2007-10-12 / Columnists

It's My Turn

By William Thompson Comptroller, City Of New York

The future of New York is intimately tied to the success of our City's schools. Fundamental to the principles of a sound education is the understanding that students cannot succeed in an environment disrupted by intimidation and violence.

Two weeks ago, my office released an audit, which found that the Department of Education (DOE) has failed to ensure that all violent, disruptive, and other incidents that interfere with learning in New York City public high schools are being reported to New York State. It also found that schools are not reporting incidents completely or consistently. The end result is that parents, teachers, and government officials are not receiving the information they need to implement policies that keep our children safe. This is unacceptable. These incidents should never be underplayed or swept under the rug. Parents, teachers, administrators, government officials, and the public deserve to know how many violent or disruptive incidents occur in City schools. It's clear, however, that the DOE lacks adequate controls to ensure consistent reporting.

Each year, New York City- like all of the State's school districts- is required to report all violent and disruptive incidents to the State Education Department. Schools record incidents on the DOE-maintained Online Occurrence Reporting System (OORS), and this data is then relayed to the State.

Our audit analyzed data supplied by 10 sampled high schools- - each with more than 1,000 students- - for the 2004-2005 academic year. Our findings were troubling. Twenty-one percent of the nearly 2,000 sample incidents we identified were not reported. Of these nearly 2,000 incidents, approximately 1,250 were deemed "serious." Yet 14% of these "serious" incidents were not reported.

At August Martin High School in Jamaica, my office found cases of theft, assault, and harassment that were not reported. After examining the records of Aviation High School in Long Island City, we discovered incidents involving fighting and grand larceny that were left unreported. Records at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx revealed incidents involving gang-related fights, sexual abuse, and marijuana possession that had not been reported.

For the 10 sampled schools, the percentages of incidents not entered in the system ranged from 5 to 75 percent. Much of this disparity is due to the vague instructions the DOE gives to principals and administrators about their responsibilities in reporting and logging incidents.

Because the DOE's instructions are left open to interpretation, each school relies on its own criteria when entering data into the online system. These ineffective controls mean the DOE cannot ensure that all incidents are properly reported in compliance with established regulations. Additionally and significantly, the DOE does not visit schools to analyze safety and disciplinary records. If the DOE were more diligent and thorough, government officials could respond quickly and appropriately to harmful trends, such as increased gang activity and assaults.

The DOE must be more actively involved in encouraging incident reporting. It should exercise more oversight of data entry in OORS to ensure that incidents are reported in accordance with DOE regulations. It should also provide additional training to administrators regarding how incidents are to be recorded and take forceful corrective actions at schools that fail to enter incidents as required.

The DOE must recognize and listen to our students and teachers when they complain about the problems they see and feel. Students cannot learn - - and teachers cannot teach- - in an environment where safety is threatened. We can improve conditions for students and educators by getting a full picture of what is currently occurring in our schools.

Creating a safe and violence-free environment in our public schools is one of our most basic responsibilities. A safe school environment is a healthy school environment- fear should never be part of the equation. School should be a student's home away from home, a haven where youth are secure enough to learn and grow. Indeed, teachers, administrators, and the DOE must do everything in their power to ensure that our students not only feel safe at school, but are safe at school.

To this end, the Department of Education must act now to ensure that all violent and disruptive incidents in our schools are reported accurately and publicly, and in consequence move swiftly and surely to eradicate any trends of violence.

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