By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 6, 2007
The Prince George's County school system is investigating whether its security department is accurately reporting the crime and disciplinary actions that occur in its schools, Board of Education members said.
The system's internal affairs unit is conducting an audit to determine whether statistics tracking incidents involving fighting, weapons, drugs and other offenses are being reported accurately. Investigators are also examining a situation in which the director of security services, Russell P. Tedesco, works in the same department as his wife.
In the 2005-06 school year, Prince George's led Maryland's 24 jurisdictions in suspensions, with more than 22,000, according to a report by the Maryland State Department of Education. For the same period, the school security office filed 1,679 security reports.
Many students were suspended for disciplinary matters not serious enough to warrant a security report. But even in serious incidents, the number of security reports lagged behind the number of suspensions.
The school system suspended 158 students for arson, fire and explosives violations in the 2005-06 school year, and the security office filed 13 such reports. The system suspended 148 students for sex offenses; the security office filed 20 reports. The system suspended 492 students for taking guns, knives and other weapons to school; the security office filed 311 reports.
R. Owen Johnson Jr., chairman of the school board, said the audit is part of a checkup of the 131,000-student system and that audits will also be performed in human resources, transportation and other departments.
"It's not a witch hunt; it's a fact-finding mission," Johnson said. He said he hopes the current audit will make information about school security, such as the number of disciplinary incidents in a particular school, easier for parents to access.
"We haven't done as good a job as we could have at providing information to the public and collecting data," Johnson said.
Under the No Child Left Behind mandate, school systems are required to report data on suspensions, expulsions and other disciplinary actions to the state. Any school deemed to be persistently dangerous under the federal law must give its students the option to transfer.
Johnson and other board members did not say that the security office provided inaccurate data. But there are discrepancies between the number of suspensions the Prince George's school system issues and the number of reports filed by the security office.
Much of the difference can be explained: More than 9,000 of the suspensions were for incidents involving disrespect, insubordination and disruption -- relatively minor problems typically handled by principals and staff members -- and more than 6,000 were classified as "other."
Principals handle other matters that do not require an investigation. The security office, which has the authority to make arrests, is called to address potentially criminal cases -- fires, major fights, sex offenses or weapons, drugs or alcohol at a school. Each report it files might involve more than one student.
A member of the security department, who discussed the audit on the condition of anonymity because it is an internal matter, said the department's methods of logging incidents are antiquated. Police departments often give officers a case number when they respond to incidents, but in the school security department, it is up to officers to decide whether to file a report, he said.
He said that some schools did not file any security reports in 2006-07 but that any lack of reporting was not a deliberate school system policy.
"We're not hiding statistics; it's just that they're not accurately inputted," he said.
Tedesco, the security office's director, declined through a secretary to comment on the audit, referring inquiries to the school system. The audit has been discussed in a closed session of the school board. Superintendent John E. Deasy said he could not comment on items discussed in a closed session.
The audit is also looking into whether there is a problem with Tedesco's wife working in his department. Eileen Tedesco is a regional investigator in the security department, which has about 65 staff members. She has worked there longer than her husband, who was a Prince George's police officer before taking over the department.
The situation "sort of raised some issues," said the school board's vice chairman, Verjeana M. Jacobs (At Large). She and other board members said they had not decided whether the Tedescos' working together is appropriate and did not discuss any particular incident in which Tedesco's wife had been given preferential treatment.
"I don't know if that would warrant anything in particular," Johnson said about the husband-wife situation.
Board members said the audit had not been prompted by a specific incident. Linda Thornton Thomas (District 4) said she had pushed for the audit because of feedback from parents who said they were worried about security at some schools.
Jacobs said, "We want this to be as thorough and tight as possible. We want to make sure that when we say our schools are safe, they're safe."