Reports On School Crimes Are Rare

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 29, 2007

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 2008-09 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" interviewed 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."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company