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Utah’s lack of unified reporting system leaves gaps in school incident records

December 1, 2017
Officials respond to Mueller Park Junior High after a student fired a gun into the ceiling in Bountiful, Utah on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. (Ravell Call/The Deseret News via AP)

By SHEILA WANG • Standard-Examiner staff

The charts below compare the types and numbers of incidents in Ogden’s high schools in the 2015-16 school year in the district’s own system and the state data submission system, known as UTREx.

Each year, the Utah State Board of Education issues a report to show how often schools catch students participating in bad and dangerous behavior, including bringing weapons to school, arson and drug use.

But it turns out the report isn’t accurate and likely never has been. The numbers also aren’t attached to any consequence or incentive for improvement.

Note: Click on the two tabs below to see Ogden and Weber district’s high school incident records. For desktop users, hover over the number of incidents for the definition of each type of school incidents. For mobile users, click on the numbers to get the definitions.

 

The state asks schools to report annual incidents in 11 categories: bullying, assault, alcohol, tobacco, other drugs, distribution, arson, handgun, rifle, other firearms, and other weapons.

But each school can track and submit the data however they want.

The Ogden School District, for example, internally recorded more than 1,500 incidents within its three district high schools during the 2015-16 year, according to a dataset compiled by district spokesman Jer Bates.

But the board of education report reflects the Ogden District only had eight issues for the whole year.

“We are very aware that the data flowing into USBE is being underreported,” Aaron Brough, data quality manager at the Utah State Board of Education, said. He noted that it has been problematic to get the districts to submit all the data they record.

The reasons for the mismatches are mired in state and federal bureaucracy. One factor is that the state provides ambiguous guidelines for tracking violations, so each school district can pick its reporting system and its own way of categorizing incidents.

The Ogden district and many others use a commercial product to track the data, while others, like the Weber School District, use homegrown reporting methods.

Another issue hearkens back to a piece of the No Child Left Behind Act, a President George W. Bush administration initiative to improve school performance nationwide. The initiative promoted safe and drug-free schools by attaching state and federal funding to reports that proved schools were preventing violence and substance abuse.

The lack of a single statewide reporting system and the ambiguous requirement of “safe schools” reports allowed each Utah district to create their own criteria in what and how many incidents were reported.

FROM 1,500 INCIDENTS TO 8

For Ogden School District, they track 49 types of offenses and classify violations into five levels according to severity. A minor offense (level 1) includes dressing improperly or using bad language; a serious offense (level 5) includes using drugs or bringing a weapon to school.

“Ogden School District chooses to record those incidents to help establish patterns and provide early interventions,” Bates said.

The district then looks at all of its level 4 and 5 violations and decides which of them also violate the “safe schools” mandate — again, by using their own interpretation of what “safe schools” means.

No Child Left Behind was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, so the “safe schools” criteria wasn’t required anymore, starting with the 2016-17 school year, Brough said. That data for the most recent completed school year is not yet available.

Although districts and charter schools can choose how they track their data, annual reports are all filed through UTREx, the Utah State Office of Education system.

Gina Butters, student services director, said the Weber district is required to report 21 categories of school incidents to the state every year using UTREx, but the state’s report shows only 11 categories.

In the 2015-16 school year, Butters said the school district reported more than 300 records into UTREx. Less than one-third of them were reflected in the state incident report.

“I don’t know how they end up being reported in the state,” Butters said.

UNIFIED REPORTS

For at least two decades, the state has collected incident reports from school districts and charter schools. Besides entering the inconsistent numbers into the system, neither the state nor the schools have put the database into actual use.

There are no incentives or consequences on the statewide level for schools to record good data or participate in a uniform system.

“It’s been a headache,” Butters said. “The state and the district break down the categories differently, so they won’t match. It’s been an ongoing issue.”

Brough said a unified system would be “wonderful” and “useful,” but it wouldn’t be possible without adequate funding and resources.

The state acknowledged the long-standing problem, he said, but there was a lack of driving force in making progress. Additionally, there have been no consequences on the state for failing to report accurate school incident data.

“We’re working on it,” Brough said, through a joint effort across agencies and departments such as Student Advocacy Services, School Counseling, Equity and Prevention, Special Education Services and Juvenile Justice Services. (links)

The goal is to be able to collect clean and accurate data on school incidents across the state.

“It could take up to a year or a year and a half to see good results,” Brough said.

Before then, anyone who intends to seek out information about school incidents in Utah would have to go to each school district for accurate records.