School districts and law enforcement say they’re working hard to keep our schools safe, but in this era of information, apps and big data, how can parents be sure?
As the state legislature, school districts and law enforcement agencies discuss how to make Colorado schools safer, the North Forty News found that parents have been left out in the cold because there’s no way to independently verify — either online or via formal records requests — whether the school their child attends is safe.
A three-month investigation involving more than 30 Colorado Open Records Act requests, hundreds of highway miles to file hard copy records requests and a dozen other e-mail or phone requests to state and local agencies found that Fort Collins Police Services and Larimer County Sheriff’s Office are reluctant to release any information about juveniles involved in crimes and disruptive incidents at Poudre School District K-12 schools.
As a result, there’s no avenue for parents to verify via law enforcement how violent crimes at schools were reported, who the victim was — whether student, teacher or staff, whether a victim was injured or was bullied, whether an incident resulted in charges or prosecution and how a case was resolved, if it was.
School crime is down, still in the news
The big picture on school crime in Colorado is mixed.
Colorado Department of Education statistics show a significant drop in school-related crime and violations of student codes of conduct reported to law enforcement statewide in the last 10 years. In all areas except drug violations, which dropped to 1,921 in the 2012-13 school year from 2,004 in 2003-04, the number of incidents have dropped by half or more. Incidents involving dangerous weapons dropped to 201 from 402 and robberies dropped to 31 from 192.
So cursory observation would conclude that yes, Colorado’s schools are safer than they were a decade ago.
But the Dec. 13 shooting at Arapahoe High School in Littleton brought the issue of school safety back into the limelight at the state legislature, where measures being discussed include bringing in more mental health professionals into schools and permanently funding the Safe2Tell program, a program that allows students to report potential attacks on schools and acts of bullying. But the most neglected issue today may be that some parents still have few reliable ways to measure the safety of their children’s schools.
An investigation by the North Forty News establishes just how difficult it is for Poudre School District parents to find out details about incidents that take place at their schools, despite state regulations enacted after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre mandating safe school plans and school district crime reports.
“Parents don’t know what they don’t know and nobody is rushing in to tell them,” said Ken Trump, a national expert and author on school safety who has testified four times before the U.S. Congress on the issue. He said data on serious offenses at schools generated by school districts seldom correlates with that generated by police departments, and what data is available is almost always lacking in the detail that parents might find helpful.
Colorado has guidelines regarding the responsibility of schools to report such incidents, detailed in the Colorado School Violence Prevention and Student Discipline Manual. The manual was first published in 1999 and was updated by Colorado Attorney General John Suthers in 2009. It includes guidance and interpretation of the Safe Schools Act, enacted by the state legislature in 2000.
Suthers’ guidelines require that annual reports from school districts contain “the number of conduct and discipline code violations, including specific information on the number of violations, and actions taken by the school, by category of violation. This report must also specifically identify each conduct and discipline code violation by a student with a disability.”
But versions of these reports made available to the public don’t include details, such as what type of weapon was involved in a weapons violation, or whether a teacher or student was threatened in a case of disruptive behavior.
So that leaves parents with searching local sources, including their local law enforcement, for details on a crime that occurred at a neighborhood school. Often in local school crime incidents there have been police agencies involved, namely the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office and Fort Collins Police Services. Each had its own response to inquiries in regard to such incidents made by the North Forty News, but in reality the response was the same: Not to release any significant information regarding incidents that occur at schools.
Poudre School District spokeswoman Danielle Clark said parents and reporters would have to go to the police or sheriff’s department for information about incidents that resulted in a police report. Clark was unable to provide any additional information, for example, about a weapon-related incident at Poudre High School during the 2012-13 school year that was reported to the Colorado Department of Education.
Poudre High School Principal Kathy Mackay was contacted about the March 6 incident but said she couldn’t reveal the details of the incident unless a gun was involved.
While not disclosing the names of juveniles in police reports is standard procedure, providing information (such as age and hometown) about juvenile arrests and contacts by the police is standard procedure for many departments. Summaries like this are released publicly by law enforcement in Colorado Springs, as well as in Morgan and Garfield counties and other jurisdictions.
Nationally, juveniles account for some 33 percent of all property crimes, and many police departments include juvenile arrests (excluding names and other information that might identify the suspect) along with every other report generated in files accessible to the press and general public.
However, Larimer County Sheriff’s spokesman John Schulz said he did not remember ever putting out a press release regarding a juvenile arrest.
“We don’t make those reports available, you have to request them,” Schulz said. “Every request goes through our records division to make sure they can be released.”
In the North Forty News investigation that meant that only five of 13 requested incident reports involving local schools were released. Released reports included minor thefts at the schools reported by adults, including a stolen bike and iPod.
