Audit: Some N.Y. Schools Underreporting Violent Incidents

Published: May 22, 2006

ALBANY, N.Y. – Violent incidents in New York State high schools have not been accurately reported to the State Education Department (SED), and SED has not done enough to address misreporting problems or to effectively identify schools with serious violence problems, according to an audit released May 22 by Comptroller Alan Hevesi.

School districts around the state are required to submit data regarding violent and disruptive incidents to SED under the Safe Schools Against Violence in Education (SAVE) Act, which went into effect in 2000. SED is required to review the information to determine if any schools should be designated as persistently dangerous, and to publish an annual list of the state’s most dangerous schools.

“We simply cannot ignore the fact that violence is occurring in schools in urban, suburban and rural settings all around the state. It is essential to get information about this problem so that we can work to make our schools safer for all children and to direct young people who are involved in violence toward productive and law-abiding adulthood,” Hevesi said. “However, SED is failing to manage the school violence reporting program effectively, and some school districts are not reporting accurate information. As a result, it is harder to accurately determine where and what kinds of resources need to be provided to help prevent school violence.”

Auditors visited 15 school districts to review the records kept by school officials to track violent incidents and compare the school data to what was actually reported to SED. The audit includes detailed data from each of these school districts. The districts visited were: Adirondack (Oneida County), Albany (Albany), Ardsley (Westchester), Brentwood (Suffolk), Hempstead (Nassau), Hudson (Columbia), Niagara Falls (Niagara), Plattsburgh (Clinton), Rochester (Monroe), Saratoga (Saratoga), Schenectady (Schenectady), Syracuse (Onondaga), Uniondale (Nassau), Waterville (Oneida) and White Plains (Westchester). Auditors also spoke with officials at 35 additional school districts regarding the reporting process.

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At 10 of the 15 school districts visited, auditors found that at least one third of violent incidents documented in school records were not reported to SED. At five of the school districts, more than eight out of 10 incidents were not reported to SED.

Albany High School, for example, reported 144 incidents to SED for the 2003-2004 school year, but auditors found that records at the school indicated that 924 incidents had actually occurred, which meant that 84 percent (780) of the incidents were not reported. The incidents not reported to SED included:

  • 106 assaults with physical injury including four involving the use of a weapon;
  • 55 instances of intimidation, harassment, menacing or bullying;
  • 14 burglaries or thefts;
  • Two sexual offenses; and
  • One bomb threat.

White Plains High School reported 22 violent and disruptive incidents during the same year. Auditors found that school records actually detailed 311 occurrences, which meant that 93 percent (289) were not reported, including:

  • 35 assaults with physical injury;
  • 23 instances of intimidation, harassment, menacing or bullying;
  • One sexual offense; and
  • 181 other disruptive incidents.

Auditors also found:

  • Ardsley High School failed to report 100 of 106 incidents, or 94 percent.
  • Hudson High School failed to report 266 of 282 documented incidents, or 94 percent.
  • Niagara Falls High School failed to report 553 of 624 incidents, or 89 percent.

Many of the most serious incidents were not reported to SED. Ten of 17 schools at the 15 districts for which records were reviewed failed to report at least one incident in which a weapon was used or possessed. Three of these schools – Schenectady (21 incidents with weapons), Ardsley (4 incidents) and Waterville (2 incidents) failed to report any such incidents in this category. At Charlotte High School in Rochester, 31 of 39 incidents with weapons (80 percent) went unreported to SED.

Officials at nearly two-thirds of the districts contacted told auditors that the explanatory materials provided by SED relating to filing the data on violent incidents were unclear and confusing. School officials reported that the incident categories were vague and did not cover all possible occurrences. SED maintained that the materials were understandable and suggested that schools used confusion as an excuse for not making full and accurate reports.

After significant reporting problems in the first two years of the program, SED took several steps including modification of the standardized reporting form, providing more detailed instructions and conducting training sessions for school officials. However, SED did not have any record of which schools attended these sessions, and school officials who did attend said that conflicting information was presented at different sessions. Auditors also found errors in incident data after it was entered in SED’s database and determined that controls over data processing at SED were not adequate.

To determine whether a school will be classified as “persistently dangerous,” SED assigns a numerical violence index score to each school based on the number and seriousness of the incidents and the enrollment of the school. If a school’s violence index is 25 or higher for two years in a row, it is placed on the preliminary list of persistently dangerous schools. The designated school then has the opportunity to challenge the classification and may submit revised data.

Auditors noted that SED does not require schools to provide documentation to support any revised data that is submitted. Furthermore, SED provides schools on the preliminary list with a detailed description of how the violence index is calculated – information that is not otherwise made available to schools that are not on the list. As a result, auditors found “strong indications” that incident data was manipulated, since schools knew precisely what revised data to submit to bring down their violence index and thereby be removed from the list of persistently dangerous schools.

In fact, of 21 schools on the preliminary list in 2003-04, three closed and 14 of the remaining 18 were removed from the list in 2005.

“SED needs to exert strong leadership to make the information collected regarding violent incidents more accurate and meaningful. Instead, there is a huge loophole in the system for some of the most dangerous schools,” Hevesi said. “SED is letting down parents and children – and New York’s taxpayers.”

Under the SAVE legislation, the parents of children attending schools designated as persistently dangerous must be given the option of sending their children to another school in the district, if one is available. A similar option is also required under the Federal No Child Left Behind Act. Because of the questions raised about the accuracy of SED’s data regarding violent incidents, auditors noted that parents who should have the option may not get it.

The audit covered the period from September 1, 2002 through February 6, 2006. Violent incident report data was reviewed for the 2003-04 and 2004-05 school years.

In its written response to the audit report, SED agreed with all of the auditors’ 14 recommendations to improve the process for collecting and analyzing violent incident data. SED’s complete response is included in the audit report.

For more information on the audit, contact (518) 474-4015.

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