As American students head back to school, many parents will
worry about their children's safety at school during the coming
year. School safety will likely be a top concern
of families living in Washington, D.C. In 2009, the U.S. Department
of Education reported that 11.3 percent of D.C. high school
students reported being "threatened or injured" with a weapon while
on school property during the previous year--a rate well above the
In recent years, the District of Columbia school system has
undergone significant reforms, including Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's
school takeover initiative, an ambitious reform agenda under
Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and implementation of the D.C.
Opportunity Scholarship Program, a federal private school choice
initiative. As District leaders, policymakers on Capitol Hill, and
the Obama Administration consider the future of education reform in
D.C. schools, ensuring that all children attend school in a safe
learning environment should be a primary focus.
To help policymakers and the public understand the issue of
school safety in D.C. schools, The Heritage Foundation submitted a
Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the District of
Columbia Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) in November 2008 for
information on the incidence of school violence and criminal
activity in D.C. schools, including public, private, and charter
schools. In April 2009, the MPD fulfilled the request by providing
a data set of 911 calls reporting crime and emergency incidents at
District schools from January 2006 through February 2009.
This CDA Report presents an analysis of the data for the
2007-2008 school year, the most recent full school year for which
data were available. While these data should be interpreted with
caution, this analysis should help parents and the public to judge
the relative safety of schools in the nation's capital by showing
where the MPD has responded to reports of violence, crime, and
other incidents at District schools.
The data reveal that during the 2007-2008 school year, police
responded to more than 900 calls to 911 reporting violent incidents
at the addresses of D.C. public schools and more than 1,300 events
concerning property crimes. The data reveal a wide variance in the
locations of these reported incidents. Some public schools with
high rates of 911 calls are located within high-crime
neighborhoods. In addition, while one should use these data with
care when comparing the relative safety of public, charter, and
private schools, this data set shows that a drastically higher rate
of calls were made from D.C. public schools.
The high rate of incidents at the addresses of many D.C. schools
suggests that students would benefit if their families had greater
ability to choose safe schools for their children. This is
supported by surveys of families participating in the D.C.
Opportunity Scholarship Program, which found that safety is an
important factor in how families choose schools. Regrettably, the
recent decision by the U.S. Department of Education to withdraw
scholarships from approximately 200 students who were newly
admitted to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program will have the
practical effect of forcing many children to attend less safe
As District and federal policymakers consider future education
reforms, school safety should be a priority in D.C. public and
charter schools. Moreover, the federal government and the District
should support providing more school choice options for District
families, including greatly expanding the D.C. Opportunity
Scholarship Program, to ensure that all children have a chance to
attend safe schools of their parents' choice.
School Violence and Crime in D.C.
In May 2009, Latasha Bennett, a single mother of two children
living in the District, testified before the Senate Homeland
Security and Governmental Affairs Committee about why she wanted to
have the ability to choose her children's schools:
I already lost a nephew to the D.C. schools. You may remember
the story Feb. 2, 2004 of James Richardson 17 year old, student at
Ballou a star football player, who was shot inside the school. That
was my nephew. His assigned neighborhood school was unsafe and had
low expectations for the students. I wonder if he would be sitting
here today as a success story, if a scholarship had been available
for him to attend a private school. The scholarship provides my
child an opportunity to be in a quality educational environment and
I know he will be a productive citizen in the future. I will not
lose my babies when they are so bright and willing to learn.
Discussions about reforming public education often focus on
issues involving academic achievement, such as test scores and
graduation rates. Yet for many parents like Latasha Bennett, a
critical issue is whether their children can attend a safe school.
