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Safety in Numbers: Collecting and Using Crime, Violence, and Discipline Incident Data to Make a Difference in Schools
Chapter 1
  Using Data to Make a Difference
Chapter 2
    Meeting the Challenges of Data Collection
Chapter 3
    Reporting Incident Data
Chapter 4
    Collecting Data
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Ghedam Bairu

(202) 502-7304

Chapter 1: Using Data to Make a Difference

   1.1 Promoting Learning
  1.2 Improving School Safety
  1.3 Managing Resources
  1.4 Focusing Discipline Reform Efforts

Keeping schools safe. For children to learn and teachers to teach, schools must be safe (Linquanti and Berliner, 1994). While no guarantees exist that better awareness of potential problems is enough to prevent tragedies from happening, awareness based on solid information can give administrators the confidence that they are doing everything possible to enhance the safety and security of their students and staff (Riley and McDaniel, 1998).

One of our nation's top priorities is to keep schools safe by providing a place where students can learn and teachers can teach free from threats of harm. Effective data collection and analysis provide educators with a powerful set of tools for achieving this goal (Johnson, 1996). Valid data that allow comparability within and across states and school districts are of great value to governing agencies, policymakers, funding sources, and the general public. Valid data are of even greater value to schools. This chapter discusses the rationale for how effective use of incident data can make a difference in school climate and student learning.

The most important reason to collect incident data is to use the information to promote school safety and learning.

Information can be gathered in a number of ways for a variety of purposes. The most important reason to collect incident data is to use the information to promote school safety and learning. There are many ways to do this. Data enable administrators to assess the impact of programs that have been implemented to promote school safety and to assess whether additional efforts are needed. Data provide the basis for grant applications. Incident data are also useful in assessing the costs associated with discipline problems and allocating resources appropriately. One large school district, after assessing its incident data, recognized the need to address attendance issues which were costing students valuable instructional time. The district hired a dropout specialist, instituted an in-school suspension program for truants, and limited the number of days for which a student could be suspended in any one semester (Brown, 2000).

1.1 Promoting Learning

The primary mission of schools is to promote learning. Safe and orderly learning environments are a correlate of effective schools (Pepperl and Lezotte, 1999; Lezotte, 1991; Edmonds, 1979). Thus, just as a safe and healthy school climate contributes to effective teaching and learning, disruption, violence, and threats of violence greatly impede learning. Many schools have seen academic benefits from the use of strong data collection systems as part of violence prevention and school improvement efforts, as illustrated below.

Promoting learning. Significant improvements in learning were reported by Nelson and colleagues (in press) from a comprehensive school-wide program to prevent problem behaviors. Working with elementary schools in a school district in the Pacific Northwest, the project produced significant positive differences in 4th grade reading, language arts, spelling, science, and social studies achievement on the California Test of Basic Achievement, as well as significant positive differences in the reading and mathematics scores on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning. The systematic collection and assessment of incident data was demonstrated to be an important component of this effort.

Benefiting from incident data. One school with a large number of disciplinary incidents reviewed its incident data and learned that 56 percent of its behavioral incidents were attributed to class cuts and 15 percent to tardies. School staff used this information to adopt efforts to improve class attendance and punctuality. The school's prevention efforts focused on the strong correlations between academic achievement and attendance, punctuality, and appropriate classroom behavior (Nakasato, 2000).

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1.2 Improving School Safety

Educators and the public want schools to be safe and orderly. Assessing school safety and using data to conduct safe schools planning are key to reaching this goal.

Assessing school safety. Many experts such as Stephens (2000) and Dwyer, Osher, and Warger (1998) have encouraged school administrators to assess school safety and take proactive steps to build safe schools. Office discipline referrals are key to assessing school discipline needs and to monitoring the effects of reform efforts. In addition, a systems approach to effective behavioral (and instructional) support requires the use of data to support decisionmaking. Discipline data are necessary to ensure that

  • Ineffective discipline practices are modified or discontinued,
  • Effective programs are enhanced, and
  • Specialized behavior supports are arranged for students who display chronic problem behaviors.
It is important to design discipline systems to ensure student and staff success, not just control problem behavior (Sugai et al., 1998).

Data need to be reviewed in context.

Data need to be reviewed in context. Schools with high suspension rates could be those with high levels of disorder. High suspension rates could also represent a physical plant problem, such as poorly designed buildings with narrow halls and stairwells conducive to pushing and shoving, a behavior which often leads to fighting. Significant overenrollment can have the same effect on student behavior. Schools that do not tolerate misbehavior can also have high suspension rates as they work to effectively manage student misbehavior, school disorder, and crime. It is important that administrators are attuned to contextual issues when making policy decisions (Clay, 1996).

