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A closer look at school crime

By Samantha Reichle & Russell Nash
Posted Monday, June 26, 2006

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A WALK IN THE WOODS

Chatham County, NC - We recently examined criminal incident reports from four local schools: Chapel Hill High, East Chapel Hill High, PACE Academy and Woods Charter School.

We found that incidents, in general, rose significantly from 2001 through 2004 and steadily dropped after that point.

However, our main aim in this procedure was to examine the difficulty in obtaining certain public documents.

In general, we found that gathering this information was relatively quick and easy, despite its potentially sensitive nature for those institutions concerned.

The Chapel Hill schools and PACE are under the Chapel Hill Police Department’s jurisdiction, and Woods is under the Chatham County Sheriff’s Department’s.

After calling Chapel Hill High School’s resource Officer Wagner, who curtly instructed us to contact the Chapel Hill Police Department, we left a message on CHPD Spokeswoman Jane Cousins’ voicemail requesting statistics and received a call back within three days.

While our initial request only concerned Chapel Hill High, Cousins also supplied us with the school crime statistics for East Chapel Hill High and PACE Academy.

Though Cousins remained our only contact at the CHPD, her willingness in gathering our requested information and answering questions lent a surprising facility to our search. For example, when asked if we could obtain a list of incidents per school per year, Cousins offered to tally the incidents herself if we were willing to wait for the information until the next day.

Such compliance and amiability helped to alleviate our apprehension in seeking official records.

The incidents were divided according to type of crime. As police reports, they dealt only with violations of law, and did not include breaches of school rules.

In analyzing criminal incident reports in schools, one can appraise the value of the school in general while also ascertaining the effectiveness of police presence or lack thereof – in school institutions.

We requested the statistics from Woods Charter through the Chatham County Sheriff’s department, since unlike the other three schools, it is in Chatham County.

The first set of data contained incident reports from Jan. 1, 2001 through Feb. 15, 2006. While PACE Academy had 11, East Chapel Hill High had 246 and Chapel Hill High had 313. This works out to an average of 2.2, 49.2, and 62.6 per year respectively.

The most frequent crime was larceny, with 91 counts at East, 94 counts at CHHS, and three at PACE. Drug violations, vandalism and trespassing were also frequently reported.

On Feb. 22, we met with Cousins at her office to go over the data she had emailed us. She was helpful and polite, and there was no copy fee or other charge for the data. The meeting was brief, and she quickly complied with our request to have the data reorganized by school and year.

Woods Charter School reported only one incident during the same time period. That’s approximately four per thousand students.

Compared to as recently as ten years ago, retrieving this type of information is significantly easier if not possible where it previously wasn’t, in part because North Carolina law now mandates that law enforcement maintain public records on computers with similar software.

Similar school data can also be found through such venues as the Department of Public Instruction at ncpublicschools.org and other websites, though for more detailed records, one may still have to contact the police department directly.

The general correlation between increased criminal incidents and police presence at schools could imply several causes. It is possible that the removal of resource officers from those schools that already exhibit high levels of crime could merely result in more criminal reports. This trend may also be seen as a result of incidents being reported by officers that may have been overlooked or ignored by school administration.

The availability of such public records offers citizens a means by which to evaluate how well their tax dollars are being used. This knowledge not only allows people to gain a clearer perspective on various aspects of their community, but it also helps them to take a more informed stand in its functioning.

Taxpayers provide the primary resource on which this nation functions. Government is taxpayer owned, and the restrictions that closed records place on those who wish to examine the usefulness of their tax dollars is akin to theft. Fortunately for us, new open records policies are making this increasingly less of an issue.

Andy Munn and Jon Lorbacher also helped with this article.

Samantha Reichle and Russell Nash are journalism students at Woods Charter School in North Chatham County, NC.

 
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