Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, D-Manhattan, discusses the need for improvement to the reporting standards under the Dignity for All Students Act, which he sponsored into law in 2010. He visited the USA TODAY Network’s Albany Bureau on May 7, 2019. Joseph Spector, Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY – A 14-year-old Poughkeepsie High School student in February was arrested after allegedly making threats against another student on social media that resulted in a lockdown at the school.
Less than a week later, a 16-year-old Beacon High School student was charged with aggravated harassment after police said they made social media threats against the school.
In the Elmira schools, a student earlier this academic year was reported to have skipped class, refused to follow requests of an administrator, swore at teachers and used a racial epithet.
In the Chenango Valley school district, a teacher reported that one female student relayed that another student told her three times, “You need to get raped with a chicken strip.”
The list goes on and on.
New York’s nearly 700 school districts and charter schools outside New York City reported 163,400 incidents of violence, bullying, sexual offenses and weapon possessions since the 2012-13 school year, a review by the USA TODAY Network in New York found.
Over the past two years, the number of incidents skyrocketed 31% as the state Education Department sought to streamline the reporting process, the investigation found.
The data may only offer a snapshot of the violence, threats and harassment that students and staff have to endure in the classrooms, hallways and buses amid a national spotlight on school safety following horrific mass shootings.
New York’s reporting is porous, critics said, but vital to ensuring schools are safe and responsive.
Since the data is self reported, schools are disincentivized to provide an accurate account of the violent acts within their walls: more incidents means more scrutiny from the state and the public, critics said.
Indeed, the USA TODAY Network’s review found about 90 schools reported no incidents of violence or bullying of any kind over the past six years.
“The reporting is not really accurate,” said Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell, D-Manhattan, who sponsored the Dignity for All Students Act, which passed in 2010 and requires schools to report cases of bullying.
“Schools don’t want to report accurately because they don’t want to be perceived as an unsafe school. On the other hand, if we don’t have accurate data, we don’t know what we need to do to fix it.”
The findings in New York
The number of violent incidents in New York schools jumped by 7,000 cases between the 2016-17 school year and the 2017-18 school year, which ended June 30, the records from the state Education Department showed.
Here are other findings:
- The nearly 30,000 safety incidents in the last school year were up from 23,000 the prior year, which had been the lowest since the state started keeping the data in the 2012-13 school year.
- Over the past six years, Buffalo by far led the state in the number of violent incidents, followed by Syracuse, Rochester, Schenectady and Albany. Yonkers ranked sixth and Greece, a Monroe County suburb, ranked seventh.
- Seventeen schools since 2012 had more violent incidents than students on campus, mainly facilities who serve troubled youth.
- The data can paint an incomplete picture. Since the information is self reported, the information is only as accurate as schools want it to be.
- Of the roughly 3,000 schools listed, about 460, or 15% outside New York City, reported 10 or fewer incidents over the past six years, while 32 each had more than 2,000.
Facing criticism over the reporting, the Education Department in 2017 updated its criteria, cutting the categories of incidents from 20 to 9 and making it easier for schools to file their reports online.
But by doing so, it also makes it impossible to compare this past year’s data to prior years when trying to figure if there are more specific violent acts, such as weapons possession, sexual offenses or bomb threats.
Still, the Education Department said it is confident it has made improvements to the system so the school-safety reports are more accurate.
“There is literally nothing more important than protecting our children, and it is critical that everyone has a clear and consistent way to track and compare the level of safety in every school,” the department said in a statement.
How is the data reported?
After the Dignity for All Students Act became law, the state Education Department combined the act’s reporting requirements with the Violence and Disruptive Incident Reporting standards, which the state put in place in 2000.
Critics said adding the two standards together gives the reporting of bullying incidents a black mark against schools rather than using the data to improve the educational environment.
“So putting all of our efforts into reporting is only increasing our ability to count, potentially, the incidents rather than increasing our ability to reduce those number of incidents,” said Elizabethe Payne, who runs the LGBT Social Science & Public Policy Center at Hunter College in Manhattan and helped draft the dignity act.
The cases of bullying, harassment and intimidation reported by schools fell 32% between 2012 and 2016, but jumped 22% under the new reporting standards last school year, the records showed.
The Education Department said the new reporting guidelines, developed by a state task force, makes “reporting less complicated” and puts “greater emphasis on accurately identifying violent incidents to facilitate accurate reporting.”
Separately, the department uses the data to calculate if a school should be added to the state’s “persistently dangerous schools” list. Violent incidents are giving more weight than bullying, which can only count for one point of 100 in terming a district’s violence rate.
The number of schools receiving that designation has dwindled from a high of 33 in the 2012-13 school year to just two in the current school year.
Defending highest totals
Schools in New York have to file annual reports about violent incidents in their districts, but critics said the self-reporting lacks oversight. Joseph Spector, Albany Bureau Chief
Schools defended their reporting methods, saying districts with the highest number of incidents can be a sign that they are logging them better than other schools.
Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse — three of the four largest school districts outside New York City — all had a drop in the number of incidents between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, even as the statewide total jumped.
“We have implemented restorative practices and have identified specific levels of behavior concerns, violations and appropriate responses,” Syracuse spokesman Michael Henesey said.
The number of incidents in Buffalo fell 48%, or from 1,781 to 923, over the last two school years, while they fell 26% to 915 in Rochester. The number increased from 261 to 274 in Yonkers.
The largest district said they’ve taken steps to try to improve the climate in their schools, which in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse have among the highest poverty rates in the nation.
“We know that if student needs are not being met, the likelihood that they will perform academically while in our K-12 institutions is going to be impacted drastically,” said Eric Jay Rosser, Buffalo’s associate superintendent for student support services.
“So we had to create a sense of urgency in addressing the social and emotional needs of our children.”
Rochester said it has a strict system for reporting any cases of substance abuse, weapons possession, sexual violence and bullying.
“The district reviews all disciplinary reports that are entered into our e-system that come in through each school,” said Ray Giamartino, the district’s chief accountability officer.
Then he said “any and all applicable events/incidents” are reported to the state.
The largest totals last year
In the 2017-18 school year, Nyack Middle School in Rockland County, led the state in the number of reported incidents, the state data showed.
With an enrollment of 624 students, the district had 117 cases: 102 of which dealt with harassment, discrimination or bullying.
Superintendent James Montesano said the district sought to overreport rather than underreport incidents around bullying and harassment, saying the middle school is a “safe and secure school environment” with programs to address the issue.
“The reporting process is subjective in nature, and we have taken a proactive approach to identifying all incidents in an effort to bring an increased focus on what we consider to be a critical concern in all school communities comprised of preadolescent students,” Montesano said in a statement.
The Edward Leonard Middle School in New Rochelle, with 1,230 students, ranked second for most incidents last school year with 116, again mainly bullying or harassment cases.
The True North Rochester Preparatory in Monroe County, a charter school with 1,110 students, ranked third with 107 incidents, including 30 involving physical injury.
The Albert Leonard Middle School has been aggressive in its reporting and fighting bullying, the district said. Its principal, John Barnes, last year was named principal of the year by the group STOMP Out Bullying.
“We believe these numbers represent an increase in overall awareness about bullying by both our students and staff,” Barnes said in statement.
The school has a Safe School Ambassadors Program to train students on how to recognize bullying and diffuse or report any situations that arise, Barnes said.
“While our goal is the elimination of all bullying in our school, we will continue to encourage our students to speak up so we can address incidents appropriately and in a timely manner,” he said.
Most and fewest per student
While some Hudson Valley schools had the most cases last year, some have had the fewest in the state since New York started keeping the data.
Bronxville, for example, ranked as having the eighth fewest per student among districts reporting any cases since the 2012-13 school year. The wealthy district had just one case per every 558 students or just 18 over the six-year period.
Scarsdale, another rich district, also ranked low: a total of 80 incidents over six years, or one per 358 students.
Schools that serve troubled youth had the most incidents per student, led by Hawthorne Cedar Knolls in Westchester with one incident per every five students.
Among the largest districts, Syracuse ranked ninth in incidents per student, while Buffalo ranked 13, Rochester was 34.
While Yonkers and Greece had among the most incidents in the state because of their size, they were not among the leaders in incidents per student: Greece ranked 121st; Yonkers was 363rd.
Greece said it recently found it was counting the number of students involved in bullying incidents, not the number of bullying cases, leading to higher numbers.
“In some instances, this means we erroneously double or triple reported the same incident,” said district spokeswoman Laurel Heiden.
“As a district, we take a comprehensive approach to data collection and we value student voice. Our schools now use restorative practices whenever possible, which allows students to take an active role in dispute settlement.”
What happens next?
Assemblyman O’Donnell said the state budget includes $2 million for the state Education Department to expand its Dignity for All Students office.
He said the state needs to do a better job of enforcing the law and making sure districts are complying with its intent to stamp out bullying in schools based on religion, gender or sexual orientation.
“What the schools have taken the training to mean is ‘What you need to do so we don’t get sued’ — rather than what you need to do to ensure the school environment is one that is hospitable and a non-harassment environment for everyone,” he said.
Indeed, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has issued several audits critical of the reporting.
One audit in 2015 found 935 unreported incidents in one year at just seven schools, including East High School in Rochester and Pleasantville High School in Westchester.
Accurate and honest reporting is critical for the public to understand what is going on inside their schools and for educators to respond, said Johanna Miller, director of the Education Policy Center at the New York Civil Liberties Union.
If the data is properly collected and analyzed, schools can perhaps figure out if one group of students is being more targeted than others or if there is a time of the day that more bullying is occurring, she said.
“I think it’s a missed opportunity because that data, in addition to making schools more accountable and transparent, is a gold mine if you’re trying to improve your own school climate,” Miller explained.
Includes reporting by Press & Sun-Bulletin staff writer Ashley Biviano.
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