There has been one shooting in a Utah school: six years ago, when a student held classmates hostage in Davis County. Nobody was hurt.

But a look at a new state report of school violence, weapons possession incidents and other mischief shows weapons are carried, and confiscated, on Utah's campuses.

Last school year, school officials reported 580 weapons possessions in Utah's some 800 schools. That's actually down from the 672 reported the year before, according to the State Office of Education's annual "Incidents of Prohibited Behavior in Schools or School-Related Activities" report.

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Student behavior problems

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Last year, school officials reported 66 arsons — up from 49 the year before — and 92 aggravated assaults, which remained stagnant from the 2001-2002 school year.

But drug and alcohol abuse incidents are on the decline, the report shows. In 2001-2002, 1,762 incidents were reported. Last year, the number dropped 23 percent, to 1,357. Tobacco also is down from 777 violations to 640, or a 17 percent decline.

Utah educates 487,000 public school children.

The information could be eye-opening to parents.

"Cumulative like that, the numbers look high," said Susan Chilton, Jordan District coordinator of programs for at-risk students.

"(But) I think schools are the safest places for kids to be. It's not a bad thing we've found these violations; it's a good thing."

Tracking trends

School districts for nearly a decade have tracked student misdeeds, from gang activity to terroristic threats and even homicide, as part of federal Safe Schools Act grants. They report information online to the Research Institute for Safe and Effective Programs at Utah State University, which contracts with the State Office of Education.

The data collection now is required by No Child Left Behind, which aims to pinpoint "persistently dangerous schools" as part of reform and student achievement efforts.

The idea is to publicly highlight things schools do right, and wrong, and inspire them to improve. Districts in several states announce behavior problems alongside test scores and other information in report cards mailed or otherwise made available to parents, according to an Education Week survey.

Utah is less forthcoming. Its report is nestled in an inch-thick printed version of the Annual Report of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, also published online (www.usoe.k12.ut.us/data/ar/2003/Delstd03.htm).

Verne Larsen, state liaison for federal Safe and Drug-Free Schools and No Child Left Behind programs, can't explain the practice.

"I always thought to myself, 'This would be the other report of the kids,' " Larsen said. "I think if you're going to report adequate yearly progress (on test scores) and academics it would be nice to show this, too, because it paints another picture."

Even if the information were part of district report cards, it would need explaining.

The state's glossary of reporting terms alone takes five pages of fine print.

Deceptive data

Report data also aren't always what they seem.

Weapons violations don't typically mean guns. In Granite District, just seven of 124 weapons possessions reported were actual firearms, said Sue McGhie-Troff, district director of student services. The rest were cap guns or other fakes, brass knuckles, pocketknives or other items.

Threats of violence might be reported as real acts. Districts are advised to report incidents as "handgun, look-alike" or "handgun, threatened use" even if they know a student is pretending by pointing his finger through a coat pocket, according to the Research Institute for Safe and Effective Programs.

Yet perhaps the most pervasive problem is interpretation. Schools report things so differently, Larsen said, that one district's numbers can't be compared to another.

Take aggravated assault. It is defined as "an attempt or intentional act committed with unlawful force or violence involving the use or threatened use of a weapon or resulting in serious bodily injury to another" — basically mirroring Utah criminal law.

Yet school aggravated assaults typically are characterized by a student attacking another, unprovoked.

In one Duchesne aggravated assault case in the 2001-2002 school year — a time the rural district led the state with 19 incidents — one student stuck another's head in the toilet and flushed, said Carolyn Davis, district Safe and Drug Free Schools coordinator.

In Weber District last school year, a student used a knife to stab another in the thumb, spokesman Nate Taggart said.

Those incidents obviously fit the definition. But others are less clear.

If two students playing basketball get into a disagreement, which ends in a violent fistfight, it would be reported as a simple assault, Davis said.

Simple assaults don't have their own column on the public report.

But Weber put theirs in it anyway — under aggravated assault. The district's reported incidents therefore range from hair-pulling girl fights, to a student threatening what he would do with a gun if he only had one.

"We are always concerned about students who are breaking our Safe Schools policy," Taggart said. "But we should not be reporting (simple) assaults as aggravated assaults. This is obviously a reporting glitch."

The report apparently contains others, mostly likely in the truancy category.

One might expect bigger districts to report more kids sluffing school. The 60,000-student Davis School District — the state's third largest — leads the state with 6,050 truancies.

But Jordan, with its 74,000 students, reported just 42.

The Davis official who oversees truancy reporting did not return calls seeking comment Friday.

But Larsen is not surprised at apparent discrepancies, considering this is the first report to include truancies, required by No Child Left Behind. In time, districts will get on the same page.

"Since we first started (reporting), I think we've become more consistent," he said.

"What we're challenging our school districts to do is compare themselves against themselves over time."

Districts respond

Granite District monitors the numbers, and likes at least one trend.

In 2000-01, Granite responded to 13 real gun possessions on its campuses. The following year, the number dipped to nine. Last year, it was seven.

Declining numbers could reflect work to stop problems before they start and turn offenders around.

Four years ago, Granite set up a weapons hotline for students to report what they see and hear. The hotline takes eight to 10 valid calls each month, McGhie-Troff said.

Children committing violence or carrying guns are dealt with individually. Some might be suspended or attend special class for a term, or maybe a year, to learn appropriate behavior and problem solving through reading and math. The program appears to work: McGhie-Troff reports just 2 to 3 percent of students completing the class each year reoffend.

"We still have zero tolerance . . . , but we don't have blind zero tolerance," she said. "We don't ignore their need to be educated. But we do integrate the information we think they need to return and be successful in school."

Jordan District is working to reduce drug and alcohol offenses — down from 448 to 240 in the past two years — by teaming with adults. First-time offenders can choose to take, with their parents, a four-week class on substance abuse, or a 10-day suspension from school.

Last school year, 231 students — 98 percent — took the class; 187 completed it, and all will be tracked until they graduate, Chilton said. Eighteen reoffended and were required to be evaluated for substance abuse problems by Salt Lake County mental health services.

Davis District is working to put out fires. It reported 22 arsons in 2001-2002 and 19 last school year, from playground fires to Dumpster blazes.

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Davis County mental health and fire departments are teaming up for a juvenile fire setter prevention and intervention coalition, aimed at pinpointing kids who might have tendencies toward starting fires, said Steven Hermansen, district safety coordinator. Schools would refer students to counselors or firefighters to get help before problems start.

The state-required report may help spark such efforts. In that sense, the information should be welcomed by schools — and parents, officials say.

"I would say what we've done is, because of the environment and the atmosphere (of violence nationally), that we've been more conscientious in reporting and tracking them and more conscientious in intervening," McGhie-Troff said. "I think our society as a whole is more prone to (seek) violence for solutions. But I do not think the schools are unsafe."


E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com

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