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Posted at 11:11 AM ET, 12/15/2010

Unbelievable urban school safety statistics

By Jay Mathews

There is something very odd in the otherwise fine story by my colleague Bill Turque about security deteriorating at Dunbar High School in D.C. In a chart comparing the number of late summer and fall incidents in nine regular enrollment D.C. high schools, Dunbar had the most, 46. But way down at the bottom of the list, with only two incidents during that period this year and six incidents in summer and fall 2009, was Spingarn High School.

Readers familiar with Spingarn were scratching their heads when they saw those numbers.

As you know, interim D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson removed George Leonard, head of a management firm on contract with the district, as principal of Dunbar last week and installed a previous principal, Stephen Jackson, because of what she said was a deteriorating security situation at the school---fights, assaults and the arrest of six students for rape (the charges later dropped.) That makes sense if Dunbar was leading the district in reported incidents.

But it does not explain why Henderson's friend, mentor and predecessor, former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, did exactly the same thing at Spingarn just a year ago, for the same reasons, even though the numbers the district just released suggest Spingarn was the safest campus when Rhee took that action. A Spingarn teacher, Anthony Priest, kept a regular diary of the threats, thefts and assaults that teachers and students were subjected to. Complaints from him and other teachers were what led to the dismissal of the school's principal.

Could there be something wrong with the security incident reports that D.C. schools are putting out? Can we trust them to describe adequately the school climate at Spingarn, Dunbar, or other D.C. schools, or for that matter any U.S. school? The answer is no, based both on the anomaly in the latest D.C. data and the long history of schools underreporting crime on their campuses.

In a 2004 survey by National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm, 86 percent of school-based police officers said that school crimes nationwide were underreported. There are many reasons for this. School administrators redefine incidents so they don't meet the standard for reporting, or discourage teachers and students from reporting them, or find that teachers and students don't want to be labeled as snitches or complainers.

The reporting laws also give leeway for distortion. My favorite example was a 2004 report on the number of schools rated "persistently dangerous" by their states, something each state was required to do under the No Child Left Behind law. That year there were exactly 26 persistently dangerous schools in the whole country---14 in Pennsylvania, 10 in New Jersey and (this part made me laugh) two in South Dakota. I was surprised that South Dakota had more dangerous schools than New York or Illinois or California. Aren't you?

The states reported whatever suited them. I fear that is also the case for schools in D.C. Henderson is a wise and capable school leader who knows what she is dealing with. She told me recently that managing high schools in general in the city is a challenge. Dunbar has a very real security problem. I have been there several times and seen it.

But I think it would help us understand her problems better if she did not rely on data that seems laughable on its face. I notice, for instance, that most of the schools listed with Turque's story reported declines in security incidents in the last three years. It would be nice to believe that they are all getting better, but how much can we count on that really being true?

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 15, 2010; 11:11 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Dunbar High School, Henderson fired Dunbar principal for same reasons, Kaya Henderson, Michelle Rhee fired Spingarn principal, but also show Spingarn High school the best despite many complaints, but data show Spingarn much safer, long history of bad data on school crime, security incident reports show Dunbar worst in D.C.  
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Are dangerous schools really a laughable matter?

Posted by: CalmTruth | December 15, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse

When two of the only 26 in America are said to be in South Dakota, they are---a bitter and resigned laugh, not a happy one.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 15, 2010 4:43 PM | Report abuse


Your attempts to cover FOB and Rhee behinds is laughable.

Your co-workers are reporting facts and you are pushing Rheeform's line. Give us a break.

Posted by: guylady201001 | December 15, 2010 6:16 PM | Report abuse

Who directed your attention to National School Safety and Security Services, Jay? They are a private consulting and security service contractor out of Cleveland.

You are really in a position to boost their bottom line, you know. You could use your column to promote toxic education policies, and put cheats and liars in control of public assets and public policy. They could institute a regime of hatred and contempt for urban children, to explain their failure to provide educational resources for them. They could use the backlash to throw tax dollars to the for profit school safety industry to put out the fires they were fueling with their neglect and bad management practices.

This would destroy the public schools utterly, so the bottom-feeding online charter industry could collect the student per-diem payments for children left screaming under the stairwells after they've been expelled from the broken husks of the public schools.

Is there a glossy website somewhere for Moloch Turnaround Partners Group?

Does this mean Has Kaplan Venture LLC has bought up some for-profit security contractors, then?

Posted by: mport84 | December 15, 2010 8:08 PM | Report abuse

My, my: the snarky pedagogues are out today. WTU truth squads? Or just grizzled malcontents taking it out on truth-tellers?

