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Posted at 9:00 PM ET, 12/19/2010

Ending deception in school safety reports

By Jay Mathews

There was something strange in The Washington Post a week ago. A chart on page A16, using data provided by the D.C. public school system, showed that in late summer and fall 2009, Spingarn High School had by far the lowest number of assaults, thefts, threats and other crimes. There were just six incidents in four months compared with an average of 31 in the other eight high schools assessed.

At that time, teachers at this allegedly safest of all regular D.C. high schools were reporting a rash of crimes and classroom intrusions. The situation became so intolerable that by January they had persuaded D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee to replace the Spingarn principal.

How could the incidents being reported by security guards under school district rules be so different from what people at the school were experiencing? Why did Rhee ignore the data in changing the school’s leadership and yet her successor, Kaya Henderson, used data from similar security incident reports last week to replace the principal at Dunbar High?

I asked D.C. school officials those questions several times last week. They declined to answer. There is no question that Dunbar, which recorded a system-high 46 incidents this summer and fall, had much disruption, including the arrest of six students on rape charges (which were later dropped). Its high total reflects what teachers and parents were telling school headquarters.

But the likely phony count from Spingarn is too typical of security accounting in the District and many other school systems. Educators agree that not much learning can take place when students don’t feel safe. Many urban schools suffer from absenteeism, tardiness and disorder, which rob their students of a chance to concentrate.

School safety figures have been considered notoriously unreliable for decades. “Generally speaking, the tendency is to downplay incidents,” said Mel Riddile, associate director for high school services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “Some principals pressure school resource officers to downgrade some incidents and vice versa.”

More than eight in 10 school-based police officers in one survey said school crime was underreported. The federal rules requiring states to report all “persistently dangerous” schools were so inadequate that in 2004 only three states — Pennsylvania, New Jersey and South Dakota — admitted to having any.

School crime reports can be distorted for many reasons. D.C. teacher Anthony Priest, who kept a diary of disruption at Spingarn, said: “I had one special-ed student that assaulted me several times only to be placed back in my room the next day. . . . The determination was that this behavior was due to his illness, which was bipolar, thus he couldn’t be suspended for it.”

A Maryland high school teacher said administrators often think, “If the kid is special ed, it is exceedingly difficult to expel, so why even charge?” That leads to deceptively low incident counts and false confidence in the school’s climate. The numbers are also distorted by state rules designed to make sure there are not too many schools listed as persistently dangerous. One experienced Northern Virginia school official said Virginia often records only incidents serious enough to lead to at least a suspension.

D.C. officials say security guards generally report security incidents. In my experience, they are often young and malleable, willing to do whatever school officials tell them. Teachers can also make reports, but the paperwork is time-consuming and the likelihood of serious action small. Some experts said the District once had a more accurate system, but it was dismantled to make sure the city did not look too bad on the federal persistently-dangerous schools list.

The solution, most of the experts I spoke to said, is regular surveys of school climate that depend heavily on interviewing teachers. “What teachers say is a much better indicator of school climate than incident reports,” Riddile said.

Neither the District nor any other local school system does regular surveys of teachers on school safety. They might start trying that, because all efforts to improve achievement will fail if the school climate won’t support a feeling that this is a place to learn.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | December 19, 2010; 9:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Dunbar High School, Kaya Henderson, Mel Riddile, Spingarn High School, assaults, false reports are common, persistently dangerous schools, school security incident reports, school theft, security guards encouraged to keep numbers down, special education students not reported because they can't be suspended, threats  
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Up at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, one can see "the tendency is to downplay incidents,” this fall.
The superintendent has even gone so far as to accuse the police chief for exaggeration because he is buddies with the teachers.

Posted by: edlharris | December 19, 2010 9:50 PM | Report abuse

What a shame! Stop just reading. Learn how you can solve the crimes search online "United Forensic College"

Posted by: jaspermax | December 19, 2010 10:12 PM | Report abuse

Once again, Jay fails to demonstrate any understanding of ADA regulations regarding students with disabilities:

"Before implementing a suspension or expulsion that constitutes a significant change in the placement of student with a disability, a school district must conduct a reevaluation of the student to determine whether the misconduct in question is caused by the student's disability and, if so, whether the student's current educational placement is appropriate. (Reevaluation procedures that comply with IDEA fulfill the requirements of Section 504 and the ADA.)"

