By Colin Hogan
After an audit by the state comptroller’s office recently called Fulton Junior High School’s reporting of violent and disruptive incidents into question, district administrators laid out their side of the story in a presentation for parents Monday.
The audit was performed on the state Education Department’s Violent and Disruptive Incident Reporting (VADIR) system for schools, and used Fulton Junior High as one of seven test schools. Once released, the report revealed several incidents from the 2011-12 year that school officials either failed to report, or misclassified in their reporting to the state. Auditors say, had that information been properly reported, the school might have been classified “potentially persistently dangerous.”
The report shows that Fulton reported 289 incidents that year, but auditors say they found 368 incidents that should have been considered reportable under VADIR.
During the special meeting in the junior high school cafeteria Monday evening — which was mostly attended by local media and school board members — administrators presented specifics on how the state’s system for reporting violent and disruptive incidents works, how the district handles such events, and some examples of incidents that auditors said should have been reported differently.
Superintendent Bill Lynch opened the meeting by emphasizing the district’s commitment to maintaining safe schools.
“First of all, I want you to know that we take student safety, staff safety, visitor safety in our schools extremely seriously. We’ve also taken the audit conducted by the comptroller’s office of our (2011-12 VADIR system) very seriously,” Lynch said.
Lynch said the school is focused on “providing a safe and secure learning environment,” and that the district is “fortunate we have a very supportive and caring and responsive staff for our students.”
The VADIR system breaks down violent and disruptive incidents into 28 categories and subcategories for schools to classify such events when reporting them to the state. Those categories are then weighted differently so that a formula may be used to determine how safe the school environment is. Very serious incidents, such as “Homicide” or “Forcible Sex Offenses” carry the highest weight, while things like “Use, Possession, or Sale of Drugs or Alcohol” and “Other Disruptive Incidents” are weighted less.
In their responses to the comptroller’s office, local media and parents, administrators acknowledged that, in some instances, the school could have followed the VADIR guidelines for reporting more closely. However, they’re also quick to point out that they “strongly disagree” with some of the system’s classifications.
On Monday, Lynch shared an example in which one male student “pantsed” another male student (i.e. pulled down the other’s pants in public) while the two were fooling around. The auditors felt that and similar incidents should have been reported through VADIR as “Sex Offenses.”
Lynch said administrators thoroughly investigated those incidents and felt they were “clearly inappropriate” and warranted action. However, he said “we did not view those as a sexual offense. We viewed those as demeaning, intimidating, harassing behavior” and applied the appropriate consequences for that kind of incident.
Still, he conceded that the district should have been reporting incidents the state’s way.
“They are probably right, in terms of how the definition is written by New York state. We have to adhere to that, so we will say that we were wrong for that. But to call that a sexual incident, I think, misportrays the situation,” Lynch said.
Administrators also emphasized the school’s use of progressive disciplinary measures and the PBIS system (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports — a U.S. Department of Education-supported approach to behavioral expectations in schools.)
One of the biggest issues administrators had with the audit, according to Lynch and junior high school Principal Ryan Lanigan, was that the auditors’ tabulations only took into account the initial filing of a referral by a teacher or staff member, and not the administration’s follow-up investigations, which often resulted in new understandings of what happened.
Lanigan previously described the school’s process for investigating those referrals as such:
“Whenever a referral is written (by a teacher or staff member), we have a process that we go through. That referral is brought to the main office where myself or the assistant principal read the referral and follow due process. We meet with the student. We meet with other students who may be able to shed light on what’s occurred. A lot of times, that changes our understanding of what’s happened, and we may find that it wasn’t quite the offense it sounded like at first. We take everything into account before we decide what the consequence is,” said Lanigan.
Student Support Systems Director Geri Geitner said, by not taking into account the follow-ups to these incidents, the VADIR system only gives a “narrow” assessment of what the culture inside the school is like.
“VADIR, at its best, is a narrow focus on school climate because it only focuses on the negative incidents and the aversive consequences, instead of focusing on the overall climate of the school, the laying of the foundation of expectations and, most importantly, the interventions that follow behavior incidents in school settings. So it really omits that piece which we feel is most critical,” Geitner said.
An open question and answer period followed the 40-minute presentation, which yielded no questions from parents.
Administrators said representatives from the state Education Department will visit the junior high school on February 11 to review the school’s reporting practices and make their own recommendations.
By Colin Hogan