Kids or criminals

January 1, 2017

 At the end of each school year, local Michigan school districts are required to report to the Michigan Department of Education the total number of all of the students who have been expelled that year, along with a list of 20-some infractions, which include everything from truancy to homicide, bullying to gang-related violence, that have occurred on school grounds or at school activities.

The law applies to all public and charter schools, while private schools are exempt from reporting any incidents on their grounds. The goal is to provide an accurate local and statewide picture of school crimes, and to work to plan and implement the appropriate school programs to provide safety to all students, staff, administrators and visitors.

For every parent and educator, schools are designed as more than just a place of learning, but also as a sanctuary from the troubles students may encounter in the outside world. According to the U.S. Department of Justice and National Institute of Justice, “For students to succeed, their educational environment must be safe, secure and orderly. To this end, schools must cultivate a climate of respect, free of disruption drugs, violence and weapons.” According to studies by the National Institute of Justice, students who are victimized at school are more prone to truancy, poor academic performance, drop out of school at higher rates, and have more violent behavior. And while schools can be safe havens within the communities they are located, school safety and security remain important issues. 

The first national study on school safety was mandated by Congress in 1974, when researchers from the Research Triangle Institute asked public school students and teachers in grades 7 through 12 to report school-related victimizations and vandalism in their schools. At that time, in a typical month, an estimated 5,200 teachers reported being physically assaulted. In 1989, a National Crime Victimization Survey looked at school crime in order to measure school crime for youths 12 to 19, with 54 percent of students reporting being victims at school caused by other teens. The crimes included were primarily robbery and assault, which the survey noted were most likely to occur while students were going to and from school; simple assault – school fights – happened more often in their school building.

The requirement from the Michigan legislature to provide the annual listing of crime statistics hails back to the 1990s, as a state version of the Clery Act, a law enacted by the U.S. government in 1990 to offer campus security and campus crime security, with compliance monitored by the U.S. Department of Education. The Clery Act amended the Higher Education Act of 1965, and required all colleges and universities that receive federal financial aid programs to keep and disclose information about crime that happens on or near their campuses. The law is named for Jeanne Clery, a 19-year-old student at LeHigh University in Pennsylvania who was raped and murdered in her residence hall on campus in 1986. 

Clery's murder prompted a nationwide backlash against unreported crime on campuses and led to not only this law, but to revised school codes for all school districts, including in Michigan. Coupled with the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, it led to legislative revisions of the Michigan School Code, Public Act 451 of 1976, to require that “the superintendent of public instruction shall consult with local and intermediate school districts and law enforcement officials. The reporting shall include at least crimes involving physical violence, gang-related activity, illegal possession of a controlled substance or controlled substance analogue, or other intoxicant, trespassing, and property crime including...theft and vandalism.”

The definition of school crime can differ by school districts and personnel, depending on what is considered a crime. Definitions can range from a threat to student, to theft, to considering only violent crimes that are reported to police as crimes. The crime statistics list helps determine what the state is looking for on an annual basis. 

The Crime, Violence and Discipline Task Force created by the National Forum on Education Statistics developed definitions and protocol for collecting school crime and violence in 1995, setting a standard for schools to follow. It recommended that school crime be inclusive of incidents that occur on school grounds, on school transportation, or at off-campus school-sponsored events; incidents involving alcohol, drugs or weapons; incidents involving a gang; hate crime motivated incidents; and all incidents reported to law enforcement.

A primary goal of the crime statistics listing, according to the Michigan legislation, is to “Foster the creation of partnerships among schools, school districts, state agencies, communities, law enforcement, and the media to prevent further crime and violence and to assure a safe learning environment for every pupil.” It is compiled and held for the state and educators by the Center for Educational Performance and Information (CEPI), but Lauren Leeds said they are strictly a data agency, and don't comment on policy.

Bill DiSessa of the Michigan Department of Education said the department works to try to improve safety and protocol with school districts, but maintains crime statistics are largely a local issue. “Bottom line, while we care, we are charged with caring with certain items and not with others,” he said. “It's primarily local issues. While districts are required to report their statistics, the specifics are enforced by local police departments. If there is a gun incident in Grand Rapids today, we care about it, but there's nothing we can do. It's local police.”

Along that line is proposed House Bill 5661, which stalled in the 2016 legislative session, to revise school reporting requirements from mandating districts report all crime statistics and bullying incidents to the state annually, instead having superintendents' post them on their district's website for five years. 

