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

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.''

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.

''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.

The Education Department's report is culled from Broward's data. Police data are controlled by officers who patrol school campuses and are not used in school district or state calculations.

Melita, a former principal, is sympathetic toward administrators who are worried about keeping detailed records.

"Principals feel pressure. They are worried: 'Are people going to be afraid of my school?' But the superintendent has said you will get into more trouble for not reporting than reporting.''

He will be scheduling workshops with principals to better train them in reporting data.

''We want to become data-driven. These stats used to only be handled by research services. Now we are handling that.''

It's common practice for schools around the country to underreport crime or have inconsistent standards, said William Lassiter of the Raleigh, N.C.-based Center for the Prevention of School Violence. Police statistics can be unreliable because schools may encourage police officers not to make arrests for fear of bad publicity, he said.

''There's no perfect system,'' Lassiter said. ''And law enforcement often has discretion whether or not to determine if something is a crime. Sometimes it's in the best interest of the school and the student not to charge someone. Discretion can be necessary.''

Quillen, the Boyd Anderson teacher, suggests that police reports of violence are higher, in part, due to principals being more willing to push for police intervention.

''That used to be a stigma, but not anymore,'' Quillen said. ''I do think we aren't as safe, but that's one explanation.''

Other incidents could be lumped into a less serious category of fighting.

The number of fights in the past four years has been stable, when compared with the growth in the student population.

In response to growing concerns about school safety locally and nationally, Broward high schools have increased security.

All have at least one armed police officer on campus, and at least five schools have two. Schools that have been plagued by violence, such as Piper High School in Sunrise, have hired extra security.

At Piper, new principal Anthony Taylor has added 16 security cameras, bringing the number to 32. He also added a security monitor during the most recent school year to what was already the largest security team in Broward.

A Piper student was killed in an off-campus brawl in 2002. Since then, the school has had two high-profile stabbings.

''I can put 100 people in here, but the focus has to be about changing behavior,'' Taylor said. ''I recently visited a high school in Texas with similar demographics, with only one police officer and security person and there were no problems.''

Schools Superintendent Frank Till said any school that reduces its security budget would have to explain why.

Coconut Creek High School had three assaults and batteries each in 2001 and 2002. There were nine assaults and batteries in 2003 and 19 in 2004. The state says there were four violent crimes against persons in 2001 and 2002, 11 in 2003 and 10 in 2004.

City police officers who work at the school say an increase in reported police activity doesn't mean it is less safe, and say an increase in the number of battery incidents could be an aberration. The officers point to problems such as overcrowding and the difficulty of expelling students that make it harder to ensure school safety.

Though the school district has opened four new high schools so far this decade -- Cypress Bay in Weston, Everglades in Miramar, Coral Glades in Coral Springs and Monarch in Coconut Creek -- it is still struggling to accommodate the growing high school population.

While the Broward elementary school population has stayed steady, the number of students in Broward high schools has increased significantly in the past five years.

A large group of students whose families flocked to Broward after Hurricane Andrew are now in high school.

In the past four years, the high school population has risen 12 percent; the elementary population is up less than 2 percent.

''The more people you confine in a smaller area, you will get conflict,'' observed Coconut Creek school resource officer Mike Zombek.

Though many schools have more security, the School Board has repeatedly said it's impractical to install metal detectors at high schools, where the student population is often more than 3,000 students.

But district officials are changing the layout of elementary and middle schools to ''single-point entry'' schools, and the school district plans to install biometric technology at Pine Ridge Alternative Center.

That would require students to press their thumb or palm against a scanner to enter, and the technology could be used at other schools.

Such systems are perhaps a decade away from being used in schools. In the meantime, the district has no plans to dramatically boost security.