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School Violence and Vandalism by the Book

State DOE’s annual report on problems plaguing schools indicates small bump in incidents over the year before

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More than 19,000 incidents of bullying, violence, vandalism, weapons, and drug offenses occurred in New Jersey’s public schools in the past school year, an average of 28 per district, according to the state Department of Education’s annual report on these problems.

That represented a 5 percent increase over the 2014-2015 school year, but was roughly the same number as the year before that. DOE officials said that the data, self-reported by districts, can fluctuate from year to year, reducing the significance of those types of comparisons. Looking over a longer period, the 19,181 incidents in 2015-2016 were 7 percent fewer than three years earlier.

NJ Spotlight has put together a database with each type of offense by district for each of the past four school years. Search for districts by name or county.

The number of incidents varies widely by district. Last year, Paterson schools had the most, 430, followed by Newark, the state's largest district, with 382. In total, 83 districts — nearly all of them elementary or charter schools — reported no instances of any kind.

The most reported incidents last year involved violence – 8,261. About eight in 10 were fights or assaults, and most of the others were threats. “The number of reports of fights has increased each of the past two years,” according to the report.

The number of violent incidents last year increased by 1,000 over 2014-2015. Education officials said it is unclear whether the increase is a rise in actual violence, or whether it reflects an increase in the accuracy of reporting at the local level. Updated training manuals, targeted monitoring visits, and additional outreach to districts last school year may have resulted in more precise reporting by school districts. DOE officials say they are monitoring the data.

Instances of bullying, harassment, or intimidation were the second most common, equaling about 30 percent of all cases reported. This category has also declined the most over time, down nearly 25 percent since 2012-2013, the second year in which these cases were reported separately. About 17 percent of all bullying incidents were directed at a person’s race, with 13 percent related to sexual orientation and 12 percent gender-related. The majority, or 55 percent, was directed at “other distinguishing characteristics” of the victim. In 80 percent of cases, the bullying was verbal.

School officials reported about 3,000 incidents involving drugs or alcohol on campus. In most, students were caught using drugs, with fewer than four cases involving distribution. Three-quarters of the instances involved marijuana; students were caught with alcohol in fewer than a sixth of all incidents. While Gov. Chris Christie has made combatting opioid abuse a priority, it was cited in just 68 instances last year.

“There have not been sizeable changes in reports of substance use, possession or distribution in the past three years on school grounds,” the report states.

Vandalism episodes have dropped significantly since 2012-2013, down almost 20 percent to 1,423. One notable exception is an increase in the number of bomb threats, which the report said may be attributable to “swatting,” when someone calls in a false report of an emergency to police that brings first responders to a scene.

“In 2016, the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security indicated that New Jersey saw increases in swatting incidents, specifically those with fake bomb threats, and that one swatting incident alone in April 2016 disrupted 22 schools with the same fake bomb threat,” according to the report.

Students brought 1,000 weapons to school last year, just two of which were handguns. The report states that “the most commonly reported weapons were knives, blades, razors, scissors, and box cutters.”

The department reported that, in the case of bullying in particular, a decrease in incidents corresponds with an increase in training to try to reduce these kinds of cases. Schools reported providing 17,671 training sessions in an effort to combat bullying, a substantial increase from the previous year. Districts also offered more programs and other efforts at reducing bullying incidents last year than in 2014-2015, with more than 25,000 such programs being held.

“We are committed to finding ways to build a safer school climate and culture for our students,” said Acting Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington.

More details, including incidents involving police and specifics involving instances of bullying, are available on the DOE website.

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