Re­ports On School Crimes Are Rare

Mont­gomery Bucks Area Ten­den­cies

The Washington Post Sunday - - Metro - By Daniel de Vise

The re­cent an­nounce­ment that Mont­gomery County school of­fi­cials were start­ing work on an an­nual re­port of crimes com­mit­ted by stu­dents and other dis­ci­plinary in­ci­dents un­der­scored a sur­pris­ing fact: In this era of height­ened con­cern about school safety, few Wash­ing­ton area school sys­tems reg­u­larly re­port such of­fenses to the pub­lic.

The an­nual School Safety Re­port, slated for pub­li­ca­tion in Mont­gomery start­ing in the 200809 aca­demic year, will place the county al­most alone among Mary­land and North­ern Vir­ginia school sys­tems in re­port­ing de­tailed school crime sta­tis­tics to the pub­lic, ac­cord­ing to ed­u­ca­tion lead­ers and law­mak­ers. In much of this re­gion, as in much of the na­tion, com­pre­hen­sive re­ports on weapons, drugs and sex in in­di­vid­ual pub­lic schools sim­ply don’t ex­ist.

Among the area’s largest school sys­tems, only Fair­fax County re­ports school crime data on­line, as part of its search­able data­base of school re­port cards. One other county, Anne Arun­del, pub­lishes a hard- copy stu­dent dis­ci­pline re­port with an­nual crime data for in­di­vid­ual schools. School sys­tems in Mont­gomery, Prince Ge­orge’s, Howard, Loudoun and Prince William coun­ties pub­lish no such doc­u­ment.

“ It’s all the­o­ret­i­cally avail­able to the pub­lic but rather dif­fi­cult to ob­tain,” said Mont­gomery County Coun­cil mem­ber Phil An­drews ( D- Gaithers­burg- Rockville), who has pushed for an­nual school crime re­port­ing.

School sys­tems in both states re­port stu­dent crime sta­tis­tics to their state ed­u­ca­tion de­part­ments. The state agen­cies, in turn, make some data avail­able to par­ents, but the depth and de­tail of what’s avail­able is widely re­garded as in­ad­e­quate. Nei­ther state of­fers data on in­di­vid­ual schools.

D. C. school of­fi­cials did not re­spond to re­quests for crime data. The city’s in­spec­tor gen­eral said in 2004 that the sys­tem had failed to keep ad­e­quate records on crimes in schools.

Ken­neth Trump, a na­tional author­ity on school safety who tes­ti­fied be­fore Congress on Mon­day, says the un­der­re­port­ing of dis­ci­plinary in­ci­dents in area schools is part of “ a his­tor­i­cal cul­ture of down­play, deny, de­flect and de­fend when it comes to pub­licly ac­knowl­edg­ing and re­port­ing school crimes.” It’s driven, ex­perts say, by an over­ar­ch­ing con­cern among school prin­ci­pals to pro­tect their im­age and that of their school.

“ If you’re the ad­min­is­tra­tor and you re­port what hap­pened, you may get blamed,” said Jean O’Neil, di­rec­tor of re­search and eval­u­a­tion at the Na­tional Crime Pre­ven­tion Coun­cil in Wash­ing­ton. “ If you’re the ad­min­is­tra­tor and you don’t re­port what hap­pened, you may get blamed.”

There are ex­cep­tions. The school dis­trict in Broward County, Florida, pub­lishes an­nual crime tal­lies for ev­ery school that cover more than 20 cat­e­gories of of­fense. An­nual school crime re­ports in Penn­syl­va­nia span more than 30 cat­e­gories.

But a Wash­ing­ton area par­ent in­ter­ested in know­ing the kind and amount of weapons seized at her child’s high school in the pre­vi­ous aca­demic year would have greater or lesser suc­cess, de­pend­ing on where she lives.

The Mary­land State De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion pub­lishes an an­nual re­port on stu­dent sus­pen­sions based on seven com­par­a­tively broad cat­e­gories of of­fense. But the re­port is lit­tle- known and buried deep within the agency’s Web site. Mary Jo Neil, pres­i­dent of the Mary­land PTA, said she has never seen it.

The Vir­ginia De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion in­cludes crime data in its an­nual school re­port cards, ac­ces­si­ble on the agency’s Web site; Fair­fax repli­cates the data on its site. But the re­ports of­fer only three spe­cific cat­e­gories of of­fense — in­ci­dents in­volv­ing firearms, other weapon of­fenses and fights — and a some­what broader tally of “ se­ri­ous in­ci­dents” in­volv­ing sig­nif­i­cant in­jury. Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Vir­ginia de­part­ment, said the school crime com­po­nent is “ a key piece” of the re­port card, “ and it’s got­ten big­ger and big­ger ev­ery year.”

Mont­gomery’s Of­fice of Leg­isla­tive Over­sight last year stud­ied how the county’s school sys­tem re­ports crimes and con­cluded that its prac­tices “ do not cur­rently in­clude the rou­tine shar­ing of all se­ri­ous in­ci­dent data with the com­mu­nity.”

Lit­tle in­for­ma­tion is shared with par­ents, al­though, the re­port stated, “ al­most ev­ery par­ent” in- ter­viewed voiced strong in­ter­est in know­ing more about school crime. The re­port cited wide­spread con­cern among school staff that re­port­ing crime data might “ cre­ate the wrong im­pres­sion.”

Wayde B. Byard, a spokesman for Loudoun schools, in­voked a com­mon be­lief among ed­u­ca­tors that par­ents will mis­use crime data to “ rate schools based on ar­bi­trary sta­tis­tics that of­ten in­volve stu­dents that are no longer at a school.”

Michele Me­na­pace, the county PTA pres­i­dent in Fair­fax, said a school’s rep­u­ta­tion for safety is “ one of the first things that comes up” when of­fi­cials pro­pose shift­ing school bound­aries. She has not heard, how­ever, that par­ents want more in­for­ma­tion on school crime.

Jane de Win­ter, the county PTA leader in Mont­gomery, said the short­age of good crime data “ is some­thing that we hear about pretty fre­quently. We have asked for bet­ter data. We’ve heard par­ents ask for bet­ter data.”

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