Public schools in Orange County have one of the lowest crime rates in California, according to the first state report to study the impact of vandalism, theft and arson on schools.
Orange County reported 23.8 crimes per 1,000 students between July, 1985, and June, 1986, ranking fourth best among the state's 58 counties, the state Department of Education reported.
The lowest was rural Tehama County in Northern California, with 7.3 crimes per 1,000 students; Lassen County, also in the state's northern half, was the highest with 99.4 crimes per 1,000 students.
Orange County educators said the findings are even more impressive because the county, with more than 333,000 students in 29 districts, has the second highest student population in the state. Only Los Angeles, with 1.27 million students, is larger.
"The numbers are very encouraging," said Bill Ybarra, coordinator of students services for the Orange County Department of Education. "It says that county school administrators are doing a very good job keeping the lid on trouble."
The report on public school violence was drawn from information supplied by 95% of the state's 1,026 school districts. It came as a result of a 1984 law requiring schools to gather crime statistics. That law stems from the Victims' Bill of Rights, an initiative passed in 1982, which said students have the right to safe, secure schools.
Although the state has compiled a district-by-district look at crime in Orange County, it was not immediately available Monday. Ybarra, a liaison between the state and local educators on crime-related issues, declined to identify how specific Orange County districts fared in the study.
He did say, however, that the relatively high standard of living contributed to the county's strong showing in the report.
"This county is rather progressive," Ybarra said. "There is a low crime rate and most people are either middle or upper class. . . ."
Overall, the report concluded that vandalism, theft and arson is a $23-million-a-year problem in California. And junior high schools have the overall highest crime rate for both property and violent crimes.
In Orange County, vandalism was blamed for $269,000 in damage to local schools during the 1985-86 school year.
The report, which state education officials say will be used to determine where crime-prevention resources are most needed, already has sparked controversy among district officials who question the results.
Some educators have complained that the county-by-county comparisons are unfair. They contend that some districts intentionally "underreported" some crimes to improve their ratings.
Don Baker, assistant superintendent of an 11-school district in rural Lassen County, disputed the report's contention that his area had the highest crime rate. "There must be some mistake," Baker said in an interview published Sunday in the San Francisco Examiner.
"We were thoroughly shocked. If anything, our crime rate is negligible," he said.
Mary Weaver of the state Education Department agreed that the figures for smaller districts could be skewed but said that overall, the number of reported incidents--162,734 during the 1985-86 school year--is a "conservative estimate."
Weaver said some smaller districts may show higher rates because they are more aware of crime and consequently tend to report a higher percentage of incidents on campus.
In compiling each county's rating, state experts looked at a range of criminal activity, including assaults, homicide, robbery, substance abuse, possession of weapons and vandalism, the biggest problem reported by school districts.
Los Angeles County reported 27.1 crimes per 1,000 students; Sacramento County 65.6, and San Francisco 32.1, Weaver said.
The study said that 85% of the crimes reported were committed by students and that 76% of the 2,996 assaults against school employees were committed by students during school hours.
Also, the report said the highest rates of extortion, sex offenses, possession of knives and explosives and assault against students were found at junior high, or middle schools.
Overall cost of property damage was estimated at more than $23 million a year, with vandalism the most prevalent single crime, costing $7.7 million.
Statewide, there were 15 reported homicides, two involving students as victims and one occurring on campus during the day. The others included bodies dumped on campuses and murders of adults committed by adults who were not connected with the schools.
United Press International contributed to this article.