False Data

By Chandler, Liz | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, November/December 2005 | Go to article overview
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False Data


Chandler, Liz, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


School crime reports discredited; official admits 'we got caught'

We were suspicious from the start. North Carolina's annual school crime report showed Charlotte had one of the lowest crime rates.

It didn't make sense - not in the state's largest urban school district, where complaints about ineffective discipline are common.

Education reporter Peter Smolowitz questioned the figures. School officials stood by them, boasting that their policies were working.

The Observer dug deeper.

We began with two reporters but our team grew to six. Our task was to find out what crimes and threatening incidents were happening at schools.

Smolowitz chased suspension data. Using the state's Open Records Act. he obtained data detailing how many students were suspended - and for what reasons - at each of Charlotte's 140 schools.

Reporter Melissa Manware gathered police data. How many crimes were reported and how many arrests were made at each school? she asked. She also tapped a surprising source: Police letters notifying schools about students arrested for off-campus felonies.

I interviewed experts to help interpret numbers and frame stories. CAR specialists Ted Mellnik and Adam Bell crunched our data.

Officially, Charlotte schools reported 537 crimes on the state's 2003-04 report. But our research found thousands of crimes and threatening incidents had taken place that year.

For example. Charlotte reported just one sex crime on the state's report. Yet our data showed 579 Charlotte suspensions for sex-related offenses - including 300 serious enough to send kids home for a week or more, and 73 that prompted officials to consider expelling or sending students to alternative schools.

We found similar discrepancies in the number of assaults, weapons and other crimes.

There was something else, too: Suspensions had soared. One in six students was suspended at least once in 2003-04. That suggested schools were either suffering serious behavior problems, or relying on suspension as their primary disciplinary tool. Was that working?

We knew we had two important stories. One would offer the first comprehensive report on violence in schools. The other would examine discipline practices.

By the time our data was ready, we had just a few weeks before summer vacation - and we still had a lot of reporting to do.

Crime and context

School crime is a sensitive subject. Yes. our research found many more incidents than Charlotte had reported publicly. But that didn't necessarily mean our schools were unsafe. The school crime rate we calculated was still well below the city's general crime rate. We didn't want to overstate the problem and scare people. So the context and framing had to be just right.

We brought in investigative reporter Lisa H. Munn to sort through subtleties.

Why did police document more crime than Charlotte reported to the state? Were Charlotte schools reporting crime accurately? What risk did these crimes pose to students? How many suspensions involved violent or threatening behavior - and had they been reported to anybody?

"It was almost overwhelming, the number of documents and definitions and bureaucratic guidelines for reporting school crime," Munn says. "In every incident we looked at, you were dealing with so many groups - the local schools, the central office, state school officials, police and the students involved."

We scoured police reports to find real people involved in school crime, as victims and perpetrators. We interviewed teachers, students, administrators and police. We sorted data to focus on violent and threatening behavior. We searched for national context, a scarce commodity because of recordkeeping differences in each state.

Hurdles erected

School officials posed our biggest obstacle.

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