Regrettably, past evidence and experience suggest that many
children in the nation's capital attend schools that are not
Statistics show that the D.C. public school system is one of the
most dangerous in the country. In 2009, the U.S. Department of
Education reported that 11.3 percent of D.C. high school students
reported being "threatened or injured" with a weapon on school
property during the previous year--a rate well above the national
average and higher than most states. Reports from nongovernmental
sources have confirmed that many students in D.C. schools are
exposed to violence and crime on a regular basis. For example,
The Washington Post reported in 2007 that nine violent
school incidents are reported on a typical day in Washington,
Many D.C. children are also exposed to violence outside of
school. A 2001 analysis by the Urban Institute found that most
assaults and robberies against juveniles in the District occur
between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., at the end of the traditional school
day. The weekday after-school commute had the highest frequency of
crimes against District juveniles.
Dangerous incidents on the campuses of many D.C. schools are of
great concern to parents and a key reason why many families have
sought to take advantage of programs, such as the D.C. Opportunity
Scholarship Program, that allow families to choose their children's
school. Focus groups and surveys of families participating in the
program have confirmed the importance of safety. A 2009 evaluation
published by the U.S. Department of Education reported that 17
percent of the parents of the first cohort of children
participating in the program listed school safety as their most
important reason for seeking a scholarship.
In 2005, the D.C. Council and Mayor Anthony Williams finalized
legislation giving the MPD responsibility for school security for
the District of Columbia Public Schools. Beginning with the
2005-2006 school year, the MPD deployed a combination of sworn
police officers and private security personnel to provide an
enhanced presence in the District's schools. Under the supervision
of the MPD's new School Security Division, District-based Hawk One
Security hired, screened, and assigned 300 personnel to campuses in
all eight wards, where they served alongside 99 police officers.
The change followed a vigorous debate in the community and
numerous city council hearings about school safety, largely in
response to the fatal shooting of James Richardson, Ms. Bennett's
nephew, at Ballou Senior High School in February 2004.
Richardson was shot by another student who had entered the school
through a side door that had been left ajar. The victim was
standing outside the school's first-floor day care center, and the
resulting confusion was exacerbated by crowded hallways caused by a
two-hour delay in opening school due to wintry road conditions.
A September 2004 report by the District's Inspector General
identified numerous, serious security weaknesses: "The District's
schools remain vulnerable to planned or random acts of violence
that could otherwise be reduced through improved security measures
and the implementation of sound policy guidelines."
The report's recommendations included securing school doors, fixing
or replacing broken surveillance equipment, and maintaining better
Two years later, the D.C. Council passed legislation giving
Mayor Fenty control of the city's public schools. The Master
Education Plan presented by the Fenty administration in February
2006 included as one of its five core beliefs that "all students
should be educated in a safe, healthy and educationally appropriate
environment." In October 2007, Fenty announced a
detailed plan to improve security and safety. That plan's perimeter
security project was a central component and included fixing fire
code violations and installing new locks on doors. These
improvements centered around eight high schools (Ballou, Anacostia,
Coolidge, Cardozo, Roosevelt, Wilson, Spingarn, and Dunbar) and
Johnson Junior High School.
In the two years since the Fenty administration launched its
school safety reform initiatives, the absence of new widely
reported tragedies has provided some sense of progress. School
leaders certainly deserve credit for avoiding an increase in
violence, which some observers had predicted following the
system-wide school closings and consolidations at the start of the
2008-2009 school year.
Yet the time has come for the District of Columbia to review the
condition of school safety in all D.C. public schools. Have D.C.
schools become safer in the wake of these reforms? Could D.C. do
more to ensure that all children have a safe educational
School Safety in the District of
To help to answer these questions, The Heritage Foundation
submitted a FOIA request to the Metropolitan Police Department in
November 2008 requesting records of crime incidents in D.C. public,
private, and charter schools. The MPD filled this
request on April 14, 2009, by providing 911 tape data of calls for
crime and emergency incidents at the addresses of D.C. schools from
January 1, 2006, through February 5, 2009. The data set included
more than 25,000 reported incidents documenting more than 300
different types of crime and emergency incidents reported at the
addresses of D.C. public, charter, and private schools during the
period. The data included non-criminal incidents that were handled
by the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services and D.C. Department
of Public Works.
