One week into the school year at McKinley High School, a student threatened a teacher, grabbing her so hard that he left bruises on her arm.
More examples of violence involving Buffalo Public Schools have come to light following the stabbing and shooting at McKinley High School on Feb. 9.
Another student bit a McKinley teacher in January when he tried to break up a fight among students, according to Buffalo police reports. Students kicked another teacher after she fell to the ground during the melee.
Two weeks later, a security guard was shot and a student was stabbed just outside the school in an incident that made national headlines.
Security guards and administrators will be strategically placed, and Peacemakers will be stationed at the front corners of the building, helping students with safe passage, said McKinley Principal Moustafa Khalil.
But the public would never know any of that happened by reviewing records of violent incidents that schools are required to keep. None of that was documented in McKinley’s reports in the days after they occurred.
Reporting discrepancies such as those at McKinley call into question the effectiveness of a state law that requires schools to record and tally dangerous incidents.
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Such omissions are not merely paperwork glitches. The state uses those incident reports to determine which schools are persistently dangerous. Students at those schools are supposed to be given the option to transfer to a safer school.
Throughout the three years before the Covid-19 pandemic began, a total of only nine of the 4,800 public schools across the state were designated as persistently dangerous.
One of those was The Academy School, Buffalo’s alternative high school, which primarily serves students with discipline problems.
The State Education Department used to post each year’s list of persistently dangerous schools on its website, with the lists from past years available for public review.
Now, the state agency puts only the most recent year’s list on its website. Currently, that’s 2020-21, a pandemic year when many students learned remotely. The state did not designate any schools as persistently dangerous that year.
‘It’s very problematic’
Buffalo Public Schools Superintendent Tonja Williams announced plans to partner with a security company after the district came under fire for what some see as inadequate safety measures at some district schools.
Interim Buffalo Public Schools Superintendent Tonja Williams acknowledged last week that the district had failed to document some violent incidents that it was required to, including the student who bit a McKinley teacher and the stabbing and shooting at McKinley.
“It’s very problematic,” she said. “It certainly says that there is more training that needs to happen.”
But Williams also defended the district, pointing out that some incidents that resulted in police being called to schools to intervene were not violent enough for the district to be required to report them to the state in a Violent and Disruptive Incident Report.
This year, schools are required to report assaults and other incidents only if they meet the criteria for a felony.
The case involving the student who left bruises on a McKinley teacher’s arm, she said, did not rise to the level of a felony, so it did not have to be reported.
Compliance with law questioned
Parents were left to stand outside well after nightfall waiting for their children who were being released one by one.
Buffalo isn’t the only school district in New York State that has had questions raised about the accuracy of its violent incident reporting.
Two decades ago, New York enacted the Safe Schools Against Violence in Education Act, requiring schools to document violent incidents and report tallies to the state.
Based on that information, the state determines each year which schools are persistently dangerous.
Any school receiving that designation must, within 10 days, offer students the opportunity to transfer to a safer school. It also must submit to the state a plan for improving safety.
Because the process depends on schools to self-report violent incidents, some schools have complained that they were labeled persistently dangerous merely because they were diligent in reporting incidents accurately.
Other schools have escaped being labeled persistently dangerous because they failed to report all of their assaults, weapons incidents and other problems.
As many as 14 schools avoided the designation in 2005 because they failed to fully disclose violent incidents, auditors from the State Comptroller’s Office found. Those schools avoided having to develop a plan to improve safety in the building, auditors noted.
“In addition, the parents in those districts may believe that the schools are safer than they actually are,” auditors wrote.
A year later, the state education commissioner questioned why only 17 schools were deemed persistently dangerous in 2006.
“We are going to make sure we’re looking at real results, and not bogus results,” then-Commissioner Richard Mills said at the time.
Buffalo’s Burgard High did not comply
A Burgard High School student was arrested Thursday for bringing a BB gun to school. The arrest came a day after the State Comptroller’s Office released an audit stating that Burgard could have been labeled a “persistently dangerous” school if it hadn’t improperly reported its incidents of school violence in 2011-12. “During daily rounds, a student was discovered to
One Buffalo high school should have been designated as persistently dangerous, but was not, according to an audit by the State Comptroller’s Office seven years ago.
