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School Safety Reports Omit Many Crimes

Ohanian Comment: I'm sorry, but I think this is funny. Poisoning a Gwinnett teacher doesn't rank as a serious crime in Georgia. Longtime readers of this site will recall that Gwinnett County school police traveled all the way to Vermont to take a look at the post office from which high stakes tests were mailed to the media, threatening yours truly with $1,000,000 lawsuit and 5 years in jail. That's because messing around with standardized tests is a serious crime.

But teachers? They are expendable. For messing around with a teacher to be considered a serious crime in Gwinnett, loss of body parts must occur.

Could you make up anything this ludicrous if you tried?

Thousands of crimes are not being considered by the state as it compiles a federally mandated list of dangerous schools.

Some of the omitted incidents are among the most serious crimes on school campuses in recent years, including an alleged rape in Marietta and the poisoning of a Gwinnett teacher, according to data analyzed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind act, the state is required to create a list of "persistently dangerous schools" that show a pattern of serious criminal activity over a three-year period. Parents are allowed to transfer their children out of schools on the list.

The state is expected to release the 2004 list this month. So far, Dacula High School in Gwinnett County is the only confirmed entry on Georgia's list, although state officials said there could be several others.

Last year, no Georgia schools were on the list, and only 55 of the nation's 91,000 public schools got the label in 2003, according to federal officials.

Parents who rely on the list as an indicator of school safety could get a false sense of security, said Shannon Sanderson, a mother of three Gwinnett County students. She is convinced more schools should get the label.

"I don't believe the data that is in that report," said Sanderson, who monitors monthly student disciplinary summaries in Gwinnett. "There were several incidents that occurred that would have put Gwinnett schools on the list, and they are not on the list. And I don't think it is just Gwinnett that has the problem."

The concern is over flawed state guidelines, restrictive reporting criteria, and confusion over criminal definitions. The state and federal government concede it could take some time for school systems to report the data properly.

"I think that is going to be very hard for us for a long time to know if our data are accurate or not," said Stuart Bennett, deputy state schools superintendent.

Bill Modzeleski, director of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program at the U.S. Department of Education, said his department is reviewing how states are defining persistently dangerous schools to come up with a model that can be used nationally.

"It is going to take awhile for this thing to work itself out," Modzeleski said.

Up to the schools

State Department of Education guidelines compel school administrators to make legal judgments about student discipline incidents.

For instance, a principal must decide whether a schoolyard fight with injuries meets the criminal definition of aggravated battery. And a school-based charge may not be consistent with criminal charges filed by police or prosecutors. Some in law enforcement are concerned.

"Educators went to school to learn how to teach; they didn't go to school to be criminal justice practitioners," said Mark Kissel, Cherokee County Schools police chief.

A pair of aggravated batteries that left one Cherokee student with a broken jaw and another with facial fractures were not reported to the state last year because the incidents were listed in student discipline records as "batteries."

"The tribunal records said 'battery.' We were unaware of any other charge out there," said Jackie Hopkins, a Cherokee assistant school superintendent. "In previous years [principals] never had to discern the difference between battery and aggravated battery. Now we do."

Another problem is that some school-related incidents are outside the scope of the report. Summer school incidents, such as an alleged rape at Berkmar High in Lilburn last June, cannot be counted. And crimes school employees commit against students are also not included, such as the statutory rape and sexual assault committed by a teacher at Cherokee County's Woodstock High.

The state began collecting school crime statistics last year. Schools decide whether an incident rises to the level of being included on the state's annual report that generates the persistently dangerous list.

A disciplinary hearing conducted by a school tribunal or its principal would need to find that a student violated a school rule involving murder, voluntary manslaughter, aggravated battery, rape, aggravated sodomy, first-degree arson, armed robbery, aggravated sexual battery or aggravated child molestation. High rates of drug offenses, weapons violations or terroristic threats must also be considered. A school must have reportable incidents in each of the three years to appear on the state's list.

Reporting problems

Serious incidents that are reported to administrators don't always make the unsafe schools report. Last year's list was a prime example.

For instance, Marietta City Schools did not report an alleged rape, despite security cameras that captured what school officials believed to be a 17-year-old male pulling a 16-year-old girl into the boy's restroom for sex on March 7, 2002. Marietta police charged the 17-year-old with rape despite disputes over whether the sex was consensual. He pleaded to a lesser charge.

On April 1, a disciplinary hearing found the 17-year-old guilty of violating a school rule prohibiting sex offenses. Although Marietta administrators decided the case was serious enough to expel the teen, they did not count it as a rape. Marietta schools spokesman Bill Doughty said the incident "did not meet any of the criteria" of reportable offenses set by the state Department of Education.

Another case to elude the first unsafe schools report involved a Gwinnett teacher whose morning coffee was spiked with cleaning solution by a student in March 2001.

According to Gwinnett County school police, Summerour Middle School teacher Cynthia Hagood West went home complaining of severe headache and nausea. Although she returned to school the next day, her condition worsened. Witnesses said the youth bragged about the crime.

One witness told police: " . . . He was bragging that he had sprayed Mrs. West's coffee and he said that is why she is stupid now and she can't think of what she wants to say." School police charged the teen with battery and referred him to Juvenile Court. A school hearing found the teen guilty of physical assault or battery against a teacher and expelled him from Summerour.

However, Gwinnett school administrators decided the poisoning did not meet the state Department of Education's definition of aggravated battery. That requires serious disfigurement, the loss of a body part or the loss of the use of a body part a higher threshold than the one used by Georgia prosecutors, who also consider lesser injuries like broken bones as aggravated battery. West "returned to regular duty," Gwinnett's Chief of Staff Bobby Crowson. "It was decided that this was not an aggravated battery."

West, who is in the midst of a workers' compensation suit, still struggles with memory loss. She said she returned to light duty after the poisoning and later went on disability.

"I have lost a lot of things," said the 62-year-old. "I have two master's degrees. I can't even hardly read the Bible . . . or do the computer."

State officials have said they are looking into whether the poisoning and other incidents should have been on the Gwinnett's unsafe schools report.

More roadblocks

There are other roadblocks to reporting. For instance, if a disciplinary hearing is not held in the same school year as the offense was committed, then the incident can't be reported that school year. State guidelines require official action the formal punishment of a student for a violation of school rules before a case can be reported.

State law, however, establishes a student's right to a fair school hearing, even if the student is incarcerated.

"If the child can't come on school grounds because he is incarcerated or because of a condition of his bond . . . it can delay a due process hearing," said Vicki Sweeny, an attorney for Gwinnett Schools.

Such a delay could, intentionally or not, keep serious incidents off the danger list.

"Is there some sort of loophole here? Could I as a superintendent make a decision to [delay discipline from] Year 3 to Year 4 and then it wouldn't be consecutive? In theory, yes," said Bennett, the deputy state schools superintendent.

Bennett successfully pushed a state law this year requiring disciplinary hearings to be held within 10 days of a student offense. But he acknowledged parents and attorneys can still delay the process.

The new danger list was compiled using the past three school years of student crime data. That includes two years of data from last year's report, which state officials have said contained errors.

While more schools are expected to make the list this year, national safety experts doubt that every school that should get the danger label will get it. Kenneth Trump, a school safety consultant, said the danger list is "counterproductive." "What we are doing is encouraging underreporting and punishing the honest school administrator who not only deals with the problems, but acknowledges and reports them," he said.

— D. Aileen Dodd
Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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