By Colin Hogan
A recent audit conducted by the state comptroller’s office found 79 incidents of alleged violence in the Fulton Junior High School that auditors say were not correctly reported to the state, a finding district officials say they “respectfully disagree with.”
The audit — which was actually conducted on the state education department’s system for reporting violent school incidents — used Fulton Junior High School as one of seven test schools, and examined how compliant those schools were in reporting violent or disruptive incidents under the state’s Violent and Disruptive Incident Reporting (VADIR) system. In doing so, auditors determined that during the 2011-12 year, there were 79 incidents the school didn’t find to be reportable with which auditors disagreed.
Fulton reported 289 incidents that year, but should have reported 368, according to auditors. For instance, the school reported 23 assaults with a physical injury that year, while the auditors say they identified 64 incidents that would be considered VADIR reportable.
District officials were quick to point out that the auditors’ tabulations only took into account the initial reporting of an incident by a teacher or staff member, and not the administration’s follow-up investigations, which often resulted in new understandings of what happened.
“The auditors took whatever was written in the referral form from the source staff member and determined everything from that,” said Superintendent Bill Lynch. “We keep track of incident referrals and then the administrator would investigate what happened. Through the investigation they may clarify what actually happened and determine a different consequence than the state would recommend based on the initial referral.”
FJHS Principal Ryan Lanigan said he and the school’s assistant principal follow up on every incident referral to determine the whole truth of what happened.
“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.
School officials say only looking at the number of incident referrals without taking into account the follow-up investigation paints a skewed picture of violent incidents being underreported.
“The audit was very black and white,” Lanigan said, “there’s no grey in there. They don’t take into account our intervention process, how we use PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports — a U.S. Department of Education supported approach to disciplinary actions in schools). We go through that process diligently.”
The audit states that most of the schools examined misclassified incidents in their internal records “generally as categories that were considered less serious.” Both Lanigan and Lynch say they disagree with some of the ways the VADIR system requires incidents to be reported. For instance, Lanigan said “if a student were to flick another student with a rubber band and leave a welt, under the VADIR definition that’s considered an ‘assault with injury.'”
The audit also stated that Lanigan told auditors “the school does not record or report summer incidents.” Lanigan said Wednesday that statement misrepresents what he was telling the auditors, which was that there weren’t any incidents over the summer to report. The audit’s results confirm that there weren’t any reportable incidents at the school during that time.
Based on their results, the auditors recommended a review of prior or subsequent years to determine if the school should have ever been designated “persistently dangerous,” a designation the district would, by law, have to notify parents of.
In it’s response to the comptroller’s office, the district stated that the auditors’ assessment of the severity of incidents and appropriate consequences is “fundamentally flawed” for not considering the full context of an incident, or other factors like the school’s system of interventions, or “the presence of emotional and behavioral disabilities which require alternative approaches when responding to behavior infractions.”
In August, Lynch and Lanigan presented the audit’s findings to the board of education. Board President David Cordone said Wednesday he agreed that the incidents referenced in the audit don’t seem to have been placed in the full context. He said that, based on what was presented to them, the board was satisfied with the administration’s response to SED, and that he believes officials in the junior high and other schools are working hard to meet the state’s expectations.
“I think, obviously, there is an interest among everyone be sure that our school district is safe. If there’s anything (administrators) needed to learn here, based on the update we were given in August, I believe that’s occurred.”
Lanigan said he and other administrators will be doing more to make sure that their follow-up investigations of incidents are as well-documented as the initial referrals, and said he “can see how the auditors might draw their conclusions” if they’re only looking at the referral form. However, he maintains that the school already has a very diligent incident documentation process that he is proud of.
“I pride myself on how well documented we are, and I completely disagree with the perception that this is building isn’t a safe environment,” Lanigan said.