Worcester County State’s Attorney Kris Heiser and Worcester County Sheriff Matt Crisafulli expressed their apprehensions about the safety of our local schools in a letter to the Worcester County School Board.
Basically, they have serious concerns about “the consistent lack of notification to law enforcement about criminal activity and delinquent acts occurring at school or by students.” Unfortunately, It’s a problem that’s far from unique to our area and a trend across the nation.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2019-20 (the most recent school year with available data), 77 percent of public schools nationwide reported at least one incident of crime. This amounted to 1.4 million incidents. Only 47 percent of schools reported these incidents, resulting in 482,400 reported incidents.
Also, the percentage of schools recording incidents was consistently higher than the percentage reporting these incidents to law enforcement. For instance, 70 percent of schools recorded violent incidents, but only 32 percent reported them. The numbers were similar for serious violent incidents (25 vs. 14 percent), thefts (32 vs. 15 percent), and other incidents (57 vs. 36 percent).
Public schools recorded 19 violent incidents per 1,000 students but reported only five violent incidents per 1,000 students to law enforcement. This raises questions about the accuracy of school data and the ability of law enforcement to address these issues.
The root of the problem lies in the overwhelming pressure placed on schools to address the “School-to-Prison Pipeline.” While a noble cause, it forces schools to resort to underreporting incidents to avoid negative consequences such as suspensions and arrests. Evaluations and promotions of school administrators are often tied to reducing suspension and arrest rates.
In 2013, the O’Malley administration adopted a new set of standards for student discipline in our public schools. They required local systems to revise discipline policies to reflect a therapeutic and restorative approach, and to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline (removing students). We are now seeing the results. This is no different than police or sheriff’s departments not reporting crime to make the community appear safer.
I hope the school board will acknowledge the issue and make the corrections, but something tells me we are in for an uphill battle. As a former administrator in a large public school system in Maryland, and a current consultant in school climate and safety, I can safely say that no one wants disruptive and criminal students removed more than board members, superintendents and administrators do. It is the political pressure, laws and policies from the state level that causes the issue.
The updated memorandum of understanding, or MOU, between the sheriff’s department and the school system has a specific clause that requires administrators to: “Promptly report to SRD’s all crimes, delinquent acts, and violations of the WCPS Code of Conduct as outlined in the WCPS Administrator’s Guide to Offense Codes ‘required external notifications’ coming to their attention whether occurring on or away from the school premises.”
The simple problem is that school administrators are not reporting crimes as required by the MOU; but, as you can see, it goes much deeper. The answer for schools is not to reduce suspensions and arrests, but to reduce the need for them.
I applaud Sheriff Crisafulli and State’s Attorney Heiser for taking a stand on this issue, as the safety and security of our students should always be a top priority. It’s an uphill battle, but a necessary one to ensure that our schools remain safe centers for learning