Making Schools Safe… for Violent Students

Data source: Virginia Department of Education Safe Schools Information Resource. These numbers exclude districts reporting fewer than 10 assaults and suppressed the exact number of incidents.

by James A. Bacon

For the past several years, the Virginia Department of Education has aggressively pushed a “restorative justice” approach to school discipline. Instead of relying upon traditional punishments like suspensions, teachers and administrators employ a dispute resolution process that appeals to the offending student’s reason and empathy.

How well is restorative justice working? One way to tell is by consulting the Virginia Department of Education’s Safe Schools Information Resource, a searchable database that records a wide range of disciplinary infractions, from assault & battery to bomb threats, from vandalism to bringing handguns to school.

It had not occurred to me to check this data until the House of Delegates and Senate passed HB 257, which, according to its legislative description, would remove the requirement that school officials refer to law enforcement such crimes as “assault or assault and battery.” The purpose of keeping law enforcement out of the picture is to cut off the so-called “school to prison pipeline” in which students committing crimes land in jail where they will only fall further behind academically and become even more likely to drop out of school.

While many Republicans voted along with the Democratic majorities in both houses, the main opposition came from other Republicans. House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, issued a statement in response to the bill’s passage: “House Democrats today adopted a policy that will make our students, teachers, and school personnel significantly less safe. Administrators should have some leeway over when to involve law enforcement in disciplinary problems — but instances of sexual battery, stalking, and threats and against teachers and staff are not ‘discipline problems.’ They are serious crimes with real problems that need to be investigated and prosecuted.”

Failure to report serious crimes is the same type of policy that allowed the Parkland, Fla., shootings to take place, Gilbert said. “This law will make our students less safe.”

In a word, the Democrats’ philosophy for dealing with criminality is to decriminalize crime. And the predictable result is rising disorder in schools. Increasingly, Virginia schools are not only “gun free zones,” they are becoming “discipline free zones.”

I have not undertaken an exhaustive analysis of the data, but I have compiled the numbers for one key indicator — the number of assault & battery (no injury) incidents reported — which serves as a rough proxy for disruptive behavior as a whole. The trend line is startling. The number of incidents has nearly tripled in just three years — from 870 in 2015-16 to 2,423 in 2018-19. (This data excludes districts that reported fewer than 10 incidents, in which case the numbers were suppressed to protect student privacy.)

The increase is all the more remarkable given the fact that the institutional incentives are to suppress indicators of deteriorating discipline and to “down code” incidents (give them a less serious classification or not to report them at all).

There are many ways to slice and dice the disciplinary data — by the number of offenses reported, by the number of offenders, and by the number of disciplinary actions.  Practices appear to vary widely by school district. Consequently, the single data set that I have selected may or may not be a fair representation of what is occurring in Virginia schools overall. But the snapshot sure is suggestive.

At the very least, one can argue that the General Assembly has no business curtailing referrals to law enforcement without understanding the impact on school discipline. The legislators’ action, it is safe to say, is driven by ideological conviction. Facts? We don’t need no stinkin’ facts! Most of those who suffer, of course, will be students whose classroom teaching is disrupted.

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8 responses to “Making Schools Safe… for Violent Students

  1. Here are the facts. Under current law, school officials are required to report to law enforcement any incident that is a criminal offense, no matter how minor. Under HB 257, as amended by the Senate, school offenders would still be required to report to law enforcement any incident that would constitute a felony. They “may” report any other incident. Despite Todd Gilbert’s rant, school officials would have “leeway” in areas they now don’t have and serious incidents would be reported to law enforcement.

    To illustrate the effect of this change, I need to go back many years to when my daughter was in high school in Henrico County. Somehow, I heard about a fight at her school and was sort of shocked and said something to her about it. She dismissed it, telling me that there were often fights, usually between girls over a boy. If the current law had been in effect, these “fights” would have had to have been reported to the police, resulting in a criminal record for the students.

    I suspect that the increase in assault and battery shown in the graph is not the result of more “restorative justice”, but could be correlated with the increased use of school resource officers, to whom school administrators have turned over the administration of school discipline and who are more likely to use the criminal justice system in the case of fights, no matter how minor. Before that data is used to indict any type of approach to school discipline, it needs to be analyzed at a more detailed level.

    • I totally agree that the numbers need to be analyzed more closely. (I hope I made that clear in the post.) Perhaps the numbers merely reflect increased reporting of incidents (although there are clear institutional incentives to sweep incidents under the rug), as opposed to an increase in the actual number. Someone needs to take a closer look at the data. Unfortunately, I see no evidence that anyone is doing so. To the contrary, the General Assembly appears to be making decisions in an information vacuum.

    • I totally disagree with Dick’s statement as to the substantive and practical effect of this proposed legislation that will only deepen and lengthen ongoing disaster for many of Virginia’s kids.

      How bizarre these leftist are. They all but criminalize citizens long standing use of pronouns, and create vast arrays of implicit thought crimes of fellow citizens, and their facial expressions while they create safe zone for bullies to terrorize the good kids trying to play in schoolyards.

      • Again, to understand this truly bizarre modern world live in today – where up is down, and down is up, and nothing is ever as it appears, because all of it is built so no decent human can never make sense of it – to understand all this, read Franz Kafka, try The Castle this time along with The Trial.

      • Specifically, how do you think the proposed legislation would “deepen and lengthen ongoing disaster” for kids in schools? School officials would still be required to call in the police for serious incidents (felonies) and could still do so, if they thought it proper, to call in the police for less serious offenses.

        • Some crimes which are classified as misdemeanors are actually quite serious. These include assault and battery, sexual battery and stalking.

          I think it was very short-sighted to remove ALL misdemeanors from the list of offenses requiring notification.

  2. Mr. Bacon has touched on something very important. Here is something more to factor in. Assault incidents in public school are often not reported. Administrators know that their school is being tracked and evaluated on many data points. School violence, in particular the factor of race, is a critical evaluation tool. So many incidents never even get reported for the sake of school image. I can attest to it. I have seen this for 27 years. The graphs should be altered significantly. How much? Probably something we would rather not know about. HB 257 has an unintended consequence of being able to hide the truth about school violence. Or was it an unintended consequence? Progressive education reformers must show progress or go out of business. What better way to show progress than to hide the real numbers? I think this is going on for SOL testing too. Have you looked at the VDOE report portal? You have to be video game wizard to organize data for viewing now.

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