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What Kind of Equity?

Low-income students say they don't feel safe in school

School is the last place kids should be afraid to go. But every day, thousands of this county's poorest kids apparently walk the halls of our schools in fear. It's a problem most school board members Creative Loafing talked to weren't even aware of, and weren't exactly eager to solve.

Safety goals set by school system leaders say that by 2005, 95 percent of students taking an annual survey should say they felt safe at school. But the 2002-2003 Goals 2005 survey results show just how far there is to go toward meeting, or even coming close to, that goal. Not a single middle or high school in the system met the goal. Worse yet, kids at schools with the highest number of children on free and reduced lunch programs disagreed with the statement "I feel safe at school" at a much higher rate than kids at suburban schools with lower poverty levels.

It's the dark side of equity no one's talking too much about. Over the past few years, this community has spent millions to replace and update crumbling schools with high numbers of low-income kids to make them physically "equitable" with newer, more attractive schools attended by kids from more economically stable families. Millions more have been spent on educational programs to bridge the gaps between poor kids and more economically advantaged ones. But little attention has been paid to the perceived safety gap in schools, or how students' fear could impact their ability to get an education.

School board chairperson Joe White wasn't familiar with the surveys when CL asked him about them.

"I'm not sure why anybody ought to be real surprised at the data," he said. "If you asked the same thing about neighborhoods and parts of town, you'd find that those kids who come from those conditions would say they feel the least safe."

According to this year's Goals 2005 survey results, 85.2 percent of kids at Providence High School on Pineville-Matthews Road agreed that they feel safe in school. At 5 percent of the student population, Providence has the lowest number of kids in the county on free and reduced lunch programs and the highest number of students who say they feel safe. Across town at West Charlotte High School on Tuckaseegee Road, where close to 40 percent of the students are on free and reduced lunch programs, only 36.5 percent of kids said they felt safe at school.

Of the county's 16 high schools, the six that had the highest or among the highest poverty and free and reduced lunch levels were also the ones with the lowest numbers of students who said they felt safe. At Garinger and Harding University High Schools, 43.5 and 47.9 percent of students said they felt safe. At Garinger, 48 percent of students are on free and reduced lunch programs, at Harding, 28 percent. Contrast that with Butler High School on Matthews Mint-Hill Road, where only 2 percent of students have parents who make below $25,000 a year and 84.6 percent of kids say they feel safe.

The problem is even starker at middle schools. Fifty-five percent or less said they felt safe at 10 of the county's 28 middle schools. At Spaugh Middle School on Herbert Spaugh Lane, where 87 percent of students are on the free and reduced lunch program, only 31 percent said they felt safe. But at Crestdale Middle School on Sam Newell Road, where 17 percent are on the programs, 80 percent say they feel safe.

The surveys were conducted before the highly publicized seizure of 10 guns this winter. But another little-known statistic could explain some students' fears. According to the 2002-2003 Student Survey, which was completed by 20,838 students in grades 5, 7 and 11, large percentages of students at lower-income schools disagreed with the statement "There are not a lot of fights at my school."

Fighting or student assault is an issue that has received little attention in the media or by the school board, but it appears to be a big concern among students. Earlier this year, the NC Department of Public Instruction released the 10th annual Report on School Crime and Violence, which showed that violence in Mecklenburg County schools was down. The report, however, covers assaults on school personnel but doesn't track student-on-student assaults unless they result in serious injury.

But if students are to be believed, fighting and student assault is a problem in our schools, particularly at those with high numbers of low-income children. At the county's six highest-fear high schools, between 61 and 84 percent of students disagreed with the statement "There are not a lot of fights at my school." At six of the middle schools where high numbers of students indicated they didn't feel safe, between 60 and 84 percent of students disagreed with the statement.

"I wish I could tell you I had some great plan or panacea to address it," White said. "You're generally talking about those children who come from a less desirable economic situation. Do we need to focus on those? Absolutely, you have to invest more of your resources in those children. The real issue for this school board and previous ones is how do you address the needs of all children without some groups feeling you are taking away from other groups? The school system does care and we are working on it."

White acknowledged that the county would have trouble attracting businesses if students didn't feel safe in our schools and said the issue was one that the school system couldn't solve without the help of the community.

School board member Kaye McGarry says there were guns and fights in public schools when her kids attended. At the same time, she says, administrators need to do a better job of backing up teachers and enforcing discipline.

"I believe in zero tolerance," she said. "A message needs to be sent loud and clear from the top and the support needs to be there for them," she said.

School board member Larry Gauvreau sees things differently. He says many of his school board members are aware of the problem, which he calls "the bully system," but don't want to address it.

"I think we've got a lot of bullies floating around and a lot of teachers afraid of bullies," Gauvreau said. "If you talk to the teachers they'll say they just get back in the classrooms again and they want to throw up their hands. We just kind of roll over. There's too many kids that are bullies and ought to be thrown out. The popular assumption is that there is nothing that can be done. One of the rationales is that the child won't be educated, that we have to hold on to these kids because we can't remove them from the school system . . . I'm all for building more alternative schools if we can confine these students who are causing the problem," he said. "We need to remove these kids."

School board member George Dunlap did not return our calls for comment.

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