Safe schools planning. Many states now require school or district safety plans (e.g., Florida, New York). The goal of safe school planning is to create and maintain a positive and welcoming school climate, free of drugs, violence, intimidation, and fear. A safe environment is necessary for teachers to teach and students to learn. Safe school planning provides an action plan and is an ongoing, systematic, and comprehensive process that addresses both short-term and long-term safety measures in working toward the elimination of violent attitudes and behaviors in the schools. School crime reporting and tracking and assessment of trends over time are essential components of a safe school plan. They enable schools and districts to monitor their mission, and to measure whether they are meeting their safe schools goals (Holcomb, 1998; Stephens, 2000).

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1.3 Managing Resources

Collecting and using incident data can help schools effectively use scarce resources.

Collecting and using incident data can help schools effectively use scarce resources. Schools have a financial responsibility to taxpayers to ensure that resources bring maximum benefit to both safety and the learning enterprise. Preventing problem behavior ensures that the majority of resources go to classrooms and that already limited resources are spent for instructional purposes rather than for graffiti removal and vandalism repairs (California Department of Education, 1995).

Riley and McDaniel (1998) argue that incident data should be used to drive resource decisions. The California Department of Education (1995) highlights the financial benefit to safe school planning. The process of conducting a needs assessment may enable a school to qualify for outside grant funds and resources-accurate and reliable data may enable schools to demonstrate their need for additional resources. For example, in past years, many states distributed Safe and Drug-Free Schools Greatest Needs funds based on the level of problem behavior in schools.1 One condition of Safe and Drug-Free Schools funding is that it be used on efforts that research has demonstrated to be effective; incident data can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of prevention interventions.

Many types of incident reporting are also required by districts, states, and the Federal Government. Well designed incident reporting systems will save time, a limited resource, when schools and districts are required to complete these reports.2

1.4 Focusing Discipline Reform Efforts

Sugai and colleagues (2000) state that "school-wide discipline systems are the foundation from which all other efforts are based and directed." The Sugai article

  • Recommends that administrators and faculty committed to improving the school-wide discipline systems in their school examine the distribution of office discipline referrals by student, location, and date;
  • Explains that this information can then be used to determine where to focus school discipline reform efforts; and
  • Notes that, for incident data to be of maximum value, they must include information on the perpetrator, date, location, referring teacher, primary rule violation, and consequence.

School-wide discipline is both proactive and reactive.
In another article on the subject (Sugai et al., 1998), the authors explain that school-wide discipline is more than simply establishing rules for problem behavior and then enforcing those rules by reacting to students who violate them. School-wide discipline is both proactive (positive and preventive) and reactive (responsive and ameliorative), and it emphasizes the establishment of a predictable, safe environment where successful teaching and achievement are promoted. In addition, the effectiveness of a school-wide discipline system is related to the effectiveness of the instructional support systems (e.g., literacy) that are in place (Shinn, 1997; Kaminski and Good, 1996; Kame'enui and Simmons 1998; Sugai et al. 1998).

Schools that have been successful in implementing school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports have found

  • Increases in attendance,
  • Student reports of a more positive and calm environment,
  • Teacher reports of a more positive and calm environment, and
  • Reduction in the number of behavioral disruptions (Safe, Disciplined, and Drug-Free Schools Project, 2000).
Furthermore, several comprehensive reviews of school-based prevention programs (Gottfredson, Wilson, and Najaka, 2001; Gottfredson, 1997) have found that school-wide discipline efforts are highly effective in promoting safe school environments.

Attending to problem areas. Sprague and colleagues (1999) stress the importance of using data, rather than impressions, to guide decisions to maintain or modify what, how, and where changes in discipline policy and procedures are necessary.

Patterns in incident data indicate where prevention programming is needed (Sprague et al., 1999). For example, as Banks (2000) explains, bullying can dramatically affect the ability of students to progress academically and socially. If a school identifies a pattern of bullying in its incident data, then a bullying prevention program would be a prudent use of resources. Stephens (1994) describes one instance where, by having and using a good incident data system, administrators were able to determine that nearly every time a fight occurred on campus it involved a certain group of female students who had formed a "dance club." They learned that this club was really a new gang and were able to take measures to put a stop to the emerging gang activities.

With reliable data, school administrators will have information essential to problem solving.
Without systematic, data-based decisionmaking procedures, the implementation of the best discipline system is likely to be ineffective. School-wide discipline planning-setting the stage for positive reinforcement of responsible student behavior and developing strategies for getting students back on track when their behavior is disturbing learning-serves as an instrument enabling effective instruction and learning to take place. With reliable data, school administrators can work more efficiently. They will have the information essential to solving problems, selecting appropriate interventions, and providing better support for student learning (Nakasato, 2000). Incident data can also be used to assess the effects of interventions (Flannery, 1998).