Phony Violence Reports In--Surprise Surprise--Houston
Note: HISD spokesman Terry Abbott denied that the district's reporting on school crime had been anything but thorough and accurate, saying the Times' account is "a reckless disregard for the truth."
HOUSTON, Oct. 31 — It was one of the most unforgettable of schoolhouse crimes: a disabled 17-year-old student was shoved into a boys' bathroom in her wheelchair by a classmate at Yates High School here, dragged to the floor and raped. Her attacker was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Yet the Houston Independent School District did not include that rape, committed two years ago, when it came time to report the school year's campus crimes to the state as required by Texas law. And that is not the only school crime that appears to have been airbrushed from the official record.
On Oct. 3, 2000, a boy named Joseph Hamilton was "stomped and beaten" by another student in the cafeteria of Williams Middle School and was left injured on the floor, according to a school district memorandum, but the assault went unreported to Texas authorities. Last April, a 16-year-old boy was stabbed in the chest by another student at Washington High School; that attack was not reported, either.
In the last four school years, the Houston district's own police, who patrol its 80 middle and high schools, have entered 3,091 assaults into a database that is shared with the Houston city police but not with the Texas Education Agency in Austin.
In the same period, the Houston district itself has listed just 761 schoolhouse assaults on its annual disciplinary summaries sent to Austin. That means that the school authorities either have not reported or have reclassified 2,330 incidents described as assaults by the district's police.
The district maintains that its reporting has been entirely proper. Those who disagree point to damage they say can be inflicted on the careers of principals who accurately report a high incidence of disciplinary problems, and to the financing sacrificed by schools that lose student population to expulsion.
School violence reports have taken on new importance since President Bush made a national goal of holding schools accountable for test scores and campus crime. At his insistence, a new federal law requires states to use violence data to identify "persistently dangerous" schools, and Education Secretary Rod Paige, former schools superintendent here, is in charge of enforcing that law.
Experts say that Houston is not the only city underreporting its school crime problems. Earlier this year, school-based police officers rocked the Roanoke, Va., system in accusing principals and district officials of hiding incidents of school crime. In Gwinnett County, Ga., an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that thousands of fights and drug, sex and weapons violations had been left out of school crime reports.
Houston, however, has been held up as a pillar of the so-called Texas miracle in education, though it was battered earlier this year by disclosure of false school statistics: a state audit found that the authorities had failed to report properly thousands of school dropouts, giving the district an impressive-looking but fake dropout rate of just 1.5 percent.
Dr. Michael J. Witkowski, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Detroit Mercy, has studied Houston's school violence and crime reporting system and was a witness last year for two parents who filed suit over the fatal stabbing of their child at Deady Middle School here.
"They're cooking the books," Dr. Witkowski said of school officials. "There are dozens of crimes in Houston schools that you will not see on any official document. Teachers are assaulted, students are beaten up, and these things do not make it into the reports."
Terry R. Abbott, a spokesman for the Houston schools, denied that the district's reporting on school crime had been anything but thorough and accurate. "There is absolutely no indication," Mr. Abbott said, "that anyone in this school district improperly failed to report appropriate data to the state regarding campus disciplinary action."
Much of Mr. Abbott's explanation for the discrepancy between the district's figures and those of its police deals with fairly fine distinctions. For instance, he acknowledged that the rape of the disabled student had not been reported, but said the reason was that the district reports only offenses for which students face school disciplinary procedures. Since the rapist was jailed after his arrest, the authorities never bothered to expel him, and so the crime went unmentioned in the district's reports to Austin.
The April stabbing at Washington High also went unreported, he said, because with the assault still under investigation, no student has been disciplined. He said he could not explain why the attack on Joseph Hamilton three years ago had not been reported.
Mr. Abbott declined to make the Houston superintendent, Kate Stripling, or educators at Yates, Williams, Washington or any other school available for questions.
Texas law requires school districts to report incidents to Austin only when a student is removed from class for disciplinary reasons. As a result, Houston's not reporting crimes for which students were not disciplined does not appear to have violated the law, state officials said.
In Houston's discipline and crime reporting system, principals are responsible for entering incidents of beating, rape, arson and all manner of other offenses into district computers that relay the data to Austin in annual reports called Student Disciplinary Action Summaries.
