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Friday August 1st 2014

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FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT Children have the fundamental right to attend a school that is safe. Unfortunately, the Florida primary and secondary education system is myopically focused on test scores. Good scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test set the benchmark for whether a school is considered a good school.

Crime and violence in schools don’t get the same recognition. In fact, a parent can’t find those statistics on Escambia County Public School District’s website. You can see a school’s FCAT scores, its holiday schedule and the school lunch menu, but not how many fights, assaults or sex offenses. Florida law lets you transfer your child out of a school with failing FCAT scores, but not because the school leads the district in battery.

To make matters worse, the schools aren’t all accurately reporting the crime and violence on their campuses, as I discovered when working on this week’s cover story, “Tarnished Turnaround.” Teachers are discouraged from writing referrals on students. Students who commit crimes or act violently aren’t always disciplined and are sent back to their classes. The teachers and school resource officers are blamed for the misconduct.

At Warrington Middle School, teachers complained that the principal and her staff were destroying referrals and not entering them in the state’s school safety database. We know of an incident of sexual misconduct on a school bus that involved several students and was investigated for weeks by the School District that didn’t get reported to the state.  If such a major incident isn’t properly reported, then what is happening to the lesser ones?

Less than 40 percent of the crime and violence that is reported to the state is reported to law enforcement, according to Florida Department of Education reports. Across the state, other school districts are reporting 84 percent of the same type of incidents to their local law enforcement. Only 18 percent of the sex offenses at Escambia County schools are reported to law enforcement.

The School District has focused on drugs on campus, using drug dogs to sweep the schools daily. The School Board has approved a new drug testing policy for students that will be implemented next year. However, two of the high schools with the most reported drug possessions in the 2009-10 school year, Tate and Escambia, reported only six of their 36 drug possession incidents to the law. Had more been reported would we need the drug dogs?

Superintendent Malcolm Thomas has no explanation for the huge gap between his district and the rest of the state in reporting campus crime and violence. He says that his deans have been properly trained, and he isn’t aware of any underreporting.

That answer isn’t good enough, especially when the statistics are so overwhelmingly bad. We can’t deal with the school safety issue unless we have accurate information on what is happening in the classrooms. Parents have a right to know what the real crime and violence statistics are for the public schools.

Children have a right to safe schools.

rick@inweekly.net