Parents Could Benefit From Seeing School Crime Data, But Could Districts Suffer?

Feb 19, 2016

Parents consider a number of factors when they choose a high school for their kids. Safety is often one of those considerations.

But right now, parents can’t access data about crime that happens in Wisconsin’s schools.

Sergeant Marla Martin is a parent. She's also a West Allis police officer who sees most everything that goes on at Nathan Hale High School -- good and bad. 

This is her fifth year stationed in the high school. Most of her time is spent monitoring the halls and checking in with administrators. And she says occasionally, there’s a verbal argument or drug case.

"Sure, we have altercations, we have issues. I mean, absolutely," Martin says. "You have 1,700 kids crammed into a building Monday through Friday -- of course there’s drama."

But Martin says none of this is unique to Nathan Hale High School or any other district. She says plenty of other schools in Milwaukee and the surrounding communities face the same problems, and she admits, sometimes disciplinary issues can get out of hand.

While we might hear about these incidents on the local nightly news, nobody knows exactly how common the problems actually are.

Most of the crime that happens on school grounds goes unreported. The only discipline-related numbers schools are required to submit to the state are suspensions and expulsions.

And several lawmakers say that’s not enough.

Rep. John Jagler (R-Watertown) says parents deserve a clear picture of the schools they choose for their kids.

"When I enrolled my daughter at [UW] Whitewater, we got a report that came with the information packet about all of the crimes that are committed on campus," Jagler recounts. "If its information that I found valuable when picking a college for my daughter, I think this is the kind of information that parents should have on the high school level, too."

The federal government requires public colleges and universities to share information about crime on campus.

Jagler has authored legislation that would extend the crime reporting mandate to Wisconsin public and private voucher high schools.

The data would appear on the state’s school report cards, next to information about test scores and attendance. The only difference: crime numbers would be purely informational. The state couldn’t use them to calculate a school’s evaluation score. 

Still, some people worry that data could be used to indirectly punish schools.

Rep. Mandela Barnes (D-Milwaukee) says he worries about flight from local public schools. He freely admits that his district is home to a number of inner city schools that struggle with crime.

He says it’s not fair to mark those schools as ‘troubled’ without first trying to reverse those trends.

"We have not addressed the poverty that exists, we have not addressed the crime that exists. If we haven’t done that, how can we expect our schools to function as desired?" Barnes asks. "We have to do a better job at not just identifying the problem, but solving the problem."

Milwaukee Public Schools declined to comment on crime reporting legislation for this story, but the district’s lobbyists have gone on record as opposing the idea.

Those who support crime reporting say problem-solving is the end goal. If a school sees its numbers are high, it might be forced to have uncomfortable – yet necessary – conversations. Conversations that police liaisons like Sergeant Martin have every single day: 'how do I make my school a safer place?'

Martin embraces the idea of making crime data public. She says it sounds like a welcome check on school transparency.

"Yes, there are altercations in school. Yes, we know that there are drugs in school," Martin says. "There’s nothing to really hide. If you’re real about a situation, I don’t think there’s much that you could be shocked about."