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Reliable statistical information is necessary for a clear picture of the safety of America’s schools. Therefore, safeguards to ensure compliance with provisions requiring the reporting of school crime must be in place.

Improvements to Statistical Reporting

A statewide standardized reporting system that provides accurate and consistently collected data on school crime from all school districts is critical. Without clear standards, schools may use different criteria to determine which crimes are reported, which can result in under- or overreporting of certain crimes. Developing a consistent strategy that ensures collection of meaningful school crime and violence data is, however, a difficult and complex undertaking.

A panel of education security experts who recently reviewed one Maryland county public school system concluded that the current reporting system was so deficient that school officials had no way of knowing the severity of crime in their schools. A 1997 report by high school principals had previously warned senior state administrators that only good luck had prevented a fatality from occurring. Many of the school system’s reporting inadequacies resulted from the lack of a standardized reporting form and the fact that school administrators were given too much discretion in deciding which incidents to report.

Other states also have experienced problems because of poor reporting policies. California encountered similar complications in its first year of reporting. An elementary school district with an enrollment of 20,000 reported the occurrence of 2,336 assaults, whereas the state’s largest district of some 600,000 students reported only 1,345 assaults.52 The discrepancy was a direct result of inconsistent reporting. Since then, California’s school crime reporting laws and policies have been amended to incorporate some necessary improvements.53 Each year, the State Department of Education is required to “publish and distribute to all school districts and county offices of education [a] school crime reporting update that describes typical errors in school crime reporting procedures, describes effective and efficient methods of monitoring and recording school crime data, and identifies trends in school crime.”54

According to the Annual Report on School Safety: 1998, Delaware, Florida, and South Carolina have demonstrated the highest quality efforts in collecting school crime statistical data.55 The report highlights five common factors of these three systems:

  1. A comprehensive list of incidents (carefully consider the categories of crime included).

  2. Clear definitions of incidents (clearly define the crime categories included).

  3. Data used by multiple levels of the education system (state, district, and school).

  4. Accurate tracking of data (create a standardized approach to school crime reporting, and establish a system to monitor the reporting process).

  5. Staff training on data entry and use (fund the crime reporting at a level that ensures adequate staff and resources).56

Many of these elements are included in Recommendations of the Crime, Violence, and Discipline Reporting Task Force. 57 The National Center for Education Statistics established the task force to evaluate reporting procedures currently in use by schools across the country and make recommendations for improvements. These recommendations are a tool for incorporating standardized reporting procedures in all states, enabling the development of a national perspective on school crime and violence that truly reflects the current safety of our schools.

School Crime Hotlines

School crime reporting can occur effectively only if the school administrators and faculty required to make the reports are aware of crimes that are committed. Many incidents are known only to students who are victims of, or witnesses to, violent or criminal activity. Fear of retaliation and peer pressure may prevent students from notifying school personnel when an offense occurs.

At least three states have laws establishing school crime reporting hotlines that allow students anonymity when reporting violent and criminal incidents.58 Virginia’s school crime line is

a confidential, anonymous system providing inducements for students to report any unlawful act occurring in school buildings or on school grounds or during school-sponsored activities to local law enforcement authorities.59

Recently, a North Carolina task force conducting a 3-month study of school safety called for establishment of a statewide hotline to allow anonymous student reports of violence or threats.60 One hotline was set up in a high school in San Francisco. The vice principal of that school reports that the hotline enables students to report violence, crimes, and other problems from a place where they feel safe and free from possible retaliation. Calls to the hotline also have been made by parents who overheard their children talking about an incident and by individuals living near the school who witnessed suspicious behavior. Within its first month of use, the number of criminal incidents decreased. Because the cost of the hotline averages $20 a month, it is a relatively inexpensive security tool.61

Enforcement of Reporting Laws

Monitoring plays an important role in ensuring that procedures and policies for reporting school crime are followed. However, reporting compliance is monitored in relatively few states. Delaware, for example, has established the Office of School Criminal Offense Ombudsperson, whose function is to ensure proper administration of the state’s school criminal offense reporting law by investigating complaints regarding the failure of school officials to report school crime.62 In addition, the ombudsperson can improve reporting by providing technical assistance to school administrators.

School safety centers, like those established in Tennessee and Kentucky, promote accurate reporting by centralizing collection.63 Kentucky’s Center for School Safety serves as the central point for data analysis, and the center’s responsibilities include preparation of an annual report regarding the status of school safety in the state.64 Designating a single entity to collect and analyze school crime data as they are submitted enables quick identification of inconsistencies and problem areas.

Imposing noncompliance penalties on school officials responsible for reporting incidents of crime at their schools is another enforcement mechanism used in some states to improve the quality of the statistical information collected. To compel reporting compliance in South Carolina, failure to report criminal conduct or submit quarterly reports concerning school-related crime to the State Department of Education subjects both the school administrator and the school district to liability for attorneys’ fees and costs related to legal action.65 In Virginia, a principal who knowingly fails to submit a report of all criminal incidents is subject to sanctions imposed by the local school board, including demotion or dismissal.66

The methods developed in these states to encourage sound reporting practices serve as good examples for the states that have yet to incorporate compliance provisions into their reporting laws. To generate meaningful statistics concerning school crime, more states need to review their school crime reporting processes and develop oversight strategies that ensure procedural conformity.

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Reporting School Violence, Legal Series Bulletin #2
January 2002
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