48 Investigates: State has questions for HCS, MCS over school incident numbers

Published: Feb. 25, 2016 at 9:44 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 29, 2016 at 10:34 PM CST
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HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - We're digging into why less than 1-percent of school incident reports at Huntsville City Schools last year were referred to law enforcement. Another North Alabama school system has a much higher number. So why the wide margin and is everyone playing by the same rules?

Viewers across North Alabama clicked on a video and the corresponding story just a few weeks ago of a fight at Grissom High School. Cell phone video captured the fight in the middle of the hallway.

School leaders said the brawl resulted in the suspension of several students. The system is required by law to report incidents like this to the state every year.

The state list contains thousands of incidents, charts every Alabama public school and is readily available online.

"It helps us to inform what type of professional development that we need to provide to school systems as it applies to school safety and school discipline," said Dr. Marilyn Lewis with the Alabama Department of Education.

Dr. Lewis analyzes the list and looks for patterns and discrepancies.

"There's the opportunity for misreporting in both fashions - under and over," said Dr. Lewis.

And that's the reason we went to Montgomery to talk to her. During our interview we asked her to analyze something on the list that caught our attention when we first reported on the Grissom fight.

Of the 2,384 school incident reports Huntsville City Schools documented for the state during the 2014-2015 less than 1-percent, a total of 23, are marked as being referred to law enforcement. According to the list, things like arson, bomb threats, and assaults were never referred to law enforcement.

In fact, the 23 incidents that were referred to law enforcement all occurred at Butler and Johnson High Schools. No other Huntsville City School incident report at any other campus was referred to the police.

We compared that to Madison County Schools. According to the state report, more than 16-percent of their 1,667 incidents went to law enforcement.

"Absolutely these numbers would concern me. What it more so concerns is that it sparks a conversation that I need to have with both locations," said Dr. Lewis.

We also showed Dr. Lewis a clip of the Grissom fight. Huntsville City Schools had already told us the incident will be coded as a fight and was not referred to law enforcement per state law.

"If the school codes that as a fight, then potentially anything can result in law enforcement being involved. So it would be left to the school to determine if law enforcement would be involved," said Dr. Lewis.

We went to Huntsville City Schools demanding an answer to why there numbers are so different from the county school system. I asked them point blank if they're under reporting.

"The Department of Education has variance on that particular column. Because it defines it as arrestable offenses there are things that may have been turned in and law enforcement is aware of and they know about those things but it may not be something that rises to what the law enforcement definition of their ability to arrest a student would be," said Huntsville City Schools Keith Ward.

Dr. Lewis said the list is prepared every summer so anything that happens this year, and is already coded, is still subject to change.

"Potentially in June, it could have been reported to law enforcement. Then this interview or conversation becomes very different," said Dr. Lewis.

And our questions to the Alabama Department of Education and Huntsville City Schools would become different because if the system lists the fight as being referred to law enforcement, then it would be the first incident at Grissom High School in two years to ever reach that standard.

We'd want to know what set this apart from every other fight, assault, and every other of the hundreds of incident they've had on campus.

We tried to talk to Madison County Schools leaders multiple times. A school spokesperson told us over the phone they're following the state law and their numbers reflect that.

To see all the incident at every Alabama public school, click here.

UPDATE: Days after this story originally aired, Huntsville City Schools spokesperson Keith Ward said that just because the state report said law enforcement weren't involved doesn't necessarily mean that. He said HCS meets on a monthly basis with law enforcement to share all data involving student incidents.

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