State Rep. Mike McCready (R-Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Bloomfield Township) was not a fan of the proposed bill, and noted the bill's sponsor, Amanda Price (R-Grand Haven) is term-limited, and will not be returning to the state House in January. State Rep. Michael Webber (R-Rochester, Rochester Hills) said the proposed bill “would do away with a lot of duplicative reports, which overall our superintendents and school boards say to us we do have so many reports. Maybe it would make it more accessible to parents and the public, if it were on the (school's) website, but not all rural districts have great websites. It's an interesting push-pull.”

McCready said he felt a bill he sponsored and which was passed and signed into law in November, House Bill 4388, now Public Act 319, to expand the use of sinking funds for capital improvements, including security upgrades, is a much more positive step for schools, and one that superintendents are happy about, and “homeowners will be happy about because it will save them money because they will not be paying interest and legal fees on bonds. I'm happy for the schools, but more importantly I'm happy for the families who use our schools because they focus on technological improvements. The schools can better provide security for the staff and students.”

The goal in the existing state legislation of providing transparency has been achieved through the reporting of the crime statistics, for those who seek the statistics. Many school districts, especially in Oakland County, have created alliances and cooperative working relationships with local law enforcement. Many local police departments have police liaisons working with their school districts, fostering greater communication and collaboration between the two. 

Many local officials state having seen certain offenses, such as bullying, decline quite a bit in schools, but others, such as sexting, are sky-high. Captain Michael Johnson of the Oakland County Sheriff's Department Rochester substation, noted, “Sexting is really a problem. They don't get it until something bad happens to them. When you spread it, it's spreading pornography. We have charged some, and they're just shocked.” 

According to the National Institute of Justice, in 2012, students aged 12 to 18 experienced approximately 615,600 incidents of theft, and 749,200 violent victimizations while they were at school. Comparatively, in 2014, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that among students aged 12 to 18, there were about 850,100 nonfatal victimizations at school, which included 363,700 thefts, and 486,400 violent victimizations, including simple assaults and more serious attacks. Students experienced 33 nonfatal victimizations per 1,000 students while at school, and 24 per 1,000 students while away from school.

And nationally, since the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, there have been almost 200 school shootings on school campuses. The reaction by all local school districts to the increase in school shootings has been for the districts to go to voters to request bonds for security and safety upgrades.

“Today's events over the last few years have raised awareness about safety and security,” said Birmingham Public Schools director of community relations Marcia Wilkinson. 

In May 2015, voters living in the Birmingham district approved a $66 million bond proposal to allow for building and site, instructional space, technology and safety/security upgrades. The safety and security upgrades included a new secure vestibule with an access control system to restrict direct access into all of the schools, among other improvements. 

In November 2015, voters residing in the Rochester Community Schools district approved a $185 million bond proposal that will fund critical infrastructure and technology enhancements and improve student safety and school security, said Lori Grein, community relations and foundation, Rochester Community Schools. “The bond projects are scheduled to span over a five-year period of time. Year one projects are currently under way. Over the summer, the main building entrances at eight of our schools were redesigned with two vestibule doors, along with an immediate passage to the office, a better visitor verification system, and lock-down capabilities.”

“After the crisis in Connecticut, every district in the entire country evaluated what measures were in place,” said Shira Good, director, communications and community relations, Bloomfield Hills Schools. “Most schools at this point have door buzzers and cameras (at their entrances). We had them prior to Sandy Hook.”

“All our outdoor doors are locked – it's a change since Sandy Hook,” noted Wilkinson. 

Visitors, including parents, at all local districts are required to be buzzed into the main entrance, and then go to the office where they are signed in and directed to the appropriate location.

Today, by state law, districts have to incorporate lockdown drills along with other emergency drills. Grein said there must be a minimum of five fire drills, two tornado drills, and three lock-down/shelter-in-place drills, per school.

“We work with our local police departments. They check us to make sure we'e doing the proper procedures,” Wilkinson said. 

Wilkinson said that a lock-down drill leaves students literally locked down in their classrooms. “They cannot use hallways, and they have to stay away from doors and windows. An example is an intruder in a building, or an active shooter situation.

“Then there is a closed campus, when there is an issue in the adjoining neighborhood,” she said, a situation the district has instituted a few times, such as when there was a concern about a threat of an individual locking up a realtor in a home near Pierce Elementary School with a gun.

