The Austin Chronicle

The Discipline of Numbers

By Jordan Smith, May 16, 2003, News

Protecting the nearly 78,000 kids of AISD is the whole community's job, but on a daily basis it is the first priority of Austin ISD Police Chief Pat Fuller. A 53-year-old father of six, Fuller has a master's degree in education and nearly 30 years of law enforcement experience. For 17 years, he has overseen the operations of the district's 32 School Resource officers (essentially, the schools' walking-beat officers), three roving officers and investigators.

Fuller confidently describes AISD schools as, indeed, safe. "You can look at the crime data as far back as you want and ... schools come out as the safest places to be." Indeed, national data collected and maintained by the Dept. of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics bear Fuller out -- schools are by far the safest places for children. As Judy Rennick from the Texas School Safety Center at Southwest Texas State University points out, in Texas the most tragic incident involving student deaths actually occurred at a church -- in September 1999, at the Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, where seven people were shot and killed, four of them high school students. "In a community as large as Austin ISD or Dallas ISD, to have so few incidents is really telling," she said. "You never want anything bad to happen -- and you never want to minimize what happens, but [the Reagan murder] is the first incident [of this kind]."

What do the local numbers say? The Chronicle has reviewed: 1) districtwide AISD Police Uniform Crime Reports, 2) districtwide AISD disciplinary reports, 3) Reagan High disciplinary reports, and 4) APD call logs for Reagan.

Our conclusion? The numbers may not lie, but they are very confusing.

Uniform Crime Reports

According to AISD Police UCRs, the school district logs nearly 5,000 reported offenses (both misdemeanors and felonies) per year -- everything from tobacco possession and curfew violations to drug possession and forcible rape. Yet the final disposition of the cases isn't always clear. For example, in January 2001, for the whole district AISD police logged three "actual" forcible rapes on campus. (Actual cases represent the official number of cases after subtracting any "unfounded" reports.) According to the January report, only one case involved "only persons under 18," and all three were cleared "by arrest or exceptional means." Yet later in the report, where the race, sex, and age of the persons arrested are supposed to be logged -- to include persons "released without having been formally charged" -- there are no entries. This disparity generally holds true for reports from 2001, 2002, and 2003 -- each of the years for which we requested records.

There are varying explanations given for the omissions. In the case of a rape report, Fuller says, "There is no 'rape' in the penal code [only various degrees of 'sexual assault'], but there is 'rape' on the UCR, so you've got to figure out how to report [an incident] and what exactly it is you are reporting." Included within the UCR form definition of "rape" there can be cases of "sexual assault by contact" -- e.g. more minor incidents of improper touching or grabbing. Fuller adds that unless a suspect is actually arrested and booked into jail, he or she will not appear on the form that designates an offender's race, sex, and age. "If they were never booked into jail, they will not show up on the arrested sheet," he said. Further complicating matters are other vagaries like "exceptional means," which can mean (among other things) that a victim declined to press charges. That would explain the absence of any info about the alleged offender or the disposition of the case.

There are other incidents that may never find their way onto an AISD Police UCR, depending upon whether the investigation was handled primarily by APD or whether the Dept. of Public Safety -- which oversees the state's UCR reporting system -- determines an individual incident should be reported by one or both of the agencies. A Memorandum of Understanding, which establishes agency "connectivity," Fuller says, defines the relationship between AISD Police and APD. "It looks confusing from the outside, but it actually works very well," Fuller said. "We know how to be well-behaved in the same sandbox."

For example, Fuller says, the MOU helped determine the precise handling of Ortralla Mosley's murder. Although the murder occurred on campus, where AISD stations a full-time School Resource Officer, because it was a homicide the APD has maintained control of the investigation. So Fuller says his department did not originally report the homicide on the district's March 2003 UCR -- but did so when DPS officials said it needed to be recorded.

AISD Disciplinary Records

According to the Texas Education Agency and district officials, a more accurate gauge of campus safety is the number of students who face school discipline. "We require multiple stages of intervention," said Forgione. "For example, incident one may require counseling, incident two may require a time-out, incident three a Saturday program, and incident four a suspension." He said that the disciplinary reports, compiled by campus administrators and combined into a district report submitted yearly to TEA, are "absolutely" a good indicator of school safety. "It is about awareness and keeping your antennae up," he said. "Is this an isolated incident or is it part of a pattern? You have to recognize things and keep your guard up for what is acceptable and what is not acceptable on campuses."

Disciplinary reports for Reagan help establish the safety picture of the campus. For the 2001-02 school year -- the last full year for which data is available -- the largest group of disciplinary referrals (90) were for "insubordination," followed by students being "physically aggressive" toward other students (84). There were fewer than 10 disciplinary reports of students threatening, harassing, or being physically aggressive toward an adult. There were no reports of students bringing firearms or illegal knives to school, and there were no referrals for any sexual assaults.

According to an initial review of AISD statistics by the newly appointed Reagan Safety Review Team, it appears that there are relatively more disciplinary incidents at Reagan than at most other Austin high schools. But in a public forum last week, the reviewers cautioned that it is not yet clear whether campus administrators report actual incidents to the same degree or in precisely the same manner for each campus -- making it difficult to draw firm conclusions from the aggregate statistics.

It should also be noted that the statistics for Reagan are being challenged by recent allegations of more serious incidents -- including sexual assaults and frequent fights -- reported by the Rev. Sterling Lands and others. As the public investigations proceed, these statistical reports will bear increasing scrutiny.

According to AISD's reports, covering all AISD schools for 2001-2002, there were 3,321 disciplinary referrals for insubordination, and a total of 4,680 for threatening, harassing, or being physically aggressive toward an adult. There were a total of 28 disciplinary referrals for possession of a firearm or illegal knife and none for sexual assault.

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