Unbelievable urban school safety statistics
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?
| 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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