“In a closed campus situation, no one can leave and no one can come into the building, but they're still attending classes,” Wilkinson explained. “They cancel outdoor recess and outside lunch (for high school students), but otherwise, everything is normal. The students are going about their usual business.”

Thankfully, so far there has not been an active shooter, or other situation necessitating a lock-down at any local schools. But they're prepared. “An active shooter situation is radically different than a fire or tornado. There is no time. It's seconds – not minutes. With a fire or tornado, there's potential for harm, and it's dangerous, but you can avoid catastrophe. With an active shooter – it's imminent,” said Good. “With a fire, there's about three to five minutes, and with tornadoes, we're watching the weather service for hours, getting alerts, talking to people on the phone, so we can prepare. We have plans in place and time on our side. The active shooter situation is totally different. You're talking about totally unpredictable situations.”

She said that is why they work with local police, and have hired a district safety and security officer who is a Bloomfield Township police officer, Cory Donberger, working in a shared position with the police department. “His main responsibility is to oversee all of the district's safety and security matters,” she said, noting that one of the first things Donberger has done since being hired was to implement a visitor sign in process. “Visitors come in, get an authorization badge, and sign in so we know who is in the building at all times,” Good said. “We're the education experts, not safety experts. It's why Cory was hired. He has extensive training in all security measures. Our superintendent Rob Glass sat down with chief of police (Geof Gaudard) and said, 'What can we do to be better prepared?' Cory has helped us with other things as well.”

Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, recommends schools work with local law enforcement, and noted that while “technology can enhance our school safety procedures, it cannot be substituted for a reasonably well-trained and highly-alert staff.” 

Rochester has five school liaison officers serving all 21 of their schools. “In addition, we have contracted a security service at our three conventional high schools and our one non-conventional high school,” Grein said. 

Birmingham Schools has two school liaison officers, one at Seaholm High School, through the Birmingham Police Department, and one at Groves High School, through the Beverly Hills Police Department. 

Grein said general duties for school liaison officers include assisting school administrators and staff with everything from monitoring the school grounds for safety and security hazards, weeding out prohibited activities and noticing behavioral concerns, recognizing unauthorized visitors, and watching for physical and conditional hazards. “The teams can also assist with managing crowd control, conducting safety drills, and helping with medical and other emergencies,” she said.

Captain Johnson of the Rochester Hills substation of the sheriff's department, said that his department provides three deputies and Rochester police two officers, and they stay in the schools about five or six years, unless they are promoted, leave the department, or there is another mitigating reason. 

“It's about building relationships. Our school liaison officers actually teach classes pertaining to law enforcement. Our goal is to get a police officer to teach a class in front of students every other year. It helps to develop a strong relationship,” Johnson said. “Many students will come and talk with officers then if they have issues and concerns.”

Classes with the school liaison officers range from stranger danger, pedestrian safety, 911 emergencies, abuse prevention, bullying, and alcohol, tobacco and marijuana substance abuse awareness in elementary school to bullying, health and drug awareness, internet awareness, sexting, retail fraud and vandalism in middle school; with further education about substance abuse, wellness, a “get real about sex and violence” class, drinking and driving, information about the department of corrections and search and seizure in high school. 

“We're one of the only ones that does this kind of program,” Johnson said, noting he believes there's a difference in the level of crimes since they began doing classes and expanded programming. “It began about 40 years ago with an 'Officer Bill' kind of thing, and as the community grew, we went from there.”

For example, in the 2015-2016 school year, while there were eight suicide attempts in Rochester schools, there were no actual suicides – at least on school grounds or at school activities. Comparatively, Bloomfield Hills had no attempts last year, while Birmingham had two suicide attempts on school grounds. Johnson said he believes having officers in the schools with students from an early age, where they can become comfortable with the officers and their uniform, “helps alleviate anxiety and those issues related to suicide.” In addition, he noted, “They all work closely with the school counselors. When we see something, they talk about it with the counselors, and when they (school counselors) see something, such as a potential crime, they alert us. 

“Our three high schools are like little cities,” he noted, with all the attendant highs, lows and dramas.

Birmingham's Wilkinson agrees, noting that the school district reaches out to law enforcement when threats are an actual misdemeanor or felony on school property, or if there is a threat – or perceived threat – against another student or staff member. “Even if a student is joking around, we don't have the luxury of taking the chance. We have to investigate. We are very reliant upon our local police, and take direction from them,” she said, noting that at times there are clear cut reasons to contact police, such as students doing misdemeanor vandalism on school property, “or if there were a suspected felony.”

