Wildwood takes issue with coverage of school violence report

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WILDWOOD—A report about violence and bullying incidents in New Jersey schools was released Thursday, and based on its data, some online media outlets have determined Wildwood School District has the highest ratio between its enrollment and incidents of violence in the state.

This does not sit well with local school officials.

“It certainly is a skewed way to use those fact and figures,” Superintendent Dennis Anderson said Friday in response to the determination, which is being published in media outlets across the state. “To paint our school in a negative way with a very broad brush, quite frankly I personally resent it.”

While Wildwood was far behind school districts like Newark and Camden in the number of incidents reported to the state, and similar in the total number of incidents to other Cape May County schools, its smaller enrollment pushed it to the top of the list for the ratio of students to acts of violence.

Wildwood has 852 students enrolled, and the district reported 24 incidents of violence last year. That means there is a ratio of .0282 between students and violent incidents. In other words, for every 71 students, there were two incidents of violence reported last school year.

“This does not accurately reflect the positive attitude of our student body or the positive learning environment we have created,” Anderson said.

He added that while the state has stringent reporting procedures, determining if an incident is an act of violence is ultimately subjective. For example, in Wildwood schools, if a member of the faculty observes a student being pushed into a locker, that usually is reported as an act of violence. Other schools, Anderson said, may not use the same standard.

“We take it very seriously, and we do our due diligence,” he said. “We take that seriously because we want to maintain a safe, positive learning environment.”

That strictness, Anderson said, has led to a decline in violence at the school over the years.

Last year, the district had 792 students enrolled and 26 incidents of violence were reported, making the ratio between students and acts of violence .0328, according to last year’s report.

He added that the improvement at the high school in particular was noted earlier this year when the Wildwood High was named a National Blue Ribbon School for its improvement, and was the only school in Cape May County to ever receive the award.

“You cannot have an unsafe environment and then exemplary improvement at the same time,” he said.

The state Department of Education produces the report each year to share self-reported incidents that include violence, vandalism, weapons offenses, substance offenses, and harassment, intimidation and bullying from the state’s districts.

In the most recent report, released Dec. 5, Wildwood had one incident of vandalism in the past year, one weapons incident, seven reported incidents of substance abuse, and seven instances that were reported to be harassment, intimidation, or bullying.

To compare, Ocean City, which has an enrollment of 2,085 students, had 23 incidents of violence, two incidents of vandalism, one weapons incident, four instances regarding substances, and 14 incidents of bullying.

Overall, the state said it saw positive trends throughout New Jersey’s districts this year.

The total number of incidents reported by districts decreased by nearly 5,000 (19 percent) from 26,139 in 2011-12 to 21,170 in 2012-13, according to the Department of Education. Violence and substance were both down 4 percent state-wide, vandalism decreased 9 percent, and weapons incidents declined by 7 percent.

“Safe and secure learning environments are a crucial part of preparing kids for college and career, and we have invested significant time to provide support and coaching to districts to reduce incidents of bullying and other forms of violence," said Education Commissioner Chris Cerf. "We applaud all of our districts for working to create safer schools for our students."

The Public School Safety Law, passed in 1982, requires the Commissioner of Education to file an annual report detailing the extent of violence and vandalism in the state's public schools. Districts are required to report incidents that occur on school grounds during school hours, on a school bus, or at school-sponsored events.

The law was amended by Gov. Chris Christie in 2011 with the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act. That act required districts to all incidents confirmed by the school board that that meet the definition of harassment, intimidation, and bullying.

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