|Sunday, August 31, 2003
|Roanoke school system criticized since the spring for failing to report many crime incidents
Va. schools have incentive to underreport crime data
|A new federal law allows a school to be labeled as "persistently dangerous" if it doesn't meet state guidelines for three years in a row. A review of documents shows that many school systems consistently report fewer crimes than do the local police depart
By LINDSEY NAIR
THE ROANOKE TIMES
State and federal laws require public schools to report campus crime, but school systems across Virginia and the country have left incidents off their reports and have not been aggressively investigated for it, documents show.
With the recent enactment of federal legislation that will allow parents to remove their children from schools that have consistent safety problems, some school administrators and education officials fear that underreporting will only increase in the coming years.
Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle says the state has worked to improve the reporting process for the past two years. He said establishing uniformity among the 132 school divisions in the state is not an easy task.
"We've had an extensive outreach program in every corner of the state to help improve their systems and consistency," Pyle said.
The Roanoke school system has been criticized since the spring for failing to report many crime incidents to the state for at least the past three years. Using information obtained through the state's Freedom of Information Act, The Roanoke Times compared school resource officer incident data from nine other Western Virginia law enforcement agencies with data from their corresponding school systems and found that no systems underreported crime as much as Roanoke.
There was evidence of slight underreporting in Salem and in the counties of Bedford , Botetourt, Giles, Montgomery , Pulaski and Roanoke, with police accounting for more incidents than the schools did in their reports to the Virginia Department of Education. The underreporting involved drugs, alcohol, firearms and other weapons, and assaults.
Underreporting was evident elsewhere in the state, as well. The Virginia Department of Education cautions against comparing different school systems because no two counties or cities are the same, but comparisons of different school years within the same school system show large discrepancies.
According to Virginia Department of Education data, the Suffolk school system reported 1,150 crimes for the 1999-2000 school year and 5,495 the next year. In Chesapeake, the city school system reported 5,313 crimes in 1999-2000 and 15,047 the next. Richmond schools reported 190 crimes in the 2000-01 school year and 26,711 the next. Virginia Beach schools went from 8,587 crime incidents to 39,609 in one year.
Similarly, the Roanoke school system reported 84 crimes in the 2000-01 school year and nearly 7,500 the next year.
"When I see that type of significant increase or decrease in numbers, especially over a given year, the strongest message I get is that there is a change in the reporting mechanism or process rather than the actual occurrence of incidents," said Ken Trump, director of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm specializing in school security and crisis-preparedness training.
The discrepancies are no surprise to Rob Jones, director of government relations for the Virginia Education Association, which represents schoolteachers in the state. He said some school systems serving low-income, high-crime areas have reported low numbers compared to the high numbers reported by low-crime suburban divisions, and "it has never passed the smell test."
"All along it's been obvious when you read the data that there isn't a uniformity in reporting," he said. "I don't think we should be this far behind, and I say that because the reporting data has been problematic for a decade."
'A self-reporting process'
A handful of school systems in other states have been the subject of recent news reports on underreported school crime. They include Sacramento, Calif.; Palm Beach County, Fla.; Philadelphia; and Gwinnett County near Atlanta, Ga., where the district attorney's office became involved in determining why the school system omitted more than 24,000 serious infractions from an annual report.
The Code of Virginia, the federal Gun-Free Schools Act and the federal Safe and Drug-Free Schools Act require state schools to report all incidents that occur on school property involving assaults, sexual crimes, firearm possession, drug crimes, explosive or incendiary devices, bomb threats and threats to staff. Principals who fail to report the data to the superintendent and superintendents who fail to report the data to the state can be punished at least under Virginia law.
Virginia Department of Education spokesman Pyle acknowledges that the law requires such reporting and that some divisions have had problems.
"The code is very clear regarding the day-to-day operation of school divisions," he said. "Roanoke is certainly not unique in terms of it being a school division that is working on its reporting.
"The bottom line, however, is that it remains a self-reporting process. We don't have Department of Education staff in the schools looking over shoulders. We work with the school divisions to help them understand what's required, clear up any questions and clear up any issues that might arise when we see something that isn't quite right."
Still, Roanoke and other school divisions were able to report drastically low numbers for two or three years in a row. It was not until Roanoke was exposed for underreporting and Superintendent Wayne Harris requested a review of his system's data that the state stepped in. The reviewers said their investigation showed underreporting but found no evidence that it was intentional.
