MIAMI, FL- June 12, 2018-On paper, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High looked like one of the safest high schools in Florida.
The Broward school district reported to the state that no one was bullied or harassed, no one trespassed on campus, no one was violently attacked, no one broke into campus after hours and nothing expensive was stolen during the 2016-17 school year.
It wasn’t true.
The district reports only a portion of its actual crimes to the state, making it impossible to spot a school’s trouble spots and inform parents about safety, the South Florida Sun Sentinel has found.
Had school administrators reported every crime that actually happened at Stoneman Douglas, it might have raised an alarm that safety was a concern, said April Schentrup, whose daughter Carmen was killed in the Feb. 14 massacre at the school.
“It might help them to say, ‘I need another [police officer] on campus. Look we have all these incidents,’” said Schentrup, who is principal of Pembroke Pines Elementary.
Reports from the Broward Sheriff’s Office show a number of cases of trespassing, battery, robbery and theft at Stoneman Douglas that are required by the state to be reported but weren’t:– At least 10 instances of trespassing in the last three years were listed on reports and call logs, most involving former or suspended students entering campus during the school day, when access is supposed to be restricted to the front office.
— Former School Resource Officer Scot Peterson wrote in his logs that he assisted students who were bullied or harassed at least 16 times between 2014 and 2017.
— At least six incidents of break-ins, robberies and thefts were reported to the Broward Sheriff’s Office in the 2016-17 school year.
— Police reports show at least two cases of battery, when students hit classmates, during the 2016-17 school year.
All of those cases were reported to the Broward Sheriff’s Office or its school resource officer, Peterson, but none were reported to the state.
The state data does show that 193 weapons were found districtwide that school year, but the number had dropped by more than half from the year before and represented at least a 10-year-low.
Those numbers are misleading, because the district acknowledged it stopped reporting things like ammunition, small knives, throwing blades, nunchucks, BB guns and combustible materials.
The school district says it’s following the state’s definition of weapons, which includes “any dirk, knife, metallic knuckles, slungshot, billie, tear gas gun, chemical weapon or device, or other deadly weapon except a firearm or a common pocketknife, plastic knife, or blunt-bladed table knife.”
The state Department of Education says it requires that data be collected to help schools, districts and the state “assess the extent and nature of problems in school safety.” Parents and businesses also use the data to decide where to locate. But experts say the data provides no value if it’s inaccurate.
“I don’t think you can fix problems in a school without knowing the real statistics,” said Rebecca Dahl, a retired Broward County principal. “By not reporting correctly, you can’t go back and say, ‘Gosh, we had this many incidents, this many kids bullied.’ You can’t look at what’s really going on at the school.”
A new report by a school safety task force highlights concerns about the prevalence of inaccurate information. The Sun Sentinel had outlined similar problems in May, reporting that the schools have grown so tolerant of misbehavior that students like the Stoneman Douglas gunman slid by for years without strict punishment.
“It was reported that some individual participants [in Broward schools] may have a real or perceived incentive to under-report or not impose consequences” in discipline matters,” said the task force report, commissioned by the Broward County League of Cities.
Administrators aren’t directly told to fudge reports, Dahl said, but “if you show you’ve got all these incidents, parents won’t put their children in the school because they think it’s not safe. That’s really what happens.”
Reported crimes have dwindled across Florida. Districts last year reported about half as many incidents as they did 10 years ago. The number of reported batteries have dropped from 8,436 to 2,263, trespassing cases from 866 to 475, and bullying cases from 5,665 to 3,153.
Schools get no direct financial benefit from the state or federal government from under-reporting crime and discipline, but administrators nationwide often fear for their jobs, said Max Eden, who studies school discipline practices for the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.
“It starts with the PR interests at the top,” Eden said. “By the time it gets down to mid-level bureaucrats, it’s made pretty clear to them that they serve at the pleasure of those above them and that those above them will be displeased if their numbers get too high and very pleased if they decrease.”
The state doesn’t verify that the data being turned in is accurate unless it sees unusual patterns from one year to next, said Jacob Oliva, executive vice chancellor for the education department.
“The superintendents and the school boards know what’s expected of them, and they sign off saying this data is accurate to the best of their knowledge and ability, and we have to accept that,” Oliva said.
Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie has acknowledged complaints that discipline is under-reported. He sent a memo to principals last month saying, “We have to be vigilant in reporting every incident.”
He said district auditors also will review how well schools are enforcing and reporting their discipline numbers.
Lisa Maxwell, executive director of the Broward Principals and Assistants’ Association, said she’s unaware of any pressure administrators receive to under-report. She said the problem is that the state, school district and police may have different definitions of what counts as a battery or bullying or trespassing.
“The state statute is really kind of unclear and open to interpretation, so it leads to subjective decisions,” Maxwell said.
Broward school district spokeswoman Cathleen Brennan said the data sent to the state is meant only to capture “the most serious of incidents, while other incidents are recorded and addressed locally.”
For example, she said incidents such as thefts of items valued at $300 or less would not be reported to the state. But larger thefts were supposed to be reported.
That hasn’t always happened at Stoneman Douglas.
In September 2016, surveillance video showed two boys stealing another boy’s black Louis Vuitton backpack, his Apple 6S iphone, his red Salvatore Ferratore belt and his Geoffrey Beene watch. Video surveillance also spotted two men breaking into the campus overnight in October 2016, causing $3,900 worth of damage to vending machines and stealing an undisclosed amount of money, according to a Sheriff’s Office report.
Neither of those incidents was reported to the state. In fact, the school district reported no robberies, burglaries or major thefts that year.
Brennan said that in cases of trespassing, citations are issued by law enforcement, not school administrators. She said the reporting requirements may not match the legal definition of trespassing. She declined to speak specifically about any examples identified by the Sun Sentinel.
State Department of Education guidelines say the district is expected to report trespassing whenever someone enters and remains on campus “without authorization or invitation and with no lawful purpose for entry.”
Broward reported only 26 trespassing incidents for the entire district in the 2016-17 school year. Palm Beach County reported 49 incidents, Miami-Dade County 48.
At Stoneman Douglas, administrators or security personnel alerted the Sheriff’s Office about trespassers multiple times.
In September 2015, campus monitor Aaron Feis caught a trespasser inside the 1200 building on campus, the same building where Feis died during the Feb. 14 shooting. In January 2016, campus monitor Chris Hixon, who also died in the shooting, caught a former student entering a teacher’s classroom. It was the individual’s third time trespassing on campus.
Nonetheless, the school reported no trespassing cases to the state either year.
Bullying gets no more attention than trespassing, records show.
A third of the 1,500 Broward middle school students who took a 2015 survey said they had been bullied. But the Broward school district reported only 101 cases in 2016-17, with 80 percent of schools reporting no bullying. That same year, Palm Beach County reported 157 bullying incidents, while Miami-Dade reported 430.
Miami attorney Aaron P. Davis represented a female student at New Renaissance Middle in Miramar who successfully sued the school district in 2016 after she was punched and kicked at the school. Yet New Renaissance reported zero cases of bullying in the 2015-16 school year.
“How can that be true?” Davis asked. “My client’s black eye is evidence that’s not true.”
Davis Goldman, PLLC, with offices in Miami and Hollywood, Florida, serves clients in the areas of personal injury, business transactions, business litigation, outside general counsel services, intellectual property, construction litigation, and product liability.