April 8, 2009 at 4:52 pm

School safety data incorrect

Errors, lack of guidelines give misleading picture to parents, public

Kelly Middle in Eastpointe erroneously reported there were three homicides. Actually, there were none. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

Spend just five minutes with Michigan's school safety records, and you might be alarmed.

Seven homicides at Oak Park Preparatory Academy last year. Three at Kelly Middle in Eastpointe the year before. Two drive-by shootings at a high school in northern Michigan two years ago.

If a parent from any of these schools had looked at the state's safety data, it may have caused them to wonder about their child's safety. "It would have been a shocker to me," said Sheree Vaughn, 40, whose daughter goes to Oak Park Prep.

But know this: None of those incidents occurred.

Each was one of many errors that are rife within the state's safety data -- like the nine explosions at Patterson Elementary in Lenawee County last year that should have been recorded as "expulsions," a schools spokesman said. Yet none have been corrected, leaving potentially frightening and erroneous information in plain sight on the state's education Web site.

Wayne Vaughn, 45, feels the state should do more to catch, and correct, errors like the one in Oak Park. It could have cast an unfair false light on the school, he said. "It has to do with facts," he said.

A Detroit News analysis of Michigan's safety statistics from the last three years shows the data is so fraught with problems that it might offer no guidance at all.

Some incidents are counted twice and obvious anomalies -- a 700-student charter school in Detroit that reported 9,999 truancies last year -- sit unchanged.

Incidents aren't verified

LaTasha Russaw has a kindergartner at Butzel Elementary and Middle School in Detroit, which has had just one weapons incident in the 2006-07 school year. Someone at the school made a mistake and the state database shows Butzel had 140 incidents that year. Russaw knows that incorrect information could be damaging.

"If that got out in the eyes of the public or parents, that would be a concern," Russaw said, "and a lot of parents would take their children out of this school."

As parents increasingly turn to the Internet for answers on everything from ailments to education, few would know that the safety records aren't verified -- unlike test scores -- and few checks and balances exist.

And schools sometimes interpret categories differently, making it difficult to determine the meaning of data even if it's correctly recorded. The result: an inappropriate comment in one district can be considered sexual assault in another.

"The state and federal school safety data isn't worth the paper or computer database that it's stored upon," said Kenneth Trump, president of Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services. "That's being kind."

It's also impossible to say how many incidents went unreported, either through carelessness or a desire to downplay serious incidents. There are clues though, that underreporting happens: Last year, 820 schools, out of more than 3,500, reported they had no disciplinary referrals -- the equivalent of getting sent to the principal's office for punishment.

Yet the same schools reported 1,452 cases of bullying, 491 physical assaults and 93 incidents of drug or alcohol use.

The Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information, which collects and reports the data on its Web site, identifies obvious errors and contacts school districts to verify them, said Tom Howell, the center's acting director. It is up to the districts to correct the data through an Internet-based form available to every district, he said; the state cannot go into the database and make the changes, he said.

"We work with them to improve it, but we don't make changes," Howell said. In the case of Oak Park Preparatory, he said the center sent two e-mails calling the potential error to the district's attention.

"We understand it is a challenge for districts to do an adequate job of reporting when they have competing priorities," he said.

623 bullying incidents questioned

Education experts have long said that school safety plays a role in learning, leading national and state officials to monitor school incidents to identify and address potential problems. Parents routinely rank safety among their biggest school concerns.

"It's absolutely essential for kids to have a safe environment if they're going to learn," said William Modzeleski, associate assistant deputy secretary, Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, U.S. Department of Education. "Kids can't learn and teachers can't teach when they're looking over their shoulders."

Modzeleski said the federal government requires states to collect and monitor school safety information. "Data is sort of the lifeblood of good planning," he said.

But he said each state must decide how it collects the information and how much it shares with the public. Since data collection is left up to the states, the agency does not enforce standards or punish states if they collect inaccurate data, a spokeswoman said.

Michigan collects and reports data differently from other states. In Ohio, fewer categories are reported and it is harder to compare schools. Wisconsin reports even fewer types while still meeting federal guidelines.

Wisconsin education officials contact schools if they see something that "doesn't look normal," said Patrick Gasper, a spokesman for the state education department.

The Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information sent one of its "anomaly" e-mails to a West Michigan charter school questioning its report of 623 bullying incidents. Principal Scott Morgan did not recall any contact from the state, but he heard from a couple who were shocked to see the bullying cases at West Michigan Academy of Environmental Sciences.

Morgan allayed their fears in part because the real number was eight. The number was incorrectly submitted and the school has been trying to get it changed, officials said.

"Parents in Michigan are evolving into consumers," said Dan Quisenberry, executive director of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies (MAPSA), a group that works to advance the cause of charter schools in the state. "And that consumer information is out there now."

The state says the burden is on districts, though Morgan wonders if more could be done. "We've got to have better checks and balances," he said.

Trump, of National School Safety and Security Services, said the problems with Michigan's data are typical across the country. "There are few incentives to accurately report, and there are no sticks for those that don't accurately report," he said. He said problems with the data often don't get discussed until reported by the media. The News started looking at the data in the wake of the Feb. 17 shooting at Detroit Central High School. Questions about the state's safety records made it apparent that it would be improper to make comparisons between schools or between years.

"The bottom line is that parents don't know what they don't know, and nobody's rushing to tell them," Trump said.

mwilkinson@detnews.com">mwilkinson@detnews.com. (313) 222-2563

Principal Ira Hamden stands in the hallway at Eastpointe’s Kelly Middle ... (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
Students eat lunch at Grand Blanc High, where lewd comments from boys were ... (Bryan Mitchell / Special to The Detroit News)
LaTasha Russaw walks near Butzel Elementary and Middle School with son ... (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)