Charlotte Observer: Crime And Dropout Rates Decline At CMS
Crime and violence dropped in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools last year, reversing a long upward trend, while the dropout rate fell to a six-year low, a new state report shows. But the report on safety, discipline and dropouts also highlights causes for concern: CMS high school students are still more likely than counterparts statewide to commit criminal and violent acts and to quit school. And they're more than twice as likely as students in Wake and Guilford counties, the only comparably large North Carolina districts, to be suspended from school. The state reports data on all three issues because they're indicators of how likely students are to earn diplomas. "Problems in schools can negatively impact a number of measurable outcomes, including crime, suspension, and dropout rates," the state report says. "In the same way, improvements in school operations can lower crime and suspension rates and make it more likely that children will remain in school." Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh said CMS has been steadily working to improve safety and keep teens in school. The state requires all public schools to report 16 criminal and violent acts, ranging from possession of drugs, alcohol and weapons to assaults, robberies and sexual attacks. For the past six years, CMS logged steady and significant increases, with the total hitting 1,538 in 2009-10. Last year, that total dropped to 1,483, with decreases in most categories. Violent acts dropped by more than half, from 107 to 52. The CMS dropout rate now stands at 3.57 percent, down from a high of 6.39 percent in 2006-07 and the lowest on record since 2004-05. Hattabaugh attributes the steady reduction to a districtwide push, with special emphasis on monitoring ninth-graders to make sure they don't fall behind and give up. "Dropout rates are dropping down, (but) not as fast as we would like," he said. Most violence down Most numbers in the crime/violence report brought a welcome reversal of troubling trends. For instance, CMS reported 17 assaults that involved either a weapon or serious injury, down from 47 the previous year. Six guns were reported on school campuses, similar to the last three years but down from a high of 28 in 2006-07. Possession of drugs and possession of weapons other than guns, which represent the largest categories of offenses in CMS and statewide, were down slightly in CMS (the state saw a decrease in drug possession but an increase in weapons). The 2010-11 tally represented a rate of 11.1 acts per 1,000 CMS students, down from 11.7 the previous year but higher than the state average of 8 per 1,000. The state report also tallies the rate of criminal and violent acts by high school students, as an indicator of dropout risk. CMS' rate was 16.9 per 1,000 students, down from 19.1 the previous year. But that rate is well above 12.7 per 1,000 high school students in Wake and Guilford counties and a state average of 14.2 per 1,000. Hattabaugh said it's as hard to explain the decline as it was to pinpoint the cause of increases, because the most serious offenses represent bad choices by individual students. Staff assaults keep rising Assaults on personnel continued a sharp climb in CMS, with 305 reported last year. That's up from 215 the previous year, 104 two years before that and 41 five years earlier. Last year, CMS accounted for more than one-fourth of all assaults on school staff statewide. The category includes everything from a push in the hallway to more serious attacks - though if a weapon is used or an employee is seriously injured, the incident moves into those categories. Victims can include not just teachers but all employees, such as administrators, bus drivers and security staff. Metro School, which serves students with severe disabilities, reported 64 assaults on staff, with another 12 coming from Morgan School, which serves those with emotional and behavioral disabilities. Some of the higher numbers for regular schools were in elementary schools, such as Smithfield with 16 and the now-closed Lincoln Heights with 12. In the case of disabled students and younger children, the "assaults" may represent students lashing out while losing emotional control, rather than teens intentionally attacking adults, Hattabaugh said. High suspension rate CMS continues to log a short-term suspension rate for high school students well above the state average. Last year it logged 44.5 suspensions per 100 students, compared with 29 statewide, 14.5 in Guilford County and 20.2 in Wake. Those numbers don't necessarily mean almost half of all CMS high school students were suspended. Repeat offenders can drive up the tally - for instance, West Charlotte High had almost 118 suspensions per 100 students. Suspensions can be a mixed bag for the academic environment, getting troublemakers out of classrooms but putting the suspended students at risk of falling behind. Hattabaugh said he isn't sure why CMS students are so much more likely to get suspended, but he said schools are just sticking to a "code of conduct" that spells out penalties. Short-term suspensions, which last up to 10 days, can apply not just to the criminal and violent acts tallied elsewhere in the report, but to less serious acts such as fighting and insubordination. CMS has two centers where suspended students can continue to get instruction while out of school. And Hattabaugh noted that while short-term suspensions remain high, CMS had significantly fewer long-term suspensions than Wake County - 137 vs. 577. The report notes that many districts are trying to reduce the number of long-term suspensions, which are relatively rare compared with shorter penalties. In CMS, some students can be assigned to Turning Point Academy or Right Choices instead of taking a long-term suspension. Last year, 69 students faced expulsion from North Carolina public schools, including five from CMS.