7NEWS Denver Post investigation finds school violence reporting lacks oversight, accountability

Violent incidents often hidden from public view

DENVER - Desiree Richie's son was involved in several fights at Bruce Randolph School.  Once, he even made another child bleed, she said.

But when she looks at the state-mandated safety and discipline report Denver Public Schools filed with the Colorado Department of Education for the past two years, it shows zero assaults at his school.

“I think all violence should be reported,” Richie said. “Because one lick could lead to somebody actually losing their life.”

A joint investigation by 7NEWS and The Denver Post uncovered inaccurate or misleading school violence reports are not uncommon -- and are part of a system plagued with loopholes, vague requirements, and lax oversight.

The weaknesses often make it impossible for parents like Richie to see a clear picture of what's really going on in Colorado schools.

 “We shouldn't have to police the schools,” Richie said. “But it seems that's what it's coming down to.”

Richie said her 12-year-old son, Diavian, faced constant bullying and torment at Bruce Randolph, and often fought back to defend himself. Behavior records from 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 show he was disciplined for physical fights on multiple occasions, which the school classified in categories including "Detrimental Behavior."

Richie said she believes the school should have reported to the state that it had assaults on campus.

That may be in part due to the method the state uses to calculate PDS. The Colorado Department of Education requires schools to report incidents in 12 categories ranging from "1st Degree Assaults” to “Other Violations of Code of Conduct," but fewer than half of those categories count towards the persistently dangerous designation.

An analysis of statewide data by the CALL7 Investigators found that if CDE instead counted the five categories listed as most severe in the department's own guidance to schools -- which includes the categories of “3rd Degree Assault” and “Dangerous Weapons” -- many schools would have significantly higher totals.

INCIDENT RANKING: Most Severe to Less Severe* CATEGORIES COUNTED TOWARD WHETHER A SCHOOL IS "PERSISTENTLY DANGEROUS" CATEGORIES CALL7 COUNTS AS "SEVERE INCIDENTS"
1st, 2nd Degree or Vehicular Assaults 1st, 2nd Degree or Vehicular Assaults 1st, 2nd Degree or Vehicular Assaults
Dangerous Weapons   Dangerous Weapons
3rd Degree Assaults/Disorderly Conduct   3rd Degree Assaults/Disorderly Conduct
Robbery Robbery Robbery
Other Felonies Other Felonies Other Felonies
Drug Violations Drug Violations  
Alcohol Violations Alcohol Violations  
Tobacco Violations    
Destruction of School Property    
Detrimental Behavior    
Disobedient/Defiant or Repeated Interference    
Other Violations of Code of Conduct    
*Source: Colorado Department of Education

 

School districts are not held accountable for accurate reporting of crimes on campus because of lax oversight. CDE checks for dramatic changes in a school's reported numbers from year-to-year, and notifies schools when it finds them. But the department has never audited a school or district to ensure violence is correctly reported, essentially placing them on the honor system. 

 “The districts don't randomly select what behavior is coded,” said Judith Martinez, CDE's Director of Student Engagement & Dropout Prevention. “They have some training in it.”

Martinez added that CDE staff is available to assist schools in determining how to classify incidents, but could not say how many times schools or districts have actually requested help. She said accurate reporting is the district's responsibility.

“It's really a local issue,” Martinez said. “Our role as a state is not to mobilize the action for the school districts.”

The Denver Post's Zahira Torres contributed to this report.

Contact CALL7 Investigator Keli Rabon by e-mail or on Twitter -- or join the conversation on our Facebook page -- if you know of a dangerous incident that appears to have been unreported or misreported.

On 7NEWS at 10 p.m. Monday, hear Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg's explanation of the discrepancies this investigation uncovered.

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