Study: Colorado School Violence Goes Largely Unreported

Published February 1, 2006

The December 2005 release of the annual Colorado School Accountability Reports (SARs) raised concerns among analysts and legislators that school districts may be underreporting school violence and crime.

Required by a measure enacted by the Colorado legislature in 2000, yearly SARs released by the Colorado Department of Education provide parents and the public with school-specific information on student achievement, safety, staff, funding, and other issues.

In 2005, the state’s largest school district, Jefferson County R-1, reported no “assaults/fights”–down from 640 incidents in 2004. The much smaller suburban district Westminster 50, northwest of Denver, reported having nearly 700 assaults/fights.

The current method of SARs reporting under state law leads to the underreporting of fights and assaults by setting an exceptionally high standard for what constitutes a fight, said Bob Schaffer, a Colorado State Education Board member for the 4th Congressional District. Additionally, the overuse of a generic “Other” category masks the nature of many incidents.

“It is clear that parents of children attending government-owned schools in Colorado cannot rely on state reports to determine whether their children are safe,” Schaffer said. “Parents deserve consistency and accuracy when it comes to the state’s methods of compiling this important data. As of now, they get neither.”

Papering Over Problems

Reporting discrepancies stem from several problems. SARs have six categories of discipline infractions: “Substance Abuse Drugs,” “Substance Abuse Alcohol,” “Substance Abuse Tobacco,” “Assaults/Fights,” “Dangerous Weapons,” and “Other Violations of Code of Conduct.” Districts that have more categories must condense the incidents into 12, which then are further reduced by the Department of Education into the six state-mandated categories.

For example, although the Denver County 1 School District has 29 discipline classifications, the district must condense them into 12 categories when it reports to the state. The Colorado Department of Education further condenses these into six categories for SARS.

Because the state defines assaults/fights as first- and second-degree assault, fights that do not meet this standard need not be included under “assaults/fights.” Moreover, districts need not report incidents that have not led to suspension or expulsion, meaning some incidents are not included.

Pamela Benigno, director of the Education Policy Center at the Independence Institute–a 21-year-old nonpartisan public policy research organization based in Golden, Colorado–found evidence in a police report of a student who had been ambushed by eight other students in a school parking lot. Although the student was bloodied by the attack and three students were charged with third-degree assault, the incident was not reported under “assaults/fights.”

Changing Methods

The SARs obscure other serious incidents by lumping them together with less-serious ones. “Other Violations of Code of Conduct” serves as a catch-all for incidents that do not fit under the other five divisions. This category, in effect, could include both minor offenses and serious criminal acts. The SARs do not disclose the type or severity of infractions under this category.

“For the last several months I have been talking to law enforcement officers and school officials,” Benigno said. “They all agree there needs to be a change in how assaults are reported.”

Benigno said “parents would have a much clearer picture of a school’s environment” if third-degree assaults and municipal-assault violations were included in the assaults/fights category.

“These crimes are serious attacks on students and should be reported as an assault/fight,” Benigno said. “First- and second-degree assaults are rare in most schools.”

Legislators are planning to take up the issue in the spring session.

Krista Kafer ([email protected]) is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colorado.

For more information …

Visit the Colorado Department of Education’s Web site at

For past School Reform News coverage of the school violence issue, see “School Violence is Underreported,” April 2005,; “National School Safety Contest Draws Praise, Seeks Entries,” October 2000,; and “Violence in Schools Is Down,” September 2000,