Column: ‘Dangerous’ not always unsafe

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 2B

Of all the layers of silliness in the No Child Left Behind law, it’s hard to come up with any more poorly thought out than the “persistently dangerous schools” clause.

That’s the part of the law that is supposed to identify which schools are too scary and unsafe for kids to attend. If your school makes the list, it has to give you the chance to transfer to a safer school.

This year, five Texas schools were labeled persistently dangerous. Four are in the Valley, and I’ll admit I don’t know much about them. But the fifth one is a shocker: Cypress Ridge High School in Houston.

Cypress Ridge isn’t some gritty urban school with gangbangers roaming the halls. It’s a middle-class school in the suburbs.

It’s in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, the biggest suburban district in the state. The area has a lot of new growth; Cypress Ridge was built only four years ago and already has 3,500 students. Its test scores are usually better than the state average. If you want to imagine a Dallas-area high school for context, Cypress Ridge’s demographics are comparable to Newman Smith High in Carrollton.

So how did Cypress Ridge get labeled “persistently dangerous”? Was there a serial killer on the loose in AP Chemistry?

Nope. Just a few kids snagging pills from Dad’s medicine cabinet.

See, a Texas school gets the dangerous tag for having too many “expellable incidents” over a three-year span. The problem is that “expellable incidents” can mean a lot of things.

A quintuple homicide in math class is an expellable incident. A gang rape on the football field is an expellable incident.

But so is a kid caught with a single joint. Or one caught with a single Xanax pill he doesn’t have a prescription for.

When you have a system that counts Columbine the same way it counts a stray Ritalin pill, you’re going to get strange outcomes.

That’s what happened at Cypress Ridge. A few years ago, the district decided that it was going to be aggressive about asking kids to report each other when they have prescription medication they shouldn’t. And the district, along with local prosecutors, decided to pursue felony charges in each case.

(Having meds without a prescription is normally a misdemeanor. But state law allows it to be raised to a felony if the possession occurs on a school campus.)

So, over three years at Cypress Ridge, 26 students were charged with felonies because they had prescription drugs that belonged to someone else – most often Mom, Dad or a sibling. In 17 of those cases, the kids had only one or two pills, and none of them were accused of dealing.

Those were enough “expellable incidents” to earn Cypress Ridge the label “persistently dangerous.”

Now, I’m not saying popping Adderall like Tic-Tacs is smart. And I’m not sold on the wisdom of giving felony records to a bunch of kids.

But does Cypress Ridge really sound like a “persistently dangerous” school? One so scary that kids have to be given a transfer path to safety?

The basic problem is that every school reports these sorts of incidents differently.

For instance, an audit by the U.S. Department of Education found that in 2003, at Zumwalt Middle School in southern Dallas, two students from other schools came on campus and shot at a Zumwalt teacher during lunch.

We’re talking bullets, not spit balls.

But according to auditors, the incident never got reported to TEA as an “expellable incident.” Zumwalt got to stay off the danger list.

Want an idea of how bad incident reporting is? In 2003 and 2004, TEA named 11 Texas schools as persistently dangerous. All 11 appealed their cases. And TEA eventually agreed to take all 11 off the list because of reporting errors.

There are plenty of schools in Dallas, Houston and elsewhere with serious gang problems. Last year, Dallas ISD’s police reported more than 5,600 criminal incidents on campuses during an eight-month period.

They weren’t all violent, of course. But there’s no way you can convince me there aren’t dozens of Dallas schools more “persistently dangerous” than Cypress Ridge.

District officials in Cypress-Fairbanks are appealing their inclusion on the list. If history is any guide, there’s a good chance they’ll be successful.

But there’s a bigger issue here.

In this age of accountability – when we’re so eager to slap ratings and labels on schools – everything rides on the quality of the data. If systems are fed bad information, they’ll produce dumb results.

Schools get judged on how well they teach their kids. But that assumes that teachers aren’t helping students cheat on state tests. That’s how some Wilmer-Hutchins schools earned “exemplary” ratings while being among the worst schools in the country.

Schools get judged on how many of their teens they can keep from dropping out. But that assumes all schools are reporting honestly and accurately. They’re not.

Officially, only 8 percent of Dallas students drop out over the course of high school. Tell me how that makes sense in a district that enrolls 14,000 freshmen and 7,000 seniors.

There are a lot of ways to describe this sort of number-shaping. Sometimes, it’s honest people making mistakes. Sometimes, it’s a broken system. Sometimes, it’s simple fraud.

But the point is that you can’t trust the labels if you can’t trust the numbers that back them.

As the saying goes: Garbage in, garbage out. And there’s an alarming amount of garbage.