Thursday, December 4, 2008

Pennsylvania's annual school-violence reports offer little value

December 4,2008

Pennsylvania's annual school-violence reports offer little value to the public
and policymakers because the state neither independently verifies the reports'
accuracy nor releases them promptly, Auditor General Jack Wagner said Wednesday.

An audit of the Education Department's safe schools initiatives found that the
annual reports about student misdeeds ranging from bullying to murder were
released as late as a year after the schools' June 30 deadline to submit data,
Wagner said.

He also said the department relies on local school officials to vouch for the
accuracy of their data if any questions arise, rather than performing its own

The information is vital for the department to determine whether a school should
be labeled "persistently dangerous" under federal law, based on the number of
serious incidents that result in arrests over a certain period. Students in
those schools are entitled to transfer elsewhere.

"These reports are consistently late and, by the time they become public, they
have very little value," Wagner said during a news conference.

The Education Department disagreed with some of Wagner's findings and said it
has made efforts in recent years to improve the accuracy and completeness of the
school-violence reports.

The audit primarily covered a five-year period between July 2001 and June 2006,
but also included information collected as recently as November.

Wagner singled out the department's 2005-06 report for criticism in one
instance, noting that some school districts reported numerous violent incidents,
yet no arrests, and others reported relatively few incidents and a large number
of arrests.

The audit also found that the department failed to ensure that nine
"persistently dangerous" schools in Philadelphia followed through on plans to
improve school safety and disregarded recommendations by its safe schools
advocate for improving safety in the city's schools.

Education Department spokesman Michael Race said the agency agrees with Wagner
that safe schools must be a priority, and it has taken several steps in recent
years to improve its reporting requirements.

"He thankfully gave us some credit for that, and we look forward to continuing
to move forward with efforts to improve school safety," Race said.

Secretary Gerald Zahorchak said in a written response that the department
modernized its data collection from a system of paper records to an easy-to-use
online system.

The department also takes steps to ensure that it is receiving accurate figures,
such as flagging questionable entries and identifying reports where the number
of incidents is disproportionate to a school district's total enrollment,
Zahorchak said.

Although the department agreed with Wagner that "some type of auditing" would
improve the system, state law would have to be changed to authorize it,
Zahorchak said. Wagner's auditors, however, said the department already has the
authority to perform such an audit.

Zahorchak also acknowledged that the publication of the school-violence reports
has typically occurred almost a year after end the school year in which the data
were collected. He said the department would work to issue more timely reports;
the 2007-08 report has not been released.

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