The data presented in this report are limited to crime-related
incidents reported to the MPD during the 2007-2008 school year,
excluding the summer months. This is the most recent full school
year for which data were available. The figures reflect the
level of crime-related incidents reported to the police during all
hours of the day and night during the 2007-2008 school year. Thus,
the crime data presented in this analysis represent the general
amount of crime reported to occur at school locations.
Given that schools with more students are expected to have
higher levels of crime-related incidents than schools with fewer
students, the number of reported incidents per 100 students was
calculated based on school enrollment data. Expressing the
crime-related incidents as rates allows comparison of the
schools. For instance, schools with larger student
populations would be expected to have more reported crimes than
schools with smaller student populations. Using rates instead of
raw counts adjusts the crime data for student enrollment. However,
complete enrollment figures for each public, charter, and private
school were not obtained. Thus, the rates were calculated only for
schools for which enrollment data were obtained.
The data set of 911 call incidents should be interpreted with
some caution because it documents calls for assistance in response
to some event that a person believed required police attention
without proof that an incident or crime had actually occurred.
Information about the outcome of the call, such as whether an
arrest was made or charges were filed, was not provided. Some of
the incidents recorded in the data were likely unfounded.
Conversely, some crimes were committed without generating a 911
call; therefore, no incidents were reported.
Therefore, the 911 data provided by the Metropolitan Police
Department should be analyzed with a clear understanding of what
they represent: calls reporting that some incident had occurred at
a school. However, with these cautions in mind, people concerned
about the issue of school safety can view these data as an
approximation of the frequency with which children attending D.C.
schools are probably exposed to a variety of troubling incidents at
Incidents of Crime Reported at
While this data set shows that the police department responded
to many fewer calls to charter and private schools, this
information should be interpreted with caution, and readers should
be careful to understand the differences among public, charter, and
private schools when drawing comparisons. The MPD assumed
responsibility for security for D.C. public schools in 2005, making
it the first responder to reports of trouble and an actively alert
presence in schools. Charter schools and private schools in the
District of Columbia have different arrangements for the provision
of school security, and many contract with private security
Because of the different arrangements, District public schools
would be expected to generate more 911 calls to the police
department for incidents that did not involve serious crimes, such
as disorderly or disruptive behavior, which school leaders may
normally handle internally without police involvement. Further,
school administration can influence the level of crime and disorder
that occurs in schools. Schools that provide students with
understandable rules, accompanied by appropriate rewards and
sanctions, appear to have less disorder.
In addition to the different security arrangements and
administrative techniques at D.C. public, charter, and private
schools, criminogenic (risk) factors may explain differences in
reported incidents of crime at these schools. First, charter and
private schools may be located in safer neighborhoods than D.C.
public schools. Second, the students enrolled in charter and
private schools may have behavioral characteristics that are
markedly different from those of students attending public
Public Schools. During the 2007- 2008 school year, 3,500
incidences of crime were reported to the Metropolitan Police
Department from D.C. public schools: 912 incidences of violent
crime, 1,338 incidences of property crimes, and 1,250 other
incidences. These incidents occurred during all days and times
during the school year. (See Table 1.)
- The 912 violent incidents (1.9 violent incidents per 100
students) included one homicide.
- Simple assault, the most prevalent type of violent incident
reported, accounted for 648 reports (1.3 per 100 students). In
addition, there were 114 aggravated assaults (0.2 per 100
- There were 1,338 incidences of property crime reported (2.9 per
- The most prevalent property incident was theft, of which there
were 446 reported incidents (1.0 per 100 students).
- There were 1,250 incidents of other crime-related activities,
including 461 reported incidents of disorderly conduct (1.0 per 100
- The sound of gunshots was reported in 49 incidents.
Public Charter Schools. During the 2007-2008 school year,
82 incidences of crime were reported to 911 from D.C. charter
schools. (See Table 2.) These included:
- 17 reported violent incidents (0.08 per 100 students), which
were all simple assaults;
- 28 incidents of property crime (0.1 per 100 students);
- 21 thefts (0.10 per 100 students), the most prevalent type of
- Three incidents of disorderly conduct (0.01 incidents per 100
- Two reports of gunshots.
