There are so many things to worry about with No Child Left Behind that this is just a gnat."

The listing of these schools is required under the federal law. In compiling the list, state officials set a limit on the suspension rate for the school's population. The violations include assault on a student or teacher, bringing a weapon to school, setting a fire or sexual assault.

The designation means that parents of students in the six schools will be notified and given the opportunity to move their children to another school before the beginning of the academic year. The schools do not receive any additional financial assistance, but Baltimore is required to present a plan to the state on how it intends to improve the schools.

The three city schools added this year are Liberal Arts @Walbrook, Dr. Roland N. Patterson Sr. Academy and Dr. W.E.B. Dubois High School.

One of the city's new high schools, the Academy for College and Career Exploration was placed on probationary status.

Schools in Prince George's County - which were on a watch list last year - have not provided data to the state.

The report, submitted to the Maryland State Board of Education yesterday, aroused the concern of state board members who questioned whether one or two students with severe behavior problems might be suspended enough times to give the school a label.

For instance, ACCE had six incidents last year, enough to earn the warning because the school has fewer than 300 students.

Board member Jo Ann T. Bell acknowledged her discomfort in the way the state labels some schools and not others.

"We put a tag on a whole school when it boils down to a few students," she said.

Teachers at some of the "persistently dangerous" schools have argued that the label actually makes schools more chaotic and violent because principals are afraid to hand out suspensions even when they're deserved. That sends a signal to students that bad behavior is not punished.

Charles Buckler, director of student services and alternative programs, said the state has heard that the problem exists but has no data to back it up. The state measures suspensions and expulsions, but it does not count arrests or other criminal conduct at schools. The policy was developed that way, he said, because counties do not have a uniform system for reporting crime data and one jurisdiction's statistics might vary from those of another.

Despite the problems in the way the federal law has been implemented around the nation, state educators argue that it has had the effect of forcing schools to focus on improving discipline. At Calverton and Thurgood Marshall middle schools, the number of suspensions for serious offenses dropped significantly last year.

"We are working on trying to address the underlying issues" that cause school violence and disruption, said Charlene Cooper Boston, the new interim chief executive officer for the city schools.

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