“We’re thrilled,” declared my friend when I called to find out what school they’d chosen for their 5-year-old daughter. “There’s this beautiful garden, and the teachers seem brilliant. There are science and art projects everywhere you look.”

My friend was one of those übermoms — she’d toured a bazillion private and public schools. She thought carefully about what would be right for her little learning sponge.

From dream to nightmare

But within a few weeks of school starting, she left me a message: “We’ve been in kindergarten hell!” Her daughter loved the new school and was learning like gangbusters, but something wasn’t working. “We’re switching schools.”

What could justify a parent summarily yanking her child out of a school she loves?

How unsafe schools affect student learning

In a word: safety. For most parents, school security is the place where the rubber meets the rule book. If your child isn’t safe from violence, bullying, sexual harassment, and fear — even if everything else is perfect — brilliant teachers and gorgeous gardens just can’t balance it out. After all, studies suggest that when children feel threatened, both their academic performance and emotional health suffer. Stress hormones impair kids’ neurological development, and they are literally unable to learn in the same way.

The problem with safety statistics

But school safety (or a lack thereof) isn’t as visible as a new paint job or a science display, as my friend discovered. It took just a single child with persistently violent behavior — and an administration that didn’t know how to handle him — for her child’s dream school to turn into a nightmare.

Unfortunately, safety statistics are not as easily available as they should be. During a 2009 hearing before Congress, experts bemoaned the sorry state of the nation’s school-safety statistics and how shoddy records have a deleterious effect on school security as a whole.

Tips for parents …

So what’s a concerned parent to do?

  1. Don’t be afraid to be the squeaky wheel. Ask the principal for the school-safety records. According to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), schools are required to keep track of incidences of crime and expulsion.
  2. Surf the web. Check your school’s profile on GreatSchools to see how fellow parents rate safety issues.
  3. Speak to the supervisor. Contact your school district to see if it keeps records of bullying, expulsions, and crime. If it does, they should be available to parents.
  4. Take it to the statehouse (or its website). Look up your state’s school-safety data. Under NCLB (pdf), states must report school-safety statistics to the public on a school-by-school basis, and districts must use federal funding to establish a plan for keeping schools safe and drug free. (According to GreatSchools data researchers, few states have readily available online resources for this information, despite NCLB. Those that do are listed in the sidebar “Get the Facts.”)
  5. Conduct your own personal survey. Ask parents of fellow students for their feedback. A single incident that generates a lot of gossip doesn’t prove that the school has safety problems. On the other hand, the school’s response to the incident may speak volumes about the administration’s ability to handle issues when they arise.
  6. Know your child’s rights. Should you find your child is attending a dangerous school, it may qualify as a “persistently violent school.” NCLB requires that students at such schools have the choice to switch to a safe public one within the district.