Billy G. Jacobs, senior director for safe schools at the Texas Education Agency, said the state had never conducted a full audit of the Houston system. But two years ago, Mr. Jacobs said, he discovered reporting irregularities here, after a state lawmaker mentioned in legislative testimony that in one academic year, about 2,000 Houston students had been removed from their schools and placed in alternative disciplinary schools.
"That number didn't sound right," Mr. Jacobs said.
After a check, he said, he found that although 2,000 students had in fact been moved into alternative schools, the district had reported only about 200. One result was that some 1,800 serious school crimes had gone unreported to Austin, he said.
Houston officials attributed that discrepancy to computer problems, Mr. Jacobs said, and their most recent crime and discipline reports have arrived with few obvious errors.
But he expressed surprise at the 2,330 assaults reported by the Houston district's police that have not been reported in the district's own accounting to Austin.
"That's a very large discrepancy," Mr. Jacobs said.
In an interview at district headquarters, Mr. Abbott, along with Kaye DeWalt, the district's lawyer, and several other senior school officials, said there were valid reasons to explain the discrepancy. Off-campus crimes as well as those committed by school intruders would be reported by the school police but not by principals in their filings, the officials said, since the district is obligated to account only for on-campus crimes committed by students. In addition, principals may properly report as lesser offenses some attacks that the police describe as assaults, the officials said.
Hoping to examine why the campus police had reported four times as many assaults as the district had, The New York Times filed a request under the Texas Open Records Act in an effort to obtain crime incident reports filed by the police at six schools from 1999 to 2001.
Lawyers for the district responded by petitioning the Texas attorney general to block access to all the requested documents, arguing that to release them would compromise student privacy and interfere with "the detection, investigation or prosecution of crime." The attorney general's decision is pending.
But in response to a similar open-records request filed in 2002 by a former teacher who had sued a colleague for assault, the district released to her the police incident reports for one school, Holland Middle.
In those records, the district police documented 13 on-campus assaults by students against schoolmates from August 1999 to June 2002. A typical report, dated Sept. 3, 1999, reads, "Listed suspect allegedly hit the complainant in his right eye with a closed fist, causing his eye to swell." Seven of the 13 incidents were minor, but seven caused injuries, and at least eight students were arrested. Still, the district's three end-of-year Student Disciplinary Action Summaries for the period reported zero assaults on students at Holland Middle School.
The school's principal, Adele L. Rogers, was asked if she reported crimes committed in her building.
"I'm not supposed to answer any questions," Ms. Rogers said, referring a reporter to Mr. Abbott.
Mr. Abbott said in an e-mail message that because the records for the school were unavailable, he was unable to answer questions about it. But he warned against making "the serious mistake of assuming that the alleged Holland Middle School incidents were not properly reported."
Ina Watson, who was a teacher at Holland Middle School for 18 years until her retirement in 2001, said in an interview that Ms. Rogers had discouraged the school's staff from reporting campus crimes.
"She didn't want anybody to write anything up, because it would make the school look bad," Ms. Watson said.
Robert Kimball, an assistant principal in the district who was demoted after disclosing irregularities in dropout reporting earlier this year, served at a different middle school, Welch, in the 1999-2000 school year. There, he and several parents said, chaos prevailed.
"There were always cops there, reports of violence, kids slugging the teachers," said Dorothy Lister, a real estate office manager whose son Joshua was a seventh-grade special education student at Welch that year. In March 2000, a bully punched Joshua and used a pencil to stab him. Mr. Kimball said the bully had been suspended for three days, and Ms. Lister confirmed that.
Why the assault did not appear on the year's Student Disciplinary Action Summary from Welch School, however, remains a mystery. Mr. Kimball said that he had reported the suspension and the assault that caused it on a paper document. Mr. Abbott said, "We have found no record at Welch that indicates Kimball ever filed" the assault report.
Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said, "I can guarantee you that there is a lot of underreporting" of school crimes in Houston.
"Principals are very prone not to report crimes, not if they can avoid it," Ms. Fallon said in an interview.
The problem is at its worst each fall before Oct. 30, she said, when Texas authorities count students at each school to allocate per capita financing. In the weeks before this "snapshot day," principals are especially reluctant to expel bullies and report their offenses, she said, because the loss of one student can cost the school thousands of dollars.
"A student would damn near have to kill somebody," Ms. Fallon said, "to be expelled before that snapshot date."
School Violence Data Under a Cloud in Houston
New York Times
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