Dirty Numbers on School Safety
Schoolyard violence is always an emotionally hot topic, so it's understandable that state Education Department officials were cautious last month when they released the first statewide survey of school crime in nearly a decade. But being cautious is not the same as distorting reality.
Closer examination of the 1995-96 Safe Schools Assessment suggests it was so statistically flawed, the schools would have been better served had it simply been shelved. But political considerations, in the form of the Legislature, which specifically mandated the survey, forced the Education Department to go public with the findings, no matter how phony. And on their release, the department engaged in public relations maneuvers that simultaneously obscured the assessment's fundamental weakness and milked the phony results to political advantage. And in a final, cynical dollop, the press largely took the bait, reporting on the survey without ever questioning its merit.
Not that the media didn't have some considerable help from State Schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin. She tightly choreographed the publicity campaign surrounding the release of the findings. School district administrators were consulted beforehand, so they wouldn't be taken by surprise, and just as important, the press was handed a detailed script suggesting how to frame the coverage.
In the Bay Area, the bureaucrats and politicians were well-served with a flurry of neutral to positive stories about the safety of California's public schools. An added bonus for educators was this new bank of supposedly objective crime data, which they could then use to justify asking for more money for future anti-crime programs. And, somehow, Education Department officials managed to hedge the survey's figures so thoroughly that those numbers will be useless in measuring the effectiveness of any new programs down the road.
Eastin's strategy worked smoothly: Same-day stories ran in five large Bay Area dailies -- the Chron and the Ex in S.F., the West County Times and the Oakland Tribune in the East Bay, and the Marin Independent-Journal in the North Bay.
But that's where the survey's internal flaws began to manifest themselves, as different papers gave the numbers widely differing interpretations. Eastin and other officials in her agency only added to the confusion when they insisted this year's data was not intended to be interpreted. Yet as the story unfolded, Eastin herself violated this contradictory and confusing advice, and certainly never gave a satisfactory explanation for it.
Let's start with how the press responded. "Crime at School Costs Millions" was the Chron's headline; "S.F. schools get high marks in crime study" trumpeted the Ex on a defiantly parochial note; "Crimes in School Plummet" screamed a huge three-decker on the Trib's front page, with the kicker "Big 43% drop baffles Oakland authorities" (In actuality, it was a decline found in Oakland's separate, internal crime survey of long standing, which was released the same day); "Officials: School crime data faulty," demurred the West County Times (a member of the Contra Costa Newspapers chain) in a contrarian, yet ultimately accurate, interpretation; and, finally, the I-J's dry-as-dust, but perhaps closest to the truth: "Schools in State report 80,000 crimes committed."
Are we all reading off the same page here?
The reporters reacted to the numbers in the survey in precisely the way Eastin urged them not to do. They spun them to fit their markets and their assumptions. That's their job. But in chasing their own angles, reporters overlooked Eastin's remarkable attempt to downplay the validity of the findings, even as she tried to put a positive spin on them. And they failed to point out the long shadows of doubt Eastin's behavior and internal notes in the report itself cast on the assessment.
"New data on school crime dispel the myth that our schools are unsafe" reads the opening of Eastin's press release. A direct quote follows, in which she says, "Our schools, in fact, are generally safer places for our students to be than their surrounding communities."
So much for not drawing conclusions from the numbers.
Next, bizarrely, Eastin cautions anyone else against doing what she has just done. And why? This year's survey numbers are so flawed as to be nearly meaningless. And why is that? Because school administrators failed to report all the crimes that occurred. They either simply chose not to do so, or didn't know how.
What Eastin's comments suggest is that the study could be irrelevant. But all five stories -- even the West County Times' skeptical account -- glossed over that inherent potential contradiction. After all, the circular thinking goes, if the assessment were so badly flawed as to mean nothing, the state wouldn't have released it, and there'd be no story. Pursuing the other alternative, the possibility that the state Education Department squandered $1.2 million on a hollow exercise merely to appease the Legislature, would have required a significant departure from Eastin's handy script.
The dailies proved faithful to Eastin's intended plot. Chron K-12 education reporter Nanette Asimov focused on the $22.7 million that property crimes supposedly cost schools last year. Asimov's second paragraph echoed Eastin's positive spin: The "new data" demonstrates that "public schools are not the hotbeds of violent activity many people perceive them to be." Asimov also swallowed without question the highly dubious stats in the state survey that suggested Oakland's schools were practically crime-free last year.