“The sheriff is very committed to being as transparent as possible wherever we can. We’re not withholding information unless it falls within specific categories,” Shultz said. “These reports fall under criminal justice law, not open records requests. In these particular cases the law prohibits the release of that information.”
However, media law attorney Tom Kelley said the intent of the juvenile justice statutes are to protect the identity of the alleged offender.
“The juvenile system has always been very protective of identities because police and courts believe so strongly in the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders,” said Kelley, a partner at Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, LLP in Denver and specialist in First Amendment law. But, he said, “there is the accommodating the community aspect in that there’s no reason authorities can’t issue some kind of summary report on an incident to students, parents or the public.”
Kelley has represented national media in attempts to protect the public’s right to access records and proceedings in an array of high-profile cases, including the Oklahoma City Bombing trials, Kobe Bryant rape prosecution, and JonBenet Ramsey’s murder investigation.
“There’s a need for police to keep parents informed about the details, otherwise it’s ‘Everything’s OK. Trust us,’ ” Kelley said.
Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said a parent’s access to police and sheriff’s reports regarding juveniles can be an important way for them to determine whether a school is safe.
“With the heightened sense of awareness of potential threats to students in and around our schools, parents are rightfully concerned,” said Roberts. “But how do they know how serious the threat is if they can’t get the details? Some jurisdictions are willing to give out some information and they’re including as much information as they can so the community isn’t left wondering what the situation is or how serious it is.”
Correlating the school crime
Another hiccup encountered during our school safety investigation was how school crime data collected by school districts is displayed, or this case — not.
Of the annual reports that Poudre School District is required to send annually to the Colorado Department of Education, the North Forty News could find only consolidated and limited statistics about school suspensions and expulsions on a web page at www.cde.state.co.us. Although the CDE data lists every public school in Colorado, the data lists only numbers of expulsions, suspensions and incident referrals to law enforcement.
In follow-up e-mails, CDE sent North Forty News a complete spreadsheet of crimes committed by incident types that were referred to law enforcement. Incident types include dangerous weapons, robbery, other felonies, 1st, 2nd degree or vehicular assaults and 3rd degree assault or disorderly conduct.
A similar request to Poudre School District resulted in a document detailing the district’s raw 2012-13 Safety & Discipline Indicator report to CDE. It provides numbers for school incidents involving not only dangerous weapons (there were two at Poudre High School in 2012-13) but also incidences involving guns (there were none in the entire Poudre School District in 2012-13).
Correlating what law enforcement reports and what school districts report is even more difficult. The largest discrepancy in correlating school reports to law enforcement reports came with analyzing Fort Collins Police Services calls to Fort Collins High School, which lists its address as 3400 Lambkin Way in Fort Collins.
Repeated requests to Fort Collins Police Services to obtain a complete list of calls for service to the Fort Collins High School revealed that police visited the address twice in all of the 2012-13 school year, once for a car tow and once to assist an ambulance. When asked whether there should be more than two calls for service — Poudre High School had 220 — to 3400 Lambkin Way, Fort Collins High School, the records division reaffirmed that the list of two incidents was correct.
Reports submitted to the CDE by Poudre School District showed that there were at least five incidents at Fort Collins High School that were referred to law enforcement.
Brad Wiesley, an expert in public safety database systems and a former Lafayette police commander and interim police chief, said it’s possible to have a law saying governmental units should be on the same page when reporting school crime, including standardized categories and definitions of crimes and incidences involving students. But, he said, “people are really shy about unfunded mandates and clearly some departments really don’t have the resources to deal with that. With smaller departments, it can come down to whether you hire a database person part time, or put another officer out on the streets.”
In the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office — which has only one School Resource Officer to cover 10 schools — that could be the case. But while college police departments don’t usually have to deal with juvenile issues, they all do a better job about reporting campus crimes annually in standardized reports with standardized definitions. This was brought about by the Cleary Act enacted by Congress in 1990.
The act requires universities and law enforcement to be on the same page when reporting crime and to pay particular attention to sexual assaults, something that Colorado K-12 reporting requirements would only list as a felony or other assault. Because of the Cleary Act, parents and prospective students can access an annually produced document that provides specific details on the safety of individual college or university campuses.
“If universities don’t follow the federal guidelines on the Cleary Act, the fines could be huge,” said Wiesley, who spent nine years as a commander at the University of Colorado Police Department.
“But that federal involvement provides a lot of money to local affairs,” he continued. “You might see some state legislation covering some of these issues, but I don’t see the feds wanting to get a lot of involvement in local law enforcement.”
Stories in this School Safety Special Report: