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Schools Are Rough and Tough--On Paper

June 02, 1988|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

If the state Department of Education report was to be believed, schools in the affluent Thousand Oaks area were as tough as the toughest in Los Angeles.

More than five assaults were logged each and every school day, according to the report. More than one teacher a day was jumped in classroom or corridor. Assaults had shot up by more than 200% in a year. Conejo Valley's 26 schools accounted for the bulk of a reported 41% increase in assaults in all Ventura County schools.

Nearly twice as many assaults occurred in the 17,846-student district as in the entire community of Thousand Oaks, where assaults among 100,204 citizens are tallied at a pace of about one every 17 hours.

The report, it turned out this week, was wrong.

The comparatively placid Conejo Valley Unified School District had given itself a black eye, reporting as "assaults" not only beatings, but playground tiffs and even reports of students sassing their teachers.

Supt. William R. Seaver didn't get suspicious until he read a newspaper account last week that said 185 teachers were assaulted during the 1986-87 school year.

"I almost died when I saw it," he said. "That would have averaged out to more than one a day. I've been in the district 32 years, and I haven't seen more than 10 or 11 assaults on employees in all that time."

According to district calculations, attacks and menacing behavior directed at students and district employees jumped from 281 to 953 incidents--a leap of 239%--while assaults in schools around the state had dropped by 1.4%.

With the Conejo Valley figures, Ventura County schools reported the state's third-fastest growing assault rate, after schools in Sacramento and Fresno counties.

"Staff had basically used any student who was suspended for an inappropriate comment or action," said Richard Simpson, Conejo Valley assistant superintendent of instructional services. "They got overzealous. The intent of the school crime report was to report only comments and actions by students that are reported to law enforcement."

However, that intent is apparently not easy to discern.

Instructions on forms sent to school districts define assault as "an unlawful attempt, coupled with a present ability, to commit a violent injury on the person of another."

And Joe McGee, director of the state Department of Education's office of school climate, which keeps track of such matters, said the district may have been correct in reporting incidents that would have gone unreported elsewhere.

He said districts should report physical assaults that result in suspensions or expulsions. Similarly, when students are disciplined for, say, swearing at teachers, their actions should be counted as assaults because the students displayed "menace," he said.

Still, McGee acknowledged that the Conejo Valley district "may be using more stringent standards" than other districts. "They may be reporting every minor scuffle on the school ground," he said.

He said the situation highlights a problem with the state's 2-year-old Standard School Crime Reporting Program.

"We feel that there may be some overreporting or underreporting, but we have no way of knowing that until we go out and audit school districts and their reporting practices," McGee said.

Funding for Audit Sought

The Department of Education is seeking $30,000 in state funding for such an audit, he said.

Officials at other Ventura County districts, who had been hard-pressed to explain the dramatic increase in assaults countywide, were relieved to learn of the reporting foul-up.

"I never felt like there was any problem for us," said Bernie Korenstein, an administrator for the Oxnard School District, which logged an overall decrease in crime. "There's no great crime outbreak in our schools."

No Ventura County school district showed a marked increase in crime, and the districts in Ventura and Oxnard reported small reductions.

Conejo Valley district officials planned by the end of the week to review their tabulations and send an amended crime report to the state Department of Education. They stood by their tabulations for other crimes, ranging from possession of weapons to burglary, which posted modest increases.

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