Schenectady High School joined the list of the state’s 19 most “persistently dangerous” schools — a designation by the state that the city’s Board of Education called “an outrage, irresponsible and reckless.”
The state Education Department on Wednesday released data from the 2006-07 school year of violent incidents. Incidents are rated based on severity and include homicide, forcible and other sexual offenses, robbery, assault or use of a weapon.
Schenectady is the only school from the Capital Region on the list. Sixteen are from New York City. The other two are Little Flower School in Wading River and Berkshire Junior-Senior High School in Canaan.
State officials formulate the list by assigning a weight to the type of incident. The incidents are added together and then the result is divided by the enrollment to come up with a School Violence Index (SVI).
A school is classified as “persistently dangerous” if for two consecutive years it has an SVI of 1.5, which is roughly 6 violent incidents per 100 students, or if it has at least 60 serious incidents and an SVI of at least 0.50.
The data show that Schenectady had two riots without use of a weapon, 30 total incidents of weapons possession, 21 incidents of possession or sale of drugs, four incidents of possession or sale of alcohol and 2,031 other “disruptive incidents.”
In addition, there were two sex offenses with weapons, one physical injury with a weapon, six physical injuries without weapons, four less severe injuries with weapons and 12 less severe injuries without weapons, two reckless endangerment incidents with a weapon, two reckless endangerment incidents without weapons, six minor altercations with weapons and 138 minor altercations without weapons.
There were seven incidents of bullying with weapons, 266 incidents of bullying without weapons, one incident of criminal mischief with a weapon, 10 incidents of criminal mischief without a weapon, one bomb threat and five false alarms.
Superintendent Eric Ely said state officials notified the district that it was potentially going to be on the list. District officials vigorously protested this decision.
“We do not believe it reflects the truth of Schenectady High School,” Ely said, adding that the data are a year old.
Ely said the district is being punished because it accurately reported incidents that occurred at the school.
“Because we’re very, very vigilant and because we’re proactive when things happen, and because we take a strict view of discipline in our district and we do report everything as accurately as we can, basically it gets us on this list,” he said.
For example, in 2006-07, the district had 74 incidents it deemed were “serious offenses” and 29 involved knives that administrators found. Administrators followed up on tips from students that people had brought in weapons. This ends up in the report.
“It’s not reflective of a disruptive environment. It’s reflective of our principals doing their job,” he said.
Ely said that in context, 29 knives found from among 2,700 students over 180 days is not bad.
There were 12 fights during that same period, Ely said.
“If you put 2,700 kids in a building for 180 days a year, I think fights are going to happen. We certainly discourage them and we deal with them as they happen,” he said.
He also noted that every school on the list is a high poverty school and they are predominantly urban schools.
“You’ve got to question whether this list is truthfully accurate and reflective of what’s going on across the state of New York,” he said.
Ely said there were numerous changes since the data were compiled. Associate Superintendent Gary Comley assumed responsibility for the high school in 2007. They also changed two house principals. The district also brought in a retired police officer to be the district’s security chief. It also added another police officer to work with teachers and paraprofessionals on safety issues. They have also addressed teaching staff responsibilities during times when students are most likely to engage in poor behavior, including lunch, between periods and before and after school. Security cameras have also been added to the high school.
The district is also expanding to the high school its Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS) program, which teaches students alternatives to violent behavior and rewards good behavior. Ely said school officials regularly talk to students about the behavior they expect.
“Our students are becoming more and more aware that violent behavior will not be tolerated, disruptive behavior will not be tolerated,” he said.
Ely said he believes the 2007-08 violence statistics will be lower, although he did not have the statistics. Discipline incidents went down between 17 percent and 18 percent from 2005-06 to 2006-07 and have been declining for the last four years.
He said the district will continue to report accurately incidents of violence and not falsify reports. “We’ll continue to be vigilant. We’ll continue to investigate incidents as they come up,” he said.
Schenectady Board of Education President Jeff Janiszewski defended the city’s schools.
“Not only am I kept closely informed of what is going on at Schenectady High in my position as a board member, but I also have two children that attend Schenectady High and two that have graduated from it to college,” he said in a statement. “I am intimately familiar with that school. If it was even slightly dangerous, my children, my flesh and blood, would not be there.”
He also criticized Education Commissioner Richard Mills for slapping this label on Schenectady, which Janiszewski said furthers racist stereotypes and fuels irrational fears that people already have about urban schools.
“His unenlightened approach to educational leadership is shameful. What he did today will not make one child safer but may easily make them more anxious in their school and will certainly damage Schenectady as a community,” Janiszewski said.
Janiszewski accused the state Education Department of changing its discipline records to make sure the city made the list. For example, an empty plastic water bottle was considered a weapon, as was a shoved chair by an angry student even though there wasn’t anyone else close to the chair. In addition, someone reporting something that sounded like a gunshot outside by the football field was considered to be a pellet gun even though nothing was ever seen or found during the investigation, and a child raising a book toward another child without any actual threat of action was considered a weapon-related incident.
“This gives our residents an idea of what state Ed[ucation Department] considers violence,” he said.
Janiszewski acknowledged that the city has students with issues and they act out in fights.
“But, we deal with it and deal with it very well. We have one of the best written discipline codes in the state, and enforce it more aggressively than any school district in the state,” he said. “We have the most progressive positive behavior programs in the state. Do you think the kids that give life to a nationally recognized fine arts program or the premier International Baccalaureate program in the region are dangerous? I think not.”
The number of persistently dangerous schools, 19, is down from the 27 schools identified last year. Eleven schools are remaining from last year’s list.
Last year, Philip Livingston Magnet Academy in Albany was taken off the list. The school had implemented a formal program to deal with bullying. The district also reduced enrollment at the school to improve safety.
Schools are responsible for reporting violent incidents to the state as part of a requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The schools on the list must provide information on school choices so parents can transfer their children to another school if they choose.
Schools on the list must come up with a plan to show the steps they will take to reduce violent incidents and improve safety.
State Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn said that Schenectady was one of two schools that were identified as potentially being on the list because its 2005-06 data were revised.
State Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman said more state aid is made available to the schools that are on this list. State officials work with schools to help them implement their safety plan.
“We don’t just designate them and leave them on their own. We’re there as a partner to get the schools safe for the teachers and the students in those schools,” he said.
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