Is School Crime A) Up. B) Down, C) Up & Down

Varied data makes it difficult to track school crime and security problems


State records show that Broward high schools are getting safer because of a significant decline in violent acts during the past four years.

On the other hand, the number of violent incidents recorded by outside police agencies at high schools is up almost 50 percent since 2001.

The disparity raises questions about how school crime data are collected and analyzed, and whether the numbers accurately represent life on campus.

Are high schools getting safer or more dangerous -- or is the reality somewhere in between?

''I do think schools aren't as safe as they were five or 10 years ago,'' said veteran teacher John Quillen at Boyd Anderson High School in Lauderdale Lakes. ''Suspension isn't the stigma it once was. It used to be when security came, a fight would wind down. But now they'll have to physically separate the kids, and that's no easy job.''

Others are less concerned, despite a few high-profile crimes, including one involving a student who repeatedly stabbed a classmate with a screwdriver at Deerfield Beach High School last year.

Flanagan High School student Adrea Robison, who will be a junior this year, said there are fights at her Pembroke Pines school, but violence isn't an overarching problem.

''The fights are all about really stupid things, and they are all really minor,'' Robison said, while eating lunch at the Pembroke Lakes Mall food court over the summer. ''There are always police there, and you just walk around it.''

VARIED DATA
The Herald compared data from 11 police agencies that patrol traditional Broward high schools with data for similar time periods that was compiled by the state, based on reports from school officials.

The most recent comprehensive ''incident report'' submitted by Broward school officials had numerous flaws, officials have said.

One elementary school, for instance, reported one fight during the 2003-04 school year after having more than 200 the previous year.

Such wide swings in the numbers may have coincided with the arrival of a new principal, who may have had a different standard about what should be reported.

District security officials, who admit that some of the incident reporting is erroneous, have said they will provide additional training on how to report crimes. One change, for instance, is that only administrators -- not office managers or secretaries -- will be allowed to record data.

But the school district's chief investigator does not believe that a jump in police reports of battery and assault means that high schools are less safe.

EVERYTHING'S OK?
''I'm comfortable that everything is OK,'' said Joe Melita, who heads the district's special investigative unit. ''I'm not hearing from principals that all hell is breaking loose.''

Police recorded 302 assaults or batteries at 28 School Board-controlled high schools during the calendar year 2004. That was 79 more than in 2001. That also translates to a per-capita increase each year.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Education, using school district data, says there were 260 ''violent acts'' at the same schools during the 2003-04 school year, down from 363 during the 2000-01 year. That's a 30 percent decline.

Broward and other Florida districts are required by state law to compile a list of serious incidents, which is used to monitor school safety.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act also says that students can transfer from a chronically unsafe school.

No Broward school has been deemed unsafe.

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