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No way to know your school’s safety record

Either the kids of Caro High School have a drinking problem, or the adults have a data problem.

According to Michigan’s official school safety data, the school of about 600 students in Michigan’s thumb recorded 4,815 cases of alcohol possession in the 2011-12 school year. For that data to be right, each high schooler would have been caught with beer in school an average of eight times.

“It would be very on point to say those numbers are inaccurate,” deadpanned Superintendent Bruce Nelson.

Caro, which allegedly also had 310 thefts at school in 2011-12, is not alone in head-scratching school-safety data.

Hartland High School in Livingston County supposedly had 12 suicide attempts in 2011-12, when there actually were none; Brethren High School in rural northwestern Michigan supposedly had 190 cases of bullying among its 164 students, a number that perplexes school officials.

Michigan families have a surfeit of school statistics available to them. They can study the age range of paraprofessionals at every school in the state. They can compare the per-pupil spending on athletics at different school districts down to the cent.

Yet 13 years after the state required the reporting of school safety information, and on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., Michigan families still have no reliable way to measure the safety of their children’s schools.

Michigan’s school safety information, intended to chronicle the level of bad behavior in individual schools, is such a mess that the state has pulled it from public view until the Michigan Department of Education can improve the reporting.

“The unfortunate impact of this kind of reporting is that parents do not get an accurate picture of the scope and depth of crime and safety issues in their child’s school,” said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland. “Parents don’t know what they don’t know, and nobody is rushing to tell them.”

Safety impacts learning

How safe children feel in school affects their ability to learn, which is what lead the Michigan Legislature to mandate the collection of school safety information in 1999, three months after the Columbine (Colo.) High School massacre. The legislation gives schools more authority to suspend or expel violent students, and ordered schools to annually collect and report incidents ranging from bullying to drive-by shootings.

“Reporting of school violence is not systematic in Michigan, and accurate records of school violence at the state level do not exist,” concluded a report by the House Subcommittee on Violence in the Schools in 1998.

The 1999 legislation apparently did little to fix these failures, a shortcoming the state has known about for years. In 2009, The Detroit News pointed out errors in the school safety information, including seven homicides at Oak Park Preparatory Academy (there actually were none).

In June, the Center for Educational Performance and Information (CEPI), a state clearinghouse for school information, pulled the data from public view, sending a letter to the Michigan Department of Education urging it to fix the reporting problems.

“Governor Snyder and his strategic policy team encouraged us to remove the data from the public websites until we can ensure the data is accurate,” the letter said in part. The letter does not provide a deadline for fixing the problem.

Garbage in, garbage out

The state relies on schools to self-report safety data each year, and each school is left on its own to determine what to count and what not to count.

In Hartland, 12 teens who approached school counselors for advice on issues they were facing in their lives were counted as “suicide attempts,” because the suicide attempt category includes any student interactions in which referrals were made to out-of-school services.

“There you go for being honest,” said Hartland Superintendent Janet Sifferman. “I’m guessing we’re not the only high school with teenagers who come to counselors with problems.”

Sifferman said the school safety information report requirement is “another one of those unfunded mandates. It takes time for someone to collect all this detail and put it all in.”

“With state and federal reports, we have more reports to fill out than there are days of school,” added Caro Superintendent Nelson. “We have to report on average days of attendance, truancy, homeless students, the list goes on and on. And so much of it includes the same data.

“With such a huge number of reports that keep piling up, it’s a wonder they can keep any data straight.”

Nelson doesn’t know why the state report lists so many alcohol incidents and thefts at Caro.

Marlen Cordes, superintendent of Kaleva Norman Dickson Schools, laughed when told that Brethren High School supposedly had 190 cases of bullying in 2011-12, saying that the 164-student school near Manistee couldn’t have that many cases of bullying “even if we had (suspended Miami Dolphin football player) Richie Incognito in as a motivational speaker.”

He guesses errors are occurring both in reporting by the schools and in the data entry in Lansing.

The legislation’s original sponsor was former Rep. Clark Bisbee, R-Jackson. Bisbee doesn’t remember much about the bill, other than it was something that teachers and principals wanted to improve safety. Now running a chain of Little Caesars restaurants in Redding, Pa., Bisbee said he was unaware of the error-ridden data.

The problems in Michigan’s data are typical around the country, said Trump, of the national school safety group. “There are few incentives to report properly. It only gets discussed when the media looks at the data.”

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011, after winning more than 40 state and national journalism awards at The Detroit News. See more stories by him here.

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