FULTON, NY – The Fulton City School District administration responded to the state comptroller’s school violence report audit in August but the report’s release to the public last week prompted the superintendent to schedule an information sharing meeting for Monday (Jan. 26) at Fulton Junior High School.
Acknowledging the gravity of the report, Board of Education President David Cordone said in an interview with Oswego County Today that the board is satisfied with Superintendent William Lynch’s July response to State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s audit.
“Student safety is a high priority for the Fulton Board of Education,” Cordone said, “and it has taken the findings of the comptroller’s audit very seriously.”
The comptroller’s report Compliance With the Safe Schools Against Violence in Education Act compiled audited reports from seven schools outside New York City, including Fulton Junior High School, and covered incidents recorded from July 1, 2011 to June 16, 2014.
“Based on our calculations, the School Violence Index for two schools – (Buffalo’s) Burgard and Fulton Junior High School in Oswego (sic) – was above the threshold for State Education Department consideration as potentially persistently dangerous or persistently dangerous,” the comptroller’s auditors said.
Cordone noted that it was unclear why the comptroller’s report was released in January 2015, when the process goes back nearly a year and was addressed by the district over the summer.
Cordone said the district received notice in February 2014 that Fulton Junior High School’s Violence And Disruptive Incident Reports (VADIR) would be audited; in March the comptroller’s auditors spent two weeks reviewing district records; a draft of the auditors’ report was sent to administrators in May; and the superintendent’s response was sent back to the comptroller’s office July 23.
In that letter, the superintendent, along with Fulton Junior High School principal Ryan Lanigan, and Director of Student Support Programs Geri Geitner, who oversees the reporting process for the district, accepted some of the audit’s findings and at the same time expressed their frustration with the report and the process.
“We agreed that 37 incidents that were not reported should have been, and 26 other incidents that were reported were reported in the wrong VADIR category,” the administrators stated.
“A major concern we have with the (auditors’) report is their lack of expertise with social learning theory and practice … in working with students who face significant barriers to their learning which arise both within and outside of school setting,” the Fulton administrators stated. “… (A)nd while we do not concur with many aspects of their findings, we will use this report and the experience to reflect upon, and improve our systems, practices and reporting procedures.”
In their response, the administrators took the opportunity to identify some of the incidents which were deemed to have been misclassified, including a nosebleed caused when students were playing catch with a lunch box where the school administrator determined it was a disruption.
“The auditors assessed this incident as an assault with physical injury,” the letter stated.
Another incident reported as a disruption after a student threw a stress ball repeatedly at a bulletin board behind a teacher should have been classed “reckless endangerment”; and a bump in the hall while fooling around that caused a student to scrape his shoulder was documented as a minor referral, where auditors would have classified it as assault with physical injury.
The most serious of the under-reported or misclassified incidents at Fulton’s Junior High School were five incidents classified as either ‘forcible sex offenses’ or ‘other sex offenses’ but for obvious reasons those were not addressed directly in the administrators letter to the comptroller’s office or the public report to the Board of Education.
In August, at its regular board meeting, Geitner and Lanigan publicly presented the Board of Education with the audit report findings, and the district’s response.
During that meeting, Cordone said it was explained that in addition to the misclassification, some discrepancies were actually the result of VADIR guidance.
“For example, if there was a fight the VADIR guidance said that was one incident, but the auditor would view that as two or more incidents based on the number of people involved in the fight,” he said.
Noting likewise, a single student who experienced multiple incidents over the course of a day or period of time would have to be treated as individual incidents regardless if the impetus was one source.
“And, if there was one individual and they have multiple incidents, when discipline is assigned … the auditors expected all separate consequences,” Cordone said. “Whereas, if a student ‘was really on a roll’ and there was multiple incidents they might find themselves with one consequence of a five day suspension with a superintendent’s hearing.”
With respect to the importance of the report’s findings, according to the SED, designation as a persistently dangerous school requires two years of successive data in which the school scores a weighted School Violence Index value higher than 1.5, or has more than 60 reported incidents classified as violent.
One stinging revelation in the auditor’s report was the auditor’s determination “that Fulton did not report 79 VADIR incidents and misclassified 33 others. The School Violence Index we calculated based on our assessment of the incidents we identified was 4.76, more than triple the State Education Department threshold for closer assessment of persistently dangerous status.”
Along with that information was the insinuation by auditors that the data was skewed to avoid reaching the potentially persistently dangerous status – a charge the district vehemently denied.
“We disagree with the auditors’ assertions that consequences should have been more severe, and particularly object to the auditors’ suggestion that consequences were minimized to avoid VADIR reporting,” Lynch, Lanigan and Geitner stated in their letter to the comptroller. “Per our District Code of Conduct and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports framework, discipline should be progressive, developmentally appropriate and result in the development of skills and replacement behaviors that prevent inappropriate behaviors from occurring in the future.”
Auditors also noted in their report that the State Education Department has not met its own guidelines with respect to the SAVE Act, leaving the local district uncertain about its status as a potentially persistently dangerous school.
“The SAVE Act requires the State Education Department to annually determine which public elementary and secondary schools are persistently dangerous. Timely notification is critical to allow parents enough time to transfer their child to another school, if one is available. To address the notification requirement, Department Regulations require it to notify local educational agencies as to its final determination, no later than Aug. 1, of any public elementary or secondary school the Department has identified as persistently dangerous. … We found the Department did not designate persistently dangerous schools for the 2013-14 school year, despite the SAVE Act requirement that it do so. Consequently, the Department also failed to comply with provisions of both No Child Left Behind and the SAVE Act that require it to annually notify persistently dangerous schools or their local educational agencies of their status,” the audit report stated.
“When we left this report in August, there was a response and to my knowledge we have not heard back,” Cordone said. “My understanding is that the standing of the Junior High had not changed. I’m not aware that there was any change here from the district that changed that status from this end. The SED is going to be taking a look at the last school year, that may be their response. I’m not really sure, we have not received any information back.”
While the board president said the SED was planning to come back and revisit the district in the fall, “they have not done that yet.”
“We have heard that they will be returning to the district sometime this winter, between now and late winter,” Cordone said. “They will come back and do whatever work they were planning to do … for the 2013-14 year.”
Meanwhile, according to SED records, incidents of violence have increased at Fulton Junior High School over the past five years.
|Total All Incidents Reported||Total Violent Incidents|
|2011-12 as audited||368||88|
|2011-12 as reported||289||28|
Cordone acknowledged the challenges present in the Fulton City School District.
“In terms of support, our district probably has more than most – because there’s a need – we have a greater number of social workers and counseling staff to support students,” he said. “So, in terms of the pooling of resources, over time, we’ve really seen a need for that to support those systemic challenges that our community has that wind up creating unfortunate situations at school.”
He added, “The safety of our students is our priority. None of us ever takes that lightly. I have kids in the system and like everyone else I am equally concerned wanting to make sure our schools are safe.”
Cordone said the audit process has offered an opportunity for district personnel to review VADIR, and all districts policies, along with the responsibility of being a PBIS school.
“If there’s further support in the way of policy change that needs to happen from our governance then that certainly will be reviewed and be addressed from a board perspective,” the board president said. “And the expectation is that administrators will follow the recommendations from SED and respond to the audit as they have indicated so far that they would.”
The superintendent’s public information sharing session will begin tonight at the Junior High School at 6:30 p.m.