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23.05.2006 Business & Finance

Violence Goes Unreported in Some Schools, Audit Says

By ELISSA GOOTMAN
Violence Goes Unreported in Some Schools, Audit Says

School officials across New York have significantly underreported cases of violent and disruptive behavior to the state, the state comptroller, Alan G. Hevesi, found in an audit released yesterday, in what he said was an effort to make their schools appear safer than they were.

Mr. Hevesi faulted the State Education Department as well as the schools, saying the department "ignored the problem" until the audit began, kept sloppy records and allowed schools to revise their data to avoid sanctions.

The department is required by a 2000 law to collect information on cases, ranging from homicides to bullying, from school districts across the state, and to use it to compile a list of "persistently dangerous schools." Parents are allowed by law to transfer their children out of such schools — but there are currently only five schools on the list.

The audit covered September 2002 until February 2006, and examined 17 high schools in 15 urban, rural and suburban districts, but none in New York City, where the Police Department tracks violent behavior in schools. Among the schools examined were two in Westchester County — Ardsley High School, which in 2003-4 reported only 6 of the 106 cases documented in school records, and White Plains High School, which reported only 22 of 311 cases documented in that school year.

At a news conference, Mr. Hevesi said the "stunning failure" of schools to accurately report their safety data pointed to a "real indication of widespread cover-up of these incidents by school officials." In interviews with school district officials throughout the state, he said, "Some were honest enough to admit that they believed that their neighboring districts were cheating and they didn't want to be humiliated by the contrast."

Timothy P. Connors, superintendent of the White Plains School District, said the district was not trying to cover anything up, blaming the state's reporting guidelines, which he described as "unclear," for any discrepancy. He said many of the situations in the school records involved students cutting class or smoking on school grounds, for example.

The Albany school district issued a statement saying the audit was conducted by "inexperienced" people who misunderstood the reporting process, but said it had already improved its monitoring of school safety. Mr. Hevesi found that in the 2003-4 school year, Albany High School documented 924 cases of violent or disruptive behavior, but reported only 144. Among the cases not reported to the state, Mr. Hevesi's report found, were 106 assaults, 14 burglaries or thefts, and a bomb threat.

Mr. Hevesi said that based on the audit's findings, he suspected that other schools were also underreporting violent incidents. Laura Rivera, a spokeswoman for the city comptroller, William C. Thompson Jr., said yesterday that he would conduct a similar audit of city schools.

At another news conference, the state education commissioner, Richard P. Mills, vowed to correct the problem. He said officials would soon begin visiting and studying records at 100 schools, including those in the audit, and possibly adding more to the list of the "persistently dangerous." If superintendents refuse to certify their districts' data, he said, school boards will be notified.

"When parents send a child to school, they want an absolute guarantee that the child will be safe," he said. "It's impossible to be certain of that if the data are not trustworthy."

Mr. Hevesi, however, said that until the audit began, the state made things worse, by giving schools in danger of being called "persistently dangerous" the opportunity to revise their data, often without offering any supporting documentation.

In 10 of the 15 districts studied in the audit, at least a third of the cases documented in school records were not reported to the state, Mr. Hevesi said. But a few schools, Mr. Hevesi found, kept such shoddy records that it was impossible to tell how many cases went unreported.

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