In the 2014-2015 school year, Madison Middle School in Miami reported 55 fights to the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE)—nearly one for every three days school was in session. The very next year, that number fell to zero, even though one fight made the news after a student landed in the hospital with a broken jaw.
The drop in reported fights was replicated across the district: Cutler Bay Middle School went from 77 fights to zero; Carol City Senior High, 58 to zero; and Brownsville Middle School, which led the district with 104 reported fights in 2014-2015, didn’t report a single fight to the state in 2015-2016. (You can look at the data here.)
[This is the first installment in a two-part series on Miami-Dade’s overhaul of school discipline. Read Part 2: Zero Suspensions And An Unexplained Leap In Excessive Absences In Miami-Dade Schools]
“Nonsense,” said Miami Gardens foster parent Hortense McGilvery, after hearing that her daughter’s school, North Dade Middle, went from 75 fights to a single one in the same period. “I don’t understand how there could be such a drastic drop in the amount of fights that occur in the school from one year to another, when the kids are getting worse.”
“Monday we had two fights after school, today we had three—I don’t know about the rest of the week,” her daughter added.
WHAT MAKES A FIGHT A FIGHT?
In 2015-16, Miami-Dade County Public Schools reported a total of 311 fights to the state. The year before that, it reported more than 5,000. The difference isn’t a dramatic turnaround in student behavior at the district’s most troubled schools, but a reporting change that keeps the vast majority of fights out of state records.
In an email to WLRN, district spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez Diego wrote that the reason for the big decline is that the district had previously been over-reporting fights in data sent to the School Environmental Safety Incident Reporting (SESIR), a statewide database tracking serious infractions on school grounds.WLRN, district spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez Diego wrote that the reason for the big decline is that the district had previously been over-reporting fights in data sent to the School Environmental Safety Incident Reporting (SESIR), a statewide database tracking serious infractions on school grounds.
“In 2015-2016, we began reporting accurately by only reporting major fights,” she wrote, by creating a new data field to differentiate between “minor” and “major” fights.
The school district declined requests for an interview for this story.
According to the threshold used by the state in SESIR guidelines, a minor fight is one that stops with a verbal command—or when an adult says knock it off. Those are not required to be reported publicly.
“Major fights,” to use Miami-Dade’s term, are fights where an adult has to restrain students physically or where someone is hurt, and must be reported to the state.
“Historically, in my 28 years, a fight is a fight is a fight,” said School Board Member Steve Gallon, who served as a teacher and school principal in Miami-Dade, noting that he doesn’t remember many fights adults could break up just by telling students to stop.
“In my experience, a physical exchange requires physical intervention,” said Gallon.
A 95% DROP IN FIGHTS?
Statewide, the number of reported fights dropped by more than 2,000 last year. Miami-Dade accounted for that entire drop more than twice over, a trend that “doesn’t run consistent with what’s happening across the state,” Gallon said.
If you compare Miami-Dade’s data to other large, urban Florida districts, Gallon said,“I think it’s something that quite frankly, raises more questions than it does provide answers. Does this data reflect the reality of what’s happening in the schools?”
Students say it doesn’t. Estarlin Lopez was in the seventh grade at Georgia Jones Ayers Middle School last year when the school reported zero major fights to the state. “That’s a lie,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s a lie: there’s lots of fights.”
Adults may not be aware of every fight that occurs on school grounds. Youtube is full of videos of students duking it out outside after school. Sometimes, though, cell phone cameras also capture fighting inside full classrooms or hallways, or continue recording until an adult enters the frame.
The district’s explanation—that the drop in fights was due to a change in reporting standards—means schools didn’t necessarily have fewer fights, but that they were recorded differently. But this explanation wouldn’t explain why some schools reported declines of 80 or 90 percent in the number of minor fights recorded on campus.
The district did not respond to emails requesting clarification of discrepancies in school-level data. Lopez’s school, for instance, reported 40 fights to the state in 2014-2015, when school level data showed 149 minor fights and zero major fights. It is not clear where the figure of 40 fights came from.
WHEN DATA GOES DARK
Broward and Palm Beach school districts do not differentiate between the kinds of fights reported to the state. Even though Miami-Dade is a much larger school district, state data shows district schools had one-sixth as many fights as Palm Beach and one-ninth as many as Broward in 2015-2016.
“If the state-level data that’s processed through the districts all of a sudden goes dark,” said Max Eden, who studies education policy at the Manhattan Institute, "not only does the state not know and parents can’t find out, but we shouldn’t feel secure that the district leaders even know what’s going on in these schools.”
“It could be the same, it could be slightly better, it could be slightly worse,” Eden said, noting that declines of 90 percent or more in fights at some Miami-Dade schools seemed “extremely unlikely.”
Michaelle Valbrun-Pope, executive director of student support initiatives for the Broward County School District, said school administrators face pressure to come up on the right side of trends in school discipline. “When the data comes out, whether it’s academic or discipline data, everybody’s on edge about how their school will look, or whether they’re following through on their approach to school climate and discipline issues,” she said.
The challenge for districts, Pope said, is to cultivate a culture of transparency that makes it easier to monitor reporting across individual schools and respond in kind. “If we don’t know the numbers, then we don’t know what services or what resources are needed or how to support the school,” she said.
Florida law requires principals to make sure discipline data reported to the state is accurate, but leaves enforcement to individual districts. FLDOE reviews districts’ SESIR data each year and flags numbers that seem inconsistent with year-to-year trends.
A review of Miami-Dade’s 2015-2016 data noted that Miami-Dade reported an average of 9.35 incidents per 1,000 students across all categories of SESIR data, which includes bullying, drug use and weapons violations, in addition to fights. “The state average for incidents per 1,000 is 26, recognizing that higher numbers often indicate better reporting,” the review notes. In an email, an FLDOE spokeswoman wrote that school districts have never faced sanctions for violating state law on school discipline reporting.
Every other year, school discipline data is reported through the states to the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which can carry out enforcement actions for racial or other disparities in concert with the Department of Justice.
State education agencies may not have the resources to conduct thorough oversight, researcher Max Eden said, but they are a valuable source of independent data to inform stakeholders about school climate and school safety. “The story in Miami-Dade," he said, referring to the drop in reported fights, "is that we went from knowing to having no idea whatsoever.”
Here are the district-operated schools with the highest rates of serious discipline issues in 2014-2015. That was the last year Miami-Dade County Public Schools were allowed to give students out-of-school suspensions, and all 48 suspended ten percent or more of their student body. The very next year, "major fights" reported by these schools—fights where someone was hurt or where adults had to break it up physically—dropped by more than 95%, according to SESIR data.