School violence illustration

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As school security is pushed into the spotlight following the deadly shooting last week at a Florida high school, new data from the New Jersey Department of Education show some South Jersey schools are leading the state in violent incidents. But school districts say the data don’t tell the whole story.

“Now that I’m well into my second year in Somers Point, I can tell you that reports like this can be misleading because the numbers, which in this case are from the ‘16-17 school year, don’t always reflect what’s truly going on in our schools,” said Interim Superintendent Thomas Baruffi.

The state requires New Jersey schools to report all incidents of bullying, violence, vandalism and substance abuse that happen on school grounds, as well as any bullying reported that occurred outside of school. That data is entered into a system called Electronic Violence and Vandalism Reporting System, or EVVRS, and each year it is compiled into an annual report. After that, it’s up to districts to take that information and apply it internally.

Baruffi said Somers Point Schools have used the data to create programs to address behavior.

As part of its school performance reports, the Department of Education on Feb. 16 released 2016-17 violence and vandalism data on a school, district and state level. The Jordan Road School in Somers Point had seven weapons reported in the 2016-17 school year — the sixth highest in the state — but Baruffi said that was in one incident, which was addressed.

“Overall, the district has made great strides toward addressing behavior issues,” Baruffi said, including the development of a one-to-one mentoring program and the implementation of a program called Time To Teach. “The results have been outstanding.”

He said detention numbers are down significantly this year at the Jordan Road School and there has not been a single weapons incident.

Absegami High School in Galloway Township, part of the Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District, was rated third in the state for weapons being brought in at 10 in the 2016-17 school year. Two of those incidents sent the school into lockdown.

Greater Egg Harbor Regional Superintendent John Keenan said the weapons incidents reported in the 2016-17 school year included one gun, scissors, a fishing knife and a few pocket knives. Keenan said more goes into a school than what statistics show. He said Absegami has a positive school cultures and the students are civically engaged.

“Our students feel safe. Last year, when we did discover a gun at school, our attendance rate was the same the day after the incident as it was the day before the incident. That speaks volumes,” Keenan said.

He said some of the incidents seemed like legitimate accidents, but the district still reported it. Keenan said other schools may not be as meticulous, which can skew the data.

“This makes our school seem less safe or having more weapons than others,” he said.

The Commercial Township School District had 11 total unique incidents at each its two schools last year, and seven incidents of violence at each school. Superintendent Dan Dooley said the district uses the data to strengthen social and emotional character development programs and increase support for guidance.

“That’s how we build our program,” Dooley said. “For instance, if we have violence at the Port Norris School, there’s only 165 kids, if we have seven incidents of violence, that’s pretty significant.”

He said the district is focusing this year on teaching conflict resolution skills to students in response to the data.

“I do find that it is useful, because not only does it force you to look at your specific areas of focus, but also to compare yourself to other schools,” Dooley said.

While schools continue to tackle violence from the inside, other organizations are doing their part.

Last month, the Stockton University Southern Regional Institute and Educational Technology Training Center hosted a workshop on trauma and its connection to classroom behavior, open to not only educators but also the community.

Patricia Weeks, coordinator of the Atlantic County Traumatic Loss Coalition for Youth and director of the Stockton University Southern Regional Institute, said the program had been planned well in advance of the recent Florida school shooting as professional development for educators.

“We can’t just rely on schools to come up with the ideas themselves,” Weeks said.

Perry Mays is the founder of the Coalition for a Safe Community in Atlantic County. The program was created as a way to get guns out of the hands of kids, but has evolved into a youth-outreach program.

Mays takes his program into communities to help youths find alternatives to violent activities. The coalition hosts a summer photography program for inner-city youth, as well as a farming program for children in Egg Harbor City, among its many initiatives.

“Our intention is to talk to kids at a very young age about safety and prevention,” Mays said. “These programs are designed to encourage kids to see there are other activities in our communities other than guns.”

Contact: 609-272-7251 Twitter @clairelowe

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.