Private Schools. During the 2007-2008 school year, 232
incidences of crime were reported to 911 from D.C. private schools.
(See Table 3.) These included:
- 28 violent incidents (0.16 per 100 students);
- 14 simple assaults (0.09 per 100 students), which were the
majority of the reported violent incidents;
- 131 incidents of property crime (0.77 incidents per 100
- 58 thefts (0.35 per 100 students), the most prevalent type of
property incident; and
- 30 incidents of disorderly conduct (0.17 per 100
Schools with Potentially Serious
Reviewing the MPD responses to 911 calls by school reveals that
certain schools appear to have greater problems with school
violence and safety. Table 4 and Table 5 show the numbers and rates
of incidences reported at select schools.
Senior High Schools. Dunbar Senior High School (Ward 5)
and Anacostia Senior High School (Ward 8) were the two senior high
schools with the highest numbers of police responses to violent
crime complaints. Dunbar had 55 calls for aggravated and simple
assaults, while Anacostia had 47 calls. The schools were of
comparable size, with both enrolling over 900 students in grades
9-12 during the 2007-2008 school year.
The police department also responded to a high number of calls
at other high schools. Eastern Senior High School (Ward 6), with
more than 900 students enrolled, had 38 aggravated and simple
assault reports. Ballou Senior High (Ward 8), the largest D.C.
public high school, with more than 2,100 students enrolled, had 34
aggravated and simple assault reports. It also had the highest
incidences of disorderly behavior and robbery incidents involving a
gun or knife.
Coolidge Senior High School (Ward 4), Roosevelt Senior High
School (Ward 4), and Spingarn Senior High School (Ward 5) each had
20 to 29 reports of aggravated and simple assault. Roosevelt, with
an enrollment of 1,100 students, was the largest of the three
schools. Under the new principal hired for the
2007-2008 school year as part of its restructuring plan, Cardozo
Senior High School (Ward 1) had 18 reports of aggravated and simple
assaults and seven robbery incidents.
Middle Schools. Among D.C. middle schools during the
2007-2008 school year, Kelly Miller Middle School (Ward 7) had 14
reports of aggravated and simple assault, and Shaw Middle School
(Ward 2) had 13 reports. Each school also had the highest middle
school totals for police responses in other categories, including
disorderly conduct and "other" incidents. Kelly Miller had 55
crime-related incidents, and Shaw Middle School had 44
Elementary Schools. Perhaps the most disquieting data
relate to the numbers of police responses to calls from District
elementary schools. Webb Elementary School (Ward 5) had 35 reported
incidents of aggravated and simple assaults and six responses for
disorderly calls. In Ward 8, Moten Elementary had 30 aggravated and
simple assault incidents; Ketcham Elementary, 25 incidents; Stanton
Elementary, 17 incidents; and McCogney Elementary, 15
"Persistently Dangerous" Schools
While many crime-related incidents occur at some of these
schools, it is unclear whether these schools should be labeled
"persistently dangerous" under federal guidelines under the No
Child Left Behind Act. On March 31, 2006, the D.C. Board of
Education approved a final rule that established criteria for
"persistently dangerous" schools. The notice amended Chapter 38 of
the D.C. Code, effective at the beginning with the 2005-2006 school
year, to define as "persistently dangerous" any public or public
charter school where:
the annual number of officially reported violent crimes against
students, on school grounds, over a period of two consecutive years
(a) Equal to or greater than five (5) for students with
enrolments of 500 students or less, or
(b) Equal to or greater than 1% of the school's official
membership, for schools with enrollments of 501 students or more,
(c) Includes any of the crimes of murder, attempted murder,
first or second degree sexual assault, assault with intent to kill,
and assault with intent to commit first or second degree sexual
The rulemaking was undertaken in response to a requirement under
the No Child Left Behind Act that each state receiving funds under
the act establish and implement a policy allowing a student
attending a persistently dangerous public elementary or secondary
school to attend a safe public school within the local education
agency, including a charter school.