'Don't ask, don't tell'
Trump said he wonders why state departments of education are necessary if they don't enforce laws.
"It's a policy of don't ask, don't tell," he said. "State departments of education are, for their own political expediency, not wanting to enforce it. They don't want to become an investigative or enforcement agency. They do not want to get into that conflict."
When asked why the U.S. Department of Education does not step in to enforce the laws, spokesman Dan Langen said: "The whole issue of reporting data tends to be a local issue. We don't always opine on issues that are the purview of state and local government."
Virginia Board of Education president Tom Jackson defended the state's school systems, saying that a big part of the problem is the lack of a uniform data collection system in Virginia.
"My sense is that there are administrative issues with how people process the reporting procedures and that the ball's being dropped, I don't think intentionally," said Jackson, a former state legislator from Hillsville. "I don't know of any private or public entity that has more reporting to do than a school system."
"It gets very convoluted in just trying to collect that data," agreed Giles County School Superintendent Bob McCracken. The Giles County Sheriff's Office incident reports showed alcohol, drug and firearms incidents that did not appear on school reports in 1999-2000 and 2000-01. In 2001-02, the numbers are much closer.
McCracken said Giles County has been working on its reporting methods to improve consistency.
"Let me tell you what I think is driving a lot of this," McCracken said. "The No Child Left Behind 'persistently dangerous schools' provision has heightened folks' awareness to this issue."
The new federal law contains a provision that will label a school as "persistently dangerous" if it does not meet state-set guidelines for three years in a row. Each state adopted its own criteria for identifying "persistently dangerous schools."
Under Virginia's policy, schools will be assigned points for violent crimes and drug-dealing. Schools exceeding a point limit for three consecutive years are labeled "persistently dangerous." The first round of labeling has just taken place and no Virginia schools made the list, but some, including Blue Ridge Technical Academy in Roanoke, were cautioned.
Trump, the school security consultant, believes there are all sorts of problems with the "persistently dangerous schools" component. First of all, he said, if the data is inaccurate, then the first round of labeling must be inaccurate.
"States are sending a message that creates a false sense of security among parents," he said.
Also, he believes states shouldn't be able to set their own guidelines. When the states do set guidelines, he said, they're so high that school divisions couldn't meet the criteria for "persistently dangerous" status even if they tried to.
He also worries that the provision will lead to further underreporting in an attempt to protect schools' reputations.
"The 'persistently dangerous schools' component of No Child Left Behind is the scarlet letter of school administrators," he said. "Even the best of school administrators is going to think twice out of the fear of getting one step closer to the scarlet letter."
"That's a good point," Jones said. "If you don't report, then that reduces the pressure to address the problem. I think a reporting system of some uniformity will lead to addressing the problem." No legislation planned
McCracken, the Giles superintendent, said he worries about reporting under the new law, too, even as a superintendent.
"I don't know that it'll be intentional, but there will be, I think, some conversations that will be more negotiating" when an incident happens in a school over how an incident should be classified, he said.
Trump says he worries that administrators feel they have so much control over their schools that they can determine what does and doesn't get reported to the police.
"That perfectly illustrates the systematic problem that we have that they feel it's a negotiable issue, and my response is that no, it's not a negotiable issue," he said. "If they want to negotiate the meaning of state law then they need to be at the table with legislators when they make the law."
Jackson, the state Board of Education president, thinks those fears are irrational.
"I think for years every time we've put requirements on the schools there have been people who wanted to argue that in the worst of worlds, there are people who would want to get around the law," he said. "I do not believe that there is going to be intentional underreporting within that environment because I think the consequences of that run beyond a frown. They run to liability."
How the No Child Left Behind Act will play out and whether it will be a detriment to or an incentive for accurate school crime reporting remains to be seen.
State Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, who is on the Senate Education Committee, said he's heard no talk of taking action in legislative circles. Jones said there had been discussion of school crime reporting in subcommittees in the past but there are no plans for action in the 2004 session.
Jackson thinks change is on the horizon, though, with a new data collection system that will require more uniformity among school systems. He also credited news stories that have drawn attention to the problem of underreporting.
"I think we are at one of the most exciting stages in the development of education because never before have we had in place an accountability system that allows us to see what's going on," he said.
"Despite what anybody's opinion is, it's going to make us continue to focus on school safety," he said. "Nothing's perfect, but I think we've made some real strides."