Less clear are issues related to social media, even if it doesn't occur on school grounds. “If someone is threatening students or staff, it becomes a school issue, we contact law enforcement,” she said. “If a student made a threat against another student on Facebook, like wanting to get back at another student, or a threat against a staff member, or a threat against the building, like a bomb threat, the police department and district would get involved.”

Grein concurs. “Any perceived criminal activity is reported to local law enforcement officials, who then work with the district administrators to determine the best course of action,” she said.

“It's always a building administration decision,” in Bloomfield Hills, Good said. “They will call (law enforcement) when they can't handle it – like an irate parent, a family circumstance, someone who's not supposed to be picking up a child, drugs, a fight – but they're good, because the teachers know how to step in. Our learning communities allow the staff to see when things are brewing. Our focus is on prevention and restoration, and then the emphasis is less on pure punishment, and more on consequences. It's giving the students the tools to resolve conflicts.”

Bullying, a focus for educators for several years, is a line item in the crime statistics, and one that has not seen a spike from the recent election season in local districts, despite the incidents in Royal Oak Middle School, where students were caught stating racists chants, and a noose was found in a boy's restroom. 

“We haven't seen any escalation in bullying since the election,” said Pam Zajac, spokesperson, West Bloomfield Schools. “We have our political leadership classes where they talk and discuss the issues. They may be disappointed, but they're learning to deal with it. One of the plusses we have in our district is that it is very diverse, and they are used to being with so many ethnicities and religions. They're already out in the real world. They're very worldly.”

D­etective Mike Romanowski of the Birmingham Police Department is a school liaison officer at Seaholm High School, along with a variety of private and parochial elementary, middle and high schools in Birmingham. “Quite frankly, with the schools I'm in, I'm not seeing a huge trend in bullying in social media or in person,” he said. “Bullying is looked down upon for any kind of disability or any kind of financial hardship. I don't see anything racial.”

In last year's reporting, there were 34 incidents of bullying in Birmingham; two in Bloomfield Hills; 36 in West Bloomfield; 22 in Rochester; 52 in Troy; and 75 cases in Pontiac.

When incidents are unresolvable, suspensions and/or expulsions may occur. At the local districts, representatives stated that suspensions are primarily an administrative and staff decision, while expulsions must go before the local board of education. All of the districts make it clear to students and parents up front, listing the reasons and specifics in their Student Code of Conduct on their websites. 

“Any time a student is missing school, whether a suspension or an expulsion, it has to go before our school board,” said Annette McAvoy, public relations and communications supervisor for Avondale Schools. “It's a really big deal for a student to miss school.”

“An expulsion is such a major step that it is thoroughly vetted. It's a decision that absolutely has to go through the board, based on recommendations by administration,” said Birmingham's Wilkinson. “It's such a serious issue. If it involves a student, it would be a closed session. A suspension is a little different – it's usually short-term, and goes through the building principal on whatever issue it is.”

Rochester Schools, with almost 15,000 students, had 371 one-day suspensions during the 2015-16 school year, 132 three-day suspensions, 67 five-day suspensions, 22 10-day suspensions, and 11 long -erm suspension/expulsions.

“The immediate objective of school discipline is to allow for student growth in abilities, attitudes and habits, which are essential to the personal and collective learning environment,” Grein said.

Birmingham Schools had no expulsion in the 2015-16 school year, but had eight five-day suspensions and two 10-day suspensions for serious offenses. Wilkinson said there were some one-day suspensions for minor transgressions like “insubordination.”

As an antidote to suspensions and expulsions, Bloomfield Hills, which had no expulsions in the 2015-16 school year, has hired former administrator Bill Boyle to help the district implement restorative practices at all levels. Boyle said he is helping staff and students work to develop a more inclusive culture of belonging. He said that often when punishment is meted out, the assumption is that someone did something wrong, they're a bad person.

“It's a way of calling out the deed, but not the doer, teaching the thing that makes something harmful has an impact to the community around them,” Boyle explained. “How do you construct a learning a opportunity so they can learn from the situation. It's not saying there's no discipline or consequences, but once they're branded as bad kids, that follows them through school for life. If you only suspend them, they never have a way back into the community.” ­

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