How about doing some real investigative reporting and find out if CSE's were convened and if these violent students with disabilities were properly placed in the public school system to begin with?

And unless D.C. operates on a completely different system than NY, the reporting of violent incidents to the State in an annual report is handled by the school's Vice Principal. So if a particular school appears to be under-reporting incidents, perhaps the VP and not the Principal was the one who should be replaced.

Posted by: lisamc31 | December 20, 2010 8:23 AM | Report abuse

Many serious, important questions raised here. Think that the basic premise is correct, that a range of safety issues is under-reported (and then under-dealt with).

Sometimes, the dangerous incidents are collateral from the nearby neighborhood; at one school I worked at, the staff did not find out - until we hired a person specialized in adolescent narcotic use - that drug-pushers two blocks away were selling to our students. That one issue, drug and alcohol addiction, presents huge, often amorphous, problems for schools to deal with
--and it's not just in the inner city.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 20, 2010 8:56 AM | Report abuse

You really do pick and choose what you care to report and when you care to report it. Parents at Springarn were complaining here and in other venues when there were problems there. Same at Eastern, same at Dunbar. While Rhee was here the Post refused to report on these problems. Everything had to show how she was succeeding. Now we can pretend that she knew nothing about these problems, that it was a simple case of the security firms not reporting the incidences or we can admit that under Rhee things were never quite what they seemed to be - whether we are talking about school behavior or test scores. THAT is the real story you have yet to cover.

Posted by: adcteacher1 | December 20, 2010 9:31 AM | Report abuse

for adcteacher--I did a column about the troubles at Spingarn on Sept 13, long before Rhee left, based on Priest's detailed diary.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 20, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

This article elucidates some real issues when it comes to school safety. It is a national issue, but it is also an exceedingly difficult one to fix -- schools, after all, have no incentive to report high numbers and hundreds of good reasons to keep numbers low. An additional irony is that I would suspect that crime numbers are as underreported, if not more so, in affluent communities. What high-income, high-scoring school wants to admit they have a drug problem?

This further elucidates the dark road that comes with a punitive approach to education. When education reform is based on threats -- "fix this problem or we'll shut you down / fire your staff / etc." you create an adversarial system where those in the building have little incentive to fully disclose the school's problems. Instead, the government ought to look at a school and say: "Why is this happening?" and, just as importantly, "What can we do to help you?"

Posted by: joshofstl1 | December 20, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

Well, if the data is correct, then Eastern is not on the list at all for this past article. Yet, we all know that in the past Eastern would have topped the list of Dunbar, Woodson and Ballou combined. Reality-check here, in the past Eastern issues were so bad, not only were principals replaced but assistant superintendents were fired. So, does one give credit where credit is due at Eastern, such as a principal who has been in place for 3-years and finally support from parents, faculty,community and DCPS? But I am scared that what has been seen as a turn-around at Eastern will be dealt a severe set back if the pending personnel change is enacted. Clearly, one thing that brought Spingarn and Eastern around so quickly was that the change from female principals to male principals were very significant. Well, lo and behold DCPS has decided to take a strong male principal away from Eastern and replace him with female principal. Which many feel in the African-American community is a severe step backwards or a punk-way of reacting to Capitol Hill bullying. The operative word is "stop" and it has to be used in more ways than one. A known fact both principals at Spingarn and Eastern have what is called "seniority" and have collaborated successfully on what is needed to bring peace and order to their schools. Let's give credit where credit is due, as in that it was not one management team responsible for this improvement nor was it a principal recruit from Boston, New York or Guam for that matter. It took us and only us.

Posted by: PowerandPride | December 20, 2010 3:58 PM | Report abuse

In my experience, school systems spend even more time trying to falsify disciplinary numbers than they do graduation or attendance numbers, or misrepresenting test score stats. The chief of staff of a major urban district said it best. He warned our district that discipline is a "predicament," not a "problem." Problems have solutions. No urban districts, he said, would address the predicament of discipline. And the idea of suspending violent students on IEPs due to conduct disorders or serious emotional issues, forget about it. When asked why our district still refuses to attempt to enforce its Code of Conduct, our instructional leader laughed and said that Tulsa's superintendent tried, and was immediately fired. I pinned down our district's top expert and she admitted that we don't want principals suspending IEP students for knives if the blade is shorter than 2-1/2 inches. The logic is that it is not hard, in theory, to suspend an IEP student, but the central office can have no confidence that the t's are crossed and i's dotted.