The Rhee haters are so sad. Kinda like the liberals who, years later, still blame everything evil in the world on "Bush-Cheney."

Message to WTU: Rhee is gone. Nobody respects you.

Posted by: IncredulousAsEver | December 16, 2010 4:49 AM | Report abuse

Terrific article Jay!

Thanks for calling out the games that districts across the country play with violent incidents in order to make their schools appear safer. In Philadelphia, we have only recently left behind a miserable period where principals were *punished* for accurately reporting violence. Paul Vallas was the hack who led that endeavor.

Under the Vallas regime, Philadelphia taxpayers payed for a report on school violence that was hidden from public scrutiny for more than a year after it was written. It was until teacher Frank Burd had his neck broken that the media demanded access to this report.

It was scathing on many levels. It showed that the Philadelphia school system was wildly uneven in discipline procedures leading to highly unfair and unequal application of rules and consequences. Some schools with higher numbers of incident reports actually were safe and caring schools, while those with lower reports were chaotic, violent and dangerous.

Safe schools are simply the bare minimum that any parent should expect for their child. States should punish those who don't accurately report, and that should extend to superintendents who care more about how they look than whether their students are actually safe.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | December 16, 2010 5:24 AM | Report abuse

What is really "incredulous" is bringing up Bush-Cheney in the manner you did ("years later"..umm...not quite two to be precise) when Bush often cited the Clinton administration being at fault 7 years after the fact.

Off topic, I know..but had to say.

Regarding your article Jay, wow, did you just now realize how data can be fudged? Yet another reason not to simply look at numbers when it comes to schools. Parent, teacher, and student comments (those that you disparaged a week ago) are much more telling and reality based.

Posted by: researcher2 | December 16, 2010 5:49 AM | Report abuse

It seems every principal needs to read the book 'Standing and Delivering' to understand what must be done to make schools safe places for learning. What few non-educators understand is the violent acts that make the news are just the iceberg tip of what occurs daily in classrooms and hallways that makes learning such a challenge. As my DCPS teacher parents used to call them, these 'phony-liberals' must wake up to the reality of real consequences for people who refuse to behave civilly versus making excuses for them like, 'poverty,' or 'racism,' or 'oppression.' My grandparents lived under true American terrorism, Jim Crow; if either my mom or dad came to school every day spouting expletives and other rude behaviors that I hear daily I wouldn't be here because they would have KILLED my mom and dad!
Urban public schools, like the Washington Redskins, must undergo painful 'rebuilding,' and part of that rebuilding means removing uncivil students from schools and placing them in schools where they first learn to behave civilly. Indeed urban districts may have more of those schools for their taste, and yes those schools will 'bring down their API scores,' but those students need help far beyond what a regular school offers, yet they cannot destroy other students' education with their behavior. Even Diane Ravitch hints at this in her current best-selling book.
With safety comes freedom, and with freedom comes learning. Schools like Dunbar suffer from the insidious inverse, so we should not be surprised that so few students learn in those schools.

Posted by: pdexiii | December 16, 2010 6:44 AM | Report abuse

phony is the key word in your comments, as the increase in violence and respect can't truly be blamed on liberals.
Those in the field haven't excused violence, but have stated that test scores aren't a true reflector of learning. Poverty does play a part in how well prepared students are when they start school, and if they end up homeless at any point during their schooling it does have an impact on their education.

Yes, Jim Crow was an awful era. And I do agree with you that students need to learn how to behave, so they can be educated and so they don't disrupt other students' learning.

That is why pre-school does help. It assists with learning how to behave in school, and assists students who may not have encountered books etc. in their home. If you look at the students with the most behavior problems you will find they didn't attend pre-school, and often didn't attend kindergarten. Their first encounter with schools was first grade. Some of these students are therefor close to 7 prior to ever being in an environment like school..with no idea how to behave. Schools don't, for the most part, handle discipline well. A counselor chats with the kid and sends him back to the classroom.
I agree it would do wonders if those students, whatever age they are when behaving poorly, were to be taken out of the classroom and would have lessons on behavior and respect. If they do have other needs (homeless, parents in jail or whatever) those needs could be addressed as well..but they can't return to the classroom until they understand how to behave.

Posted by: researcher2 | December 16, 2010 6:57 AM | Report abuse

Jay, RE South Dakota, if those schools were on one of the reservations that would not surprise me at all. American Indian reservations in the Dakotas have the lowest income of any place in the country, rampant alcoholism, no law enforcement and low employment, and the lives of their residents are at least as desperate, bleak and hopeless as any in the inner cities. So no, that ranking does not surprise me.