Since the 911 data do not reveal the number of officially
reported crimes as defined by the D.C. Code, we are not in a
position to determine whether any of these D.C. public schools
should be listed as persistently dangerous under D.C. and federal
law. However, the high numbers of violent acts reported to the MPD
at these schools suggests that some D.C. schools could qualify as
persistently dangerous under the District's official rule.
Under federal law, students who attend persistently dangerous
schools or who are the victim of a violent criminal offense while
in school must be offered a transfer to a different school. The
U.S. Department of Education has summarized this requirement:
The Notice of Final Deadlines...requires States to complete
identification of persistently dangerous schools in time to permit
local educational agencies (LEAs) to offer, at least 14 days before
the start of the 2003- 2004 school year, and each school year
thereafter, the required transfer option to students attending
persistently dangerous schools. Beginning with the start of the
2003-2004 school year, LEAs also must offer, at least 14 days
before the start of the 2003-2004 school year, and each school year
thereafter, the opportunity to transfer to a safe school to
students who are victims of violent criminal offenses while in or
on the school grounds of a public elementary or secondary school
that the student attends.
Despite this requirement, it is unclear whether the District of
Columbia Public Schools has identified which schools are
persistently dangerous or has offered eligible students the option
of transferring to different public schools in accordance with
federal guidelines. With the 2009-2010 school year starting soon,
the Web site for D.C. public schools does not provide a list of
persistently dangerous schools. As of the publication of this
paper, the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education has
not answered an online request filed by the authors in this
School Choice and School Safety
One strategy for improving students' ability to attend safe
schools is to give families the opportunity to choose which schools
their children attend. Students living in D.C. are assigned to a
public school based on their residence. However, students can
choose other schools within the public school system through the
out-of-boundary placement process or by enrolling in a public
charter school. In addition, since 2004, thousands of low-income
children living in the District have attended private school thanks
to the federal D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides
scholarships worth up to $7,500 for private school tuition to
The 911 tape data support previous evaluations that found that
the parents of students participating in the Opportunity
Scholarship Program were more satisfied with the safety of their
children's chosen schools. It also suggests that safety may be a
factor that influences the many D.C. parents who are choosing
charter schools for their children. Today, approximately one-third
of the District's student population (more than 25,000 students)
attends charter schools. These data show that police are
responding to many fewer calls at charter schools, so it is
possible that many charter schools are providing students with a
learning environment that is safer than the environment provided by
traditional public schools.
Denying School Choice, Undermining Student Safety.
Regrettably, the data also suggest that limiting the school choice
options of D.C. families will force some children to attend
assigned schools where they will likely be exposed to more
incidents of crime and violence.
This year, Congress and the Obama Administration have taken
several steps that threaten to end the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship
Program. For example, on April 6, 2009, the U.S. Department of
Education sent a letter notifying the families of 216 students who
had recently been admitted to the scholarship program that their
children would no longer be eligible for scholarships.
The department's decision to withdraw these scholarships forced
these low-income families to find new schools for their children
for the coming school year. Many will likely have no choice but to
attend the assigned public schools in their neighborhoods.
In July, The Heritage Foundation obtained a list of the 70
public schools to which these students have been assigned since the
U.S. Department of Education withdrew their Opportunity
Scholarships. Overall, this analysis found that these 70 schools
had many reported incidents of violence and crime. (See Table
- For school year 2007-2008, the MPD received reports of 2,379
crime-related incidents from these schools, including 666 violent
incidents (2.7 per 100 students), of which one was a homicide.
- Simple and aggravated assault was the most prevalent violent
incident, consisting of 555 reported assaults (2.3 per 100
- The schools reported 855 property-crime incidents (3.5 per 100
students), including 278 thefts (1.1 incidents per 100
- There were also numerous reports of other crime-related
incidents, including 306 incidents of disorderly conduct (1.3 per
100 students) and 43 reports of gunshots.
