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Schools at Risk : Teachers Ask: How Safe Is Johnny?


When a student who has hurt someone is transferred to another school, are teachers made aware of the child's history?

Since the 1990-91 school year, California Senate Bill 142 has required school district officials to inform teachers of any student who has caused serious bodily injury to another person. But some teachers say they still don't hear the basics on a student's past from the school administration.

"The bill was meant to protect us because kids come to the school sometimes with a dangerous history," said Carol Rosen Kaplan, a teacher at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys. "But we don't always get the information. In fact, I have never received information on why a student comes into my classroom."

Bruce Williams, a teacher at Muir Junior High School in South Los Angeles, said that in the 10 years he has worked at the school, he has never been briefed on students' experiences before they were transferred to Muir. "I'm not as concerned for my own safety as I am about the safety of the kids," Williams said. "I'm a very conscientious teacher, and I'm not going to hold a child's past against him. But it would be a benefit to both the student and to the teacher to know as much as possible."

The theory behind keeping the past confidential--even from teachers--is that it allows the student a truly fresh start, said Diana Munatones, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "That's why they are called opportunity transfers," she said.

While the district does have a formal policy that each school principal should establish a central file to contain all available confidential information regarding students who have caused--or tried to cause--bodily injury, teachers say the information isn't getting to them.

"Even when I go into the office and ask the office staff to look for me to check on a student's history, the staff is reluctant to be forthright to a teacher," Williams said. "They're acting in what they view as the best interest of the teacher."

Mark Slavkin, an L.A. Unified School District board member, said it's possible the district's policy, which meets the law, isn't trickling down to the school sites and being implemented. "Whether the policy is permeating the hearts and minds of all the staff of the LAUSD remains to be seen," he said.

But Slavkin argued that the real issue on opportunity transfers is that the school's teachers, counselors and administration need to intervene with students sooner, when they begin to show signs of at-risk behavior.

"It needs to be a schoolwide priority to deal with these students early on," he said.

According to Ron Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, the information vacuum places teachers and students at risk. "Most significantly, it may place the opportunity transfer student at greater risk because school administrators and teachers are not able to adequately plan, administer and supervise an appropriate educational and behavioral plan for these students," he said.

Kaplan said teachers want to let these children start over, but wonders why teachers and counselors cannot meet together and discuss an appropriate approach and plan for such students. "If we were really treated as professionals we might be called in and discuss the issues. Then the transfer would be a real opportunity," she said.

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