Posted by: hicknera | December 16, 2010 7:10 AM | Report abuse

Any school leader who takes the statistics that come up the chain of command is incompetentent. What leader of ANY system believes the numbers they are given? Human beings in human organaizations play games with numbers. Duh! Don't people read Catch 22 anymore?

Enron and the Great Recession were the result of some great numbers games, but my modern favorite was the statistical game that caused the collapse of banks during Reagan and almost brought down the entire world's banking system. There was a theory that a natural gas well in Sweden would confirm that drilling deep enough would relase infinite gas supplies. Novice bankers, encouraged by the regulations set under VooDoo economics, lended as if that theory was proven, and Pauk Volker barely prevented a resulting Depression.

Rhee said that "Expectations!" would release a comparable miracle, and DC acted on that delusion.

Posted by: johnt4853 | December 16, 2010 8:47 AM | Report abuse

Jay says, "But I think it would help us understand [Henderson's] problems better if she did not rely on data that seems laughable on its face. "

Indeed - and that applies across the board in DCPS - with IMPACT as a prime example. Laughable that scores vary so much in one teacher depending on who evaluates them; laughable that "value added" teachers don't get highly effective ratings.

Also - let's see some of the DCPS data that is not publicly available and data that's generated by outside sources that DCPS hasn't made public - what are the scores per school on PSAT, SAT and AP.

I bet you could get some more great laughs about that.

Posted by: efavorite | December 16, 2010 9:07 AM | Report abuse

I plan to make the Monday column about more effective ways to measure high school climate. I would welcome comments on that subject.

For efavorite---I supply the percentage of seniors passing AP exams every year in the
challenge index, and can also report the SAT averages. Would you like to see such a list. As usual, it tracks very closely with the percentage of low income kids.

For researcher2---This is not a new theme for me. You will see one of the links was a piece I wrote 5 years ago.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 16, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

"For efavorite---I supply the percentage of seniors passing AP exams every year in the challenge index, and can also report the SAT averages. Would you like to see such a list"

Per school and per subject in DCPS? Yes, I'd like to see it. Also the SATs and PSATs

Posted by: efavorite | December 16, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

to efavorite:
The College Board prepares reports on every school which include the data you've asked for. In fact, you've been sent them in the past.

to Jay:

What the veteran journalist should be asking is: What does the log of incident reports for every school look like within a school system that has had contracts with security service providers? There must be, as Erich Martel has over the years claimed, real data that have been obfuscated and reports that have been suppressed.

Kudos to the teacher who has done for his school what the WTU should have been doing for every school as a service to every member of the school community: preparing contemporaneous histories of school operation for story a system claiming to be evidence-based wishes to keep to itself.

Posted by: incredulous | December 16, 2010 8:57 PM | Report abuse

As you will remember just 3 years ago Eastern would have surpassed Ballou, Woodson and Dunbar combined in serious incidents. Our incidents were so bad that principal after principal would be fired and then we had assistant superintedents to lose their jobs for Eastern incidents. Now here it is 2010 and Eastern is not on the Washington Post list. Therefore, it shows that with the right principal, DCPS support, parent through community action all things are possible. All of this done without a management team although Rhee tried her darndest to get us to approve one but we held our ground. It can be done and we are proof and the results don't lie.

Posted by: PowerandPride | December 17, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

Excellent report, Mr. Mathews.
It does seem odd that the reporting on school safety issues would place Spingarn HS at the bottom of the list, given that the school was on "lock down" last spring at least two times.

If the declines in security issues reported is correct, things must be getting better. You are also correct to question the validity of the reporting.

Some years ago you reported on the changes at Hardy Middle School in Georgetown the community was experiencing under its then new leadership. While you reported that some parents were uneasy about the changes the school was going through, how would a report on the school's performance - academic achievement, arts programming, school climate - look today with the current leadership appointed by the former chancellor?

The Hardy parents and faculty have expressed genuine concerns about the school's climate and the safety of children to Interim Chancellor Henderson and Instructional Superintendent Eric Redwine. What has been the answer? "We need to make plans."

Will Hardy, under a new administrative team headed by Dana Nerenberg, be on the list of schools with a believable number of safety incidents reported? Will Hardy become the next Dunbar? Is Hardy the current Spingarn?

Posted by: 4thekidsorforthe | December 17, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Well, a simple way to get accurate reporting would be to have someone do the reporting with no stake in the outcome. If a principal's job, benefits, or pay is at stake by accurately reporting safety issues at his/her school, there can be no validity to the reporting. If a superintendent's legacy is at risk by the reporting of dangerous incidents, reports will be hidden.

Posted by: HistTeach1 | December 17, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

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