These reported incidents of crime were not evenly distributed
among the 70 schools in school year 2007- 2008, and the rate of
reported violence was noticeably higher at some schools. For
students who are assigned to attend the following schools, the loss
of their scholarship will result in attending schools that have
reported many incidents of violence and crime:
- Five students who applied to the Opportunity Scholarship
Program were assigned to Anacostia Senior High school, where 60
violent incidents (6.3 per 100 students) were reported. Of these,
47 reports (5.0 per 100 students) were for simple and aggravated
- Three applicants were assigned to Ballou Senior High School,
where 46 violent incidents (2.2 per 100 students) were reported.
Eight robberies were reported, including seven robberies involving
firearms or knives. There were also four reports of gunshots.
- Three applicants are assigned to Dunbar Senior High. In
2007-2008, Dunbar had 65 reports of violent incidents (6.7 per 100
student) and 55 simple and aggravated assaults (5.6 per 100
- Eleven applicants are assigned to Eastern Senior High, which
had 49 reports of violent incidents (5.4 per 100 students), six
robberies involving firearms or knives, and three robberies without
firearms. The school also had 38 reports of simple and aggravated
assaults (4.1 per 100 students).
Serious crime was not limited to the high schools. Six students
at Moten Elementary School applied for Opportunity Scholarships. In
2007-2008, Moten reported 31 violent incidents (11.3 per 100
students), including one homicide and 30 simple and aggravated
assaults (10.9 per 100 students).
What Policymakers Should Do
The information obtained through this FOIA request to the D.C.
Metropolitan Police Department supports previous evidence that
school crime and violence are problems for many students in the
nation's capital. Many children are assigned to attend schools
where they will likely be exposed to violence and crime. District
and federal policymakers should recognize this problem and the
importance of improving school safety to ensure that all children
have access to a safe learning environment.
To improve the safety of traditional public schools in the
District, policymakers could provide accurate and timely
information about developments affecting school safety and include
this information in school report cards and profiles. D.C. public
school authorities should comply with federal law and provide an
accessible list of schools that qualify as "persistently dangerous"
under No Child Left Behind and D.C. rules and give students the
option to transfer to different schools.
Moreover, as more information becomes available about the
relative safety of D.C. schools, policymakers, school officials,
and the MPD should study the best practices of the safest schools
and foster a healthy dialogue to encourage implementation of the
most effective strategies for reducing violence and crime
throughout the District.
In addition, Congress and D.C. officials should greatly expand
school choice options and give more families the power to choose a
safe and effective school for their children. For example, Congress
and D.C. policymakers should reauthorize and expand the D.C.
Opportunity Scholarship Program. This should include allowing new
students to receive scholarships so that more disadvantaged
children can attend private schools. Congress and the District
government could also enact new scholarship programs to give more
students school choice options.
At the same time, the District of Columbia should maintain its
strong charter school law, authorizing infrastructure and support
for charter schools, and encourage the growth of its safest and
most successful charters.
All children should have the opportunity to attend school in a
safe learning environment. Regrettably, many students living in the
District of Columbia attend schools where they are too often
exposed to crime and violence.
The Metropolitan Police Department data presented in this report
highlight the problems of violence and crime on the campuses of
many D.C. schools. Policymakers in the District should recognize
that school safety is an important problem and should redouble
efforts to reduce crime and violence. In addition, D.C. families
should be given the power to choose the best schools for their
children so that more children can attend school in a safe learning
Muhlhausen, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst in the Center for
Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation. Don Soifer is Executive
Vice President of the Lexington Institute. Dan Lips is
Senior Policy Analyst in Education in the Domestic Policy Studies
Department at The Heritage Foundation. This Center for Data
Analysis Report would not have been possible without the assistance
of Shanea Watkins, Ph.D., a former Policy Analyst in Empirical
Studies in the CDA, and Jonathan Lott, a former Heritage Foundation
intern. The authors are also grateful to the District of Columbia
Metropolitan Police Department for providing the 911 tape data.