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Published in Print: June 11, 2003, as School Safety Reports Get a Closer Look in Ga.

School Safety Reports Get a Closer Look in Ga.

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Only months before a federal law gives families the option of transferring children who attend "persistently dangerous" schools to other sites, Georgia officials continue to look into how it is that the Gwinnett County and Atlanta school districts significantly underestimated their discipline problems.

School administrators in the Gwinnett County system, located in suburban Atlanta, and in the state's capital city failed to alert the Georgia education department to thousands of incidents that occurred during the 2001-02 school year, some of which included drugs and weapons. Officials in both school systems cite human error and technological problems as the cause.

The state education department began investigations in both Gwinnett County and Atlanta last month. Around the same time, the Gwinnett County district attorney launched a probe into the reporting anomalies, though no similar action has been taken in Atlanta. Meanwhile, the state board of education is scheduled on June 12 to approve new data-collection criteria and a definition of "persistently dangerous" schools—as is required by the federal "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001. ("Unsafe Label Will Trigger School Choice," Oct. 23, 2002.)

"This has all been unfortunate, but it has highlighted for us and for school districts that we have to have accurate reporting," said Stuart Bennett, a deputy state schools superintendent.

School safety experts wonder if the federal rule will perpetuate, or even encourage, underreporting of disciplinary incidents in general.

They say such problems are already common in school districts. While some administrators lie about such data for fear that their schools will earn bad reputations, such experts say, other school leaders accidentally corrupt the statistics by misinterpreting reporting laws.

"I've been in the field for over 20 years and worked with 35 states, and [the problem] is prevalent," said Kenneth S. Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm based in Cleveland.

Worse, he said, is that "there are very few incentives for school administrators to report accurately, and absolutely no consequences for those who do not."

Officials at the U.S. Department of Education, however, dispute those criticisms. "Most are doing an extremely good job reporting," said William Modzeleski, the director of the department's Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program.

Reporting Glitches

The Georgia investigations were precipitated by news reports in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and on TV station WSB of Atlanta, which found that officials in the Gwinnett County schools had failed to report 23,000 discipline incidents—some 85 percent of the total that should have been reported for 2001-02. The joint investigative report also found that 40 of Atlanta's 91 public schools did not report any discipline data at all to the state.

Discipline reports to the state are an annual requirement under state law.

A majority of the errors in Gwinnett County were tracked to a flawed computer program, said J. Alvin Wilbanks, the superintendent and chief executive officer of the 123,000-student district. Other problems were missed because cases were miscoded when entered into district computers, he added.

"We're going back and making sure we have all of the processes put in place, and that they're being carried out," Mr. Wilbanks said last week. "We never tried to hide anything."

The trouble in the 54,000-student Atlanta district occurred in part because some administrators thought their buildings did not have situations serious enough to be filed with the state, while other information was missing because it was erroneously deleted, state officials said.

The errors were unintentional, and the district has overhauled its computer system and transferred the responsibility of data collection to the district's research department, said Seth Coleman, a spokesman for the Atlanta schools.

Those missed incidents accounted for only .06 percent of the total that should have been reported, he added.

Both districts are working to cleanse the erroneous data.

State officials said they believed that the mistakes made in both cases were not intentional. Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said in an interview that he was still trying to make that determination.

Curtis S. Lavarello

Soon, the Georgia state board of education will vote on a new definition of "persistently dangerous," as well as a new data-collection requirement that officials hope will be clearer, Mr. Bennett said. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, parents will be allowed to transfer students out of "persistently dangerous" schools beginning this coming fall.

As in many other states, Georgia's draft document for complying with the federal requirements covers only the worst offenses, and leaves out other acts that are troubling, such as gang activity, said Curtis S. Lavarello, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, based in St. Anthony, Fla.

Few schools would be considered "persistently dangerous" under the draft language in Georgia, Mr. Lavarello said.

On the other hand, he added, "You could penalize some principals who are really very aggressive . . . because they'll be labeled a persistently dangerous school."

Vol. 22, Issue 40, Page 5

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