GETPlugged: Willingboro School District 2nd Most Violent Schools in New Jersey

Burlington County has some of the most violent schools in the state, with Willingboro second on the list, according to an annual report from the New Jersey Department of Education.

Released Friday, the report lists the number of incidents of violence, vandalism, weapons and substance abuse reported by each school district.

Burlington County schools reported 1,242 incidents during the 2010-11 school year, a decrease of 2.35 percent over the previous year’s total of 1,272, according to the report.

The number of violent acts increased by 0.35 percent, while vandalism decreased 23.75 percent and substance abuse incidents decreased 7 percent. Incidents involving weapons increased 9.5 percent.

Read full story after the jumpTwenty-four of the 43 public school districts and charter schools in the county reported an increase in the total number of incidents, 13 reported decreases, and five reported no change. No comparison was possible for one charter school district that began operating last year.

Willingboro reported by far the most incidents of violence, with a total of 195. That number was a decrease from 2009-10, when the district reported 203 incidents, but it was still the second highest among the state’s 590 school districts.

Only the Edison School District in Middlesex County reported more incidents of violence, with 206. That district had a population of 14,191 students in 2010-11; Willingboro had 4,201 students.

The category includes actual assaults as well as incidents of harassment, bullying and threats.

Other much larger districts reported fewer incidents of violence than Willingboro. Atlantic City, with a student body of 6,677 students, reported 123 incidents. Newark (33,279 students) reported 173 incidents, and Jersey City (27,658) reported 148. Camden, with 13,799 students, reported only 22 incidents.

Willingboro’s 18 incidents of vandalism led the county, and the district was tied with Burlington Township for the most incidents of weapons, with nine. Lenape Regional reported the most incidents of substance abuse, with 54.

Norm Perry, Willingboro schools’ director of safety and security, said the district planned to review its reporting standards with administrators to make sure it was not over-reporting incidents.

“We try to remain transparent, and we may have a tendency to over-report,” Perry said. “When you look at the numbers from some of the other districts in the county and around the state, some of them are hard to fathom.”

District administrators also hope some new programs and districtwide changes, such as returning fifth-grade students to neighborhood elementary schools rather than maintaining a single upper elementary school building, will help reduce the incidents of violence.

“We hope that some of the programs we have in place will help, but we’ll definitely also look at our standards,” Perry said.

Willingboro was not the only district in the county that reported large numbers of incidents in all four categories. In fact, 13 of the county’s 43 districts exceeded the state average of 30 total incidents during the school year.

They were: Bordentown Regional, Burlington City, Burlington County Special Services, Burlington County Institute of Technology, Burlington Township, Cinnaminson, Florence, Lenape Regional, Northern Burlington Regional, Palmyra, Pemberton Township, Rancocas Valley Regional and Willingboro.

Burlington County schools’ 1,242 incidents were behind Middlesex County’s 1,481, Monmouth County’s 1,396 and Bergen County’s 1,297, but above the incidents reported by its regional neighbors, Camden County (1,051), Mercer County (888), Gloucester County (850) and Ocean County (1,017).

New Jersey Department of Education officials have long acknowledged that comparing district-to-district data is difficult because of different reporting standards. They also said year-to-year changes can reflect an actual increase or decrease in the number of incidents or more accurate reporting from school districts.

“Though we cannot be certain whether the change in numbers reflects real increases or decreases in incidents or simply better reporting, we do know that the statewide anti-bullying law has put a focus on violence and bullying in schools, which is leading to better identification and reporting