Local schools are safe, report shows

Published 9:12 am Wednesday, January 13, 2010

FRANKLIN—While local public schools aren’t perfect, they aren’t exactly dangerous places to be either, according to a report released by the Virginia Department of Education.

The Safe Schools Information Resource report lists disciplinary offenses at public schools last school year, as reported to the state by school officials. Offenses like minor classroom disruptions, disrespect and inappropriate language were the most common, while other offenses, like gang activity and assaults against students and staff members were rare — or non-existent.

Despite the relative lack of serious incidents, local school officials say that there is room for improvement.

Southampton Middle School logged 532 total offenses last year, more than any other school in Southampton County, southern Isle of Wight County or Franklin. However, the majority of those offenses, 285, were listed as “related to behavior,” a wide-ranging category that ranges from classroom disruption and obscene language all the way to inciting a riot. It’s also important to note that Southampton Middle School has more students than J. P. King or Windsor middle schools, which reported 239 and 117 offenses, respectively.

Charles Turner, superintendent of Southampton County Schools, credited the number of offenses at the middle school to the transition of students from elementary schools to a new environment, and the emotional and physical development that middle-school-aged students experience.

Franklin City Schools Superintendent Dr. Michelle Belle agreed that middle school is often a rough stage for students.

“They go through a lot of different things,” she said. “Middle school is an interesting age.”

Like Southampton Middle School, the majority of all offenses reported in local schools were listed as relating to behavior.

Belle said that discipline has been a major area of focus for Franklin schools since she took over last April. This year, the school division introduced a district-wide code of conduct.

“As a division, we want to make sure that we are all on the same page,” she said.

Windsor High and Middle schools, as well as J. P. King Middle School, all reported one incident each of a staff member being assaulted without a weapon last year.

“That’s one thing that you cannot tolerate in education, whether it’s verbal or physical,” Belle said. She also noted that an assault doesn’t necessarily mean that a student intentionally attacked a staff member. Under the state’s reporting system, a student simply pushing by a staff member could be considered an assault, as well as a staff member who is accidentally hit while trying to break up a fight between students.

Middle and high schools racked up the highest numbers of offenses, but elementary schools weren’t immune from problems.

Windsor Elementary reported 7 weapons-related offenses last year, more than any other school in Isle of Wight County, Franklin or Southampton County. However, Susan Goetz, the school’s principal, said none of the reported weapons at the school were actually used in a threatening manner, and included items like pocketknives and toy weapons.

“There was nothing like a gun or anything,” she said. “More often than not, what happens in elementary schools is that our younger students bring things to school that they forget are in their book bags.”

Goetz said she told students at the beginning of the year about the importance of checking book bags for forbidden items before they come to school. She said some students might use their book bags when they go camping or hunting and simply forget to take out items like pocketknives.

“This year, one of the things I reiterated was check your book bag and take out anything that doesn’t belong,” she said.

While bullying remains a concern for education officials across the nation, it isn’t a huge issue locally, according to the report. Last school year, 16 bullying incidents were reported in Isle of Wight County schools, while Franklin schools reported five incidents and Southampton County schools reported one.

Local school officials say that they have educated their students about bullying to help prevent it from becoming a big issue.

“It’s all about educating kids about what bullying is,” Belle said, noting that January is Bullying Prevention Month in Virginia.

Katherine Goff, a spokeswoman for Isle of Wight County Schools said students are being educated about the dangers of bullying and the relatively new phenomenon of “cyber bullying.”

“It’s a concern, but not due to any trends or patterns in our schools,” she said. “It’s more so with the trends and patterns nationwide.”

Turner said that Southampton schools set a high standard for student conduct and he credits the school division’s instructional programs and communication among staff, students and parents for the low number of bullying incidents in schools.

“Every student knows the behavior expectations set by the school division and enforced by building administrations,” he said.

Julie Grimes, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Education, said she couldn’t speculate on the reason for the spread of reported incidents, like bullying, at individual schools.

“We can only go on the information that’s reported by the school divisions,” she said. Grimes said the state provides information about the offense categories to help ensure accurate reporting.

However, she noted that changes to the offense categories make it difficult to compare statistics for even the same school over multiple years.

“There’s not really an easy way to do an apples to apples comparison through the years,” she said. Grimes added that the report is a useful tool for school divisions to see where they need to make improvements.

Local school officials say that they will continue to evaluate and make changes to their disciplinary plans to reduce the number of offenses.

“Overall, the goal of the administration is to ensure that disciplinary offenses decrease in all areas,” Belle said.

Turner concurred.

“I am not pleased if the school division has one student offense occurring. We are striving for a student offense free school division,” he said.