Originally created 11/12/06

State, school record differ



The state of school discipline problems in Richmond County is unclear because the records the school system keeps and the records it's required to share with the state often don't match, an analysis by The Augusta Chronicle has found.

Interim Superintendent James Thompson acknowledged the differences in an interview last week, saying the state and county sometimes have different definitions of student transgressions. However, Mr. Thompson admitted there had been instances in the past of information not being reported correctly, and when presented with The Chronicle's findings, pledged to look into the records issue.

Sometimes the numbers given to the state have provided a more positive image of student behavior, and sometimes, such as 2004-05, it gave the state a darker picture of the school discipline situation.

Accuracy in such reports is important because it is used by state educators and lawmakers to chart the future of Georgia education.

"Generally, the Discipline Data is used to determine trends and give the Legislature - and the public - a picture of what is going on in schools," Georgia Department of Education spokesman Dana Tofig wrote in an e-mail. "It is important to be accurate because it's required to be accurate by the law."

But the numbers aren't accurate.

The Chronicle compiled 869 disciplinary tribunal reports from the 2005-06 school year and compared the information with what Richmond County school officials reported to the Georgia Department of Education.

Mr. Thompson said he isn't aware of any differences and that officials work to ensure data is accurate. He said he had no reaction to The Chronicle analysis, but that school records would be reviewed for accuracy.

Data collected from tribunal reports can be expected to be lower than the figures reported to the state because tribunals are reserved for more serious school infractions and are generally only for middle and high school pupils. Discipline data reported to the state, as required by state law, covers all Richmond County schools.

But the tribunal data and state data don't correspond.

For instance, Richmond County reported to state officials that pupils were expelled 38 times last school year. But The Chronicle found more than 80 instances in which school tribunals expelled pupils.

The reason for the difference could be that Richmond County distinguishes between "being expelled" and an "expulsion." The Department of Education, however, doesn't make a distinction between the two words.

Mr. Thompson said the same could be true in the case of arson. The school system's discipline policy states pupils cannot "set fire or attempt to set fire to or otherwise damage any school building or property."

That could be different than what the state calls "arson," he said. Tribunals found nine pupils guilty of violating its policy and reported two of those to the Department of Education.

An example of what was not reported to the state as an arson was a Hephzibah Middle eighth-grader who made a torch out of a lighter and a can of Axe body spray in hopes of setting off the sprinkler system Jan. 27. When that didn't work, he set fire to paper towels.

The state also requires that attempted arsons be reported.

Schools that have at least one major violation, including arson or attempted arson, in each of three consecutive years are labeled "persistently dangerous" by the department of education.

To make a direct comparison of the tribunal data and the data submitted to the state, The Chronicle also looked at middle and high school information by itself.

The analysis showed data turned over to the state was often under reported, but that wasn't always the case. Richmond County reported nine alcohol violations to the Department of Education, but there were only tribunal reports for three. School officials either over-reported the number of incidents to the state or pupils were disciplined inhouse and didn't go through the tribunal process.

The Chronicle also analyzed state and local data from the 2004-05 school year and found similar discrepancies in middle and high school discipline data. In that year, however, data reported to the state tended to be higher than tribunal data.

Bureaucracy and the lack of communication might account for many of the problems with the reporting discrepancies.

When pupils are sent to disciplinary tribunal, extensive paperwork and reports are created. Reports are also created in-house for other offenses not warranting a tribunal.

But something happens along the way, as information is passed person to person, entered into computer systems, collected and reported to the department of education.

For instance, if pupils get into a fight, they are sent to the office so that school administrators can investigate the matter. The paper trail begins as the fight is recorded on a "disciplinary referral" form and entered into the countywide School Max computer software. Minor offenses end there, but larger offenses are forwarded to Mr. Thompson.

He determines whether the offense warrants a disciplinary tribunal hearing. If it does, a hearing is held and a report is made of its findings by school board attorney Pete Fletcher's office. The original paperwork doesn't include the outcome of the tribunal, Mr. Thompson said. It's up to the principal to jot down notes from the hearing and enter it into School Max after returning to school.

That's why it is important to train personnel in entering in the data, he said, because there have been times when data has been entered incorrectly. A number off could "code" an incident as something other than what it actually was.

"We don't hide anything. We don't hold anything back," Mr. Thompson said.

To ensure discipline information is accurate, Mr. Robinson said the Department of Education will begin conducting statewide random checks of data next year. Often, data that is inaccurate was typed in incorrectly and was unintentional.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851

REPORTING DIFFERENCES

The Richmond County school system's data doesn't match the data it reports to the Georgia Department of Education. The following are comparisons of middle and high school discipline tribunal data as compiled by The Augusta Chronicle and discipline data as reported to the state:

2004-05 2004-05
Violation Tribunal Data State Data
Arson 2 0
Alcohol 5 16
Drugs 68 75
Sex offenses 52 74


2005-06 2005-06
Violation Tribunal Data State Data
Arson 9 2
Alcohol 3 9
Drugs 104 83
Sex offenses 56 31

Source: The Augusta Chronicle analysis of Richmond County Board of Education and Georgia Department of Education data