FL public schools skew picture of safety and order; intentionally failing to report incidents at schools

By: - December 12, 2019 10:58 am
One Year Anniversary Parkland tragedy

A memorial at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, following the mass shooting on February 14, 2018, in Parkland. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Florida public schools are manipulating data and “intentionally not reporting disciplinary incidents,” including violence and crimes, creating a picture of “safety and order” that misrepresents what’s happening in schools and districts.

That’s a key finding in the second interim report of the statewide grand jury focused on school safety, which launched in February — a year after the mass shooting deaths at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018.

The newest report, released late Wednesday night, also chastised charter schools over failing to timely provide school safety officers on their campuses. Charters are public schools, but they’re run by private entities.

The report includes other concerns as well.

The disciplinary data, which schools are supposed to report to the Florida Department of Education, includes criminal incidents and serious breaches of student conduct. The reporting system is called School Environmental Safety Incident Reporting, or SESIR for short.

But while the grand jury referenced widespread errors and misreporting of the school disciplinary data, it also made clear that districts deliberately haven’t reported.

“School Districts are intentionally not reporting SESIR incidents,” according to the second interim report. “One does not have to be overly astute to see how the incentives are aligned for school officials to underreport.”

The report continued: “After all, the SESIR data is public, and the people ultimately in charge of the school districts directly benefit from maintaining – if not improving – an impression of safety and order in their districts.”

Instead of trying to reduce incidents through various innovative measures, districts did the opposite, according to the report.

“It appears that they have merely become experts at data manipulation, which is happening on the ground in the schools, and at the district level.”

The report provided some examples, such as Miami-Dade. In 2014-15, more than 5,000 fights were reported in the schools, but by 2015-16, the number dropped to 311.

“What innovative program did the district adopt to resolve this issue? Counseling? Group therapy? Improved disciplinary measures for students involved in physical altercations? No. The district instead chose to modify its own interpretation of what kinds of physical altercations qualified as ‘fighting,’” resulting in a dramatic drop in incidents.

The statewide grand jury cautioned school officials and law enforcement that certain attempts to obstruct reporting criminal activity is a crime. And the grand jury “will not hesitate to indict school officials…”

In the charter school situation, the grand jury said a number of districts – including charters — have failed to provide at least one school safety officer on every public-school campus.

“Charter schools that take issue with the presence of school district law enforcement on their campuses always have the option of not taking state money and simply becoming private schools.” the report stated.

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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.