We had a great principal who did the only turnaround I've ever seen. He created a paper "parental conference" suspension form so he could assess disciplinary consequences without reporting suspension numbers. But he was recruited away to another district, and the remaining princials were told that he showed that turnarounds were possible without suspensions. His school immediately reverted to norm and other schools were damaged because principals were even more afraid of enforcing the Code of Conduct.

You would not believe the violent students who have been repeatedly returned to school to continue to assault students and teachers. The priority is keeping those stories hidden.

Worse, schools are pressured to be a loose with non-IEP students as IEP students.

All of this fits with the dominant paradigm that if teachers had high "Expectations!", disciplinary consequences would not be necessary. As with the "Expectations!" school of raising test scores, it is a fundamentally dishonest effort to pretend that centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, and colonialism did not do severe damage to the family and children.

Of course, we should not just blame education. Show me social organizations where data-DRIVEN does not yield dishonesty. Catch 22 said it best, Enron did it most brazenly, the recent financial collapse did it most destructively, but where are the contrary examples?

If Rhee and/or Klein believed the data they were provided, they were even more incompetent than imaginable. In a data-DRIVEN environment, honest numbers do not go up the chain of command.

Posted by: johnt4853 | December 20, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse

lismac31, it is one thing to question whether SPED students were placed in DCPS is another to know that DCPS cancelled the private placemenet contracts for 500 students this summer. Did oyu expect ALL of them to descend on charter schools?

Posted by: topryder1 | December 20, 2010 6:02 PM | Report abuse

Kids on IEP's essentially exempt from suspension and or expulsion; police forces in public schools; fudging of incident report numbers/severity.

BRING ON CHARTER SCHOOLS. Traditional public schools are encumbered with such outrageous rules and regs they don't deserve to remain open.

Could anyone in their right mind send their child to to traditional urban school? No wonder so many parents go for the lottery at the nearest charter school.

The big legal question here is if charter schools are, in fact, public schools (and they are), how can they skirt these legal landmines in the daily operation of their schools while traditional public schools cannot?

Any state or district legislators out there care to field this question?

Posted by: phoss1 | December 21, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse


I couldn't find anything related to the reduction of the number of students in private placement, but I do see DCPS eliminated 24 jobs in this area:

Charter schools? What on earth does my comment have to do with charter schools? Children who are classified with disabilities so severe that they cannot be mainstreamed with regular students should not be placed in charter schools. They should be placed in "alternative" facilities which are staffed with professionals who are trained to deal with those specific disabilities, be they physical or psychological.

Posted by: lisamc31 | December 21, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse

@Jay - You consider Sept. 13 "long before" Rhee left? That would have been right before the primary, when everyone could see Fenty was out and knew Rhee probably was too. A month and a half later she was gone. I think abcteacher's point is that the Post in general and you specifically did everything you could to support the paper's editorial position that Rhee was DCPS's savior. Now that she's gone, you're not at all afraid to question Kaya Henderson at every turn. You would be hard-pressed to prove otherwise.

Posted by: adriennespain | December 21, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Jay, just when you began unveiling the truths of physical and emotional disambiguations of DCPS you suddenly stopped? Why? Like Dorothy, I realized that your article did not take me to Kansas. Jay...don't give up. Go out there and find out why principals and central office administrators are hesitant (afraid?) to investigate reported incidents, and sometimes crimes, in the local schools. I can tell you now that some of them are just purely indolent in their duties; while others are purely ignorant of what their jobs entail. Amidst all this, countless people, both pedagogues and students, suffer because of lack of support and sufficient care (OSHA...mental/physical factors). can do this...survey 100 teachers about school safety and their opinions about administrators role in the safety. You will be shocked to find out what they think about it.

Posted by: inickdc | December 21, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

for inickdc---Good idea. Can't get much into 680 words, as you know, but I am sending yr good message to my boss.

I also learned a lot from johnt4853's post.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 21, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

For adriennespain---I also think if you check the stories of our splendid DC schools reporter, Bill Turque, you will find much that was unfavorable to Rhee.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 21, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

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