A number of Bay Area schools — including several in San Mateo County — have struggled with high levels of safety-related problems such as disruptive behavior, student alcohol use and vandalism, according to a study released earlier this week.
The study by the San Francisco-based think tank Pacific Research Institute listed, for instance, the San Francisco 49ers Academy in East Palo Alto and Bayside S.T.E.M. Academy in San Mateo as among the top 100 schools statewide with the most reported suspensions and expulsions involving obscene and disruptive behavior in the 2007-08 academic year.
Local school leaders raised concerns this week about the report’s accuracy and were checking into the details. But they say student safety remains a high priority.
“We had not seen (the report),” Joan Rosas, assistant superintendent for the San Mateo-Foster City School District, which had two schools listed in the report, said Thursday. “We are going to double-check the numbers.”
The report analyzed school data from the State Department of Education and found that suspensions and expulsions relating to safety violations rose 7 percent from 788,000 in 2004-05 to 845,000 in 2007-08 despite declining enrollment across California.
“Those figures actually understate the full prevalence of such incidents, because only those resulting in student expulsions or suspensions are reported, not the number of actual incidents that occurred,” report co-author Evelyn Stacey said in a news release.
The report argued that unsafe campuses are not being identified because the state’s definition of a persistently dangerous school is too narrow. Basically, a school is defined as persistently dangerous if it reaches a certain amount of violations for three consecutive years. The definition also factors in enrollment and the number of expulsions.
A student in a school deemed dangerous can attend another campus. But no California school has been deemed dangerous since the current definition was adopted in 2002, according to state education officials.
“California parents should not have to wait for years at a time before the state grants their children access to safe, secure and peaceful schools,” said Vicki Murray, the other author of the report. “Most important, students should not have to be victimized before their parents can take decisive action.”
The report’s call to change the definition is “their opinion,” said Stephanie Papas, education programs specialist for the Safe and Healthy Kids office of the state Education Department.
It’s not a bad thing that the state gives schools time to fix their problems, Papas said. A school could be at risk for a dangerous label one year but address its disruptive behavior in time to be fine the following year, she said.
According to the report, the 49ers Academy had about 80 incidents of obscene and disruptive behavior per 100 students while Bayside showed 56 cases.
Lovonya DeJean Middle School in West Contra Costa Unified had 105, the report said, and Santa Rita Elementary in the Los Altos district also had about 80. Both were listed among the top 100 schools for that category.
According to the report, Thomas Pollicita Middle School in Daly City and Brewer Island Elementary in Foster City showed up among the top 100 schools for drug and alcohol offenses in 2007-08.
The report also included Nesbit Elementary in Belmont and Fernando Rivera Intermediate in Daly City in the top list for vandalism and stealing.
Cherie Ho, an official with the Belmont-Redwood Shores district, disputed the report’s finding for Nesbit, where she previously served as principal.
“I’m trying to find out where they got their statistics from,” Ho said. “We’re a California Distinguished School. How can we be dangerous?”
Matteo Rizzo, superintendent for the Jefferson Elementary District, which oversees Pollicita and Rivera, maintained that his schools are safe.
“They are vigilant,” Rizzo said. “We do have structures in place to monitor students. We have campus supervisors and counselors. I can tell you that incidences of misbehavior are taken seriously. We report them and involve the parents.”
Institute spokeswoman Kelly Gorton acknowledged that some data used in the report could be erroneous.
“We are happy to have schools contact us to correct it,” Gorton said.
To see the report, visit pacificresearch.org/publications/not-as-safe-as-you-think.