Burgard High School used the wrong methods to record and report violent incidents in 2011-12, auditors found. It also classified some incidents as less severe as they were. For example, a robbery was incorrectly classified as harassment.
Auditors recalculated Burgard’s school violence index, the number that the State Education Department uses in determining which schools are persistently dangerous. They found that Burgard’s index was 2.91 – nearly double the score at which a school is designated as persistently dangerous.
Buffalo Public Schools officials at the time acknowledged the problems and told state officials that they would provide training to central office administrators, as well as school administrators, to ensure they knew how to correctly record and report violent incidents.
Williams said in a recent interview that she remembers the training that was prompted by the problems at Burgard.
“We’ve had a lot of training since then,” she said.
After The Academy School’s designation as persistently dangerous in 2019, based on incidents the previous two years, 24 students there requested a transfer to another school, according to Buffalo Public Schools officials. But only six of them got one.
Eighteen of the 24 students who requested a transfer were receiving special education services, which made it more complicated to transfer them to other schools, according to Williams.
Some special education students have to be placed in smaller classrooms, with only six or eight students to one teacher.
After families at The Academy School learned they had the right to transfer their students, school staff met with each of them and talked about the supports the school offers, including smaller classes, she said.
“Some kids work better at The Academy School and may not have wanted to leave. They like it,” Williams said. “It looks like in this case, only six decided that yes, at the end of the day, we want to leave The Academy School.”
“We don’t know why the other 18 didn’t, but perhaps they didn’t have seats in other schools that met their needs.”
An email between district officials in July 2019 indicates that they accommodated only six of the transfer requests.
“So far only 6 have gotten placed,” the email states. “Some of the non-placed ones are special ed which have to be placed by the Special Ed office.”
When a school is designated as persistently dangerous, the State Education Department also requires school officials to create a plan to ensure that safety improves.
The Academy School never did that, Williams said.
The Academy School successfully appealed to be taken off the persistently dangerous list for 2019-20, according to a letter from state officials to the Buffalo Public Schools, which the district provided to The News. But that did not affect the school’s designation in 2018-19. The Academy School is still listed as one of two schools in the state deemed persistently dangerous in 2018-19, according to information provided by the State Education Department.
“The principal basically said that she believed they did the appeal, the state came in and did a review of the school, and then they were removed from the list,” Williams said. “So they did not file a plan.”
Williams defends McKinley High
Seven weeks after the Feb. 9 shooting and stabbing at McKinley, The Buffalo News requested copies of all incident reports from all the high schools in Buffalo. At that time, McKinley officials still had not entered a violent incident report for the shooting and stabbing.
Police have not released a name or a description of the suspect.
Williams said last week that is because schools can’t file a violent incident report until they know for sure the identity of the student or students involved.
But it took Buffalo police only five days to arrest two suspects, not seven weeks.
“I don’t know how long that took, but I’m just saying that whenever we got the release from the police, that’s when we were able to put it in,” Williams said. “We did not have it in when it’s required, but it is now, suffice it to say.”
Buffalo Police said late Thursday that they had a 17-year-old male in custody in connection with an incident that occurred a day prior at McKinley High School in which a 14-year-old boy was stabbed and a security guard was shot.
In the three days after she made that statement, she did not respond to requests for a copy of that report.
Nearly five months after the incident in which a student bit a teacher, and another was kicked while on the ground, McKinley officials still had not entered a report for it.
“A new principal was named at McKinley High School in March, and this happened in January,” Williams said. “We’re not blaming anyone, you know, but it certainly says that there is more training that needs to happen.”
Since February, the district has provided enhanced training to the staff at McKinley, according to Ebony Bullock, chief accountability officer for the Buffalo Public Schools.
“We will make sure they are putting things in appropriately,” Bullock said. “So this won’t happen again.”
Williams noted that she has been interim superintendent only since March, prior to the McKinley incidents that were not properly reported. Under her leadership, she said, school safety and security is a priority.
“We don’t want data that’s not accurate,” she said. “When we find out that something hasn’t been done, we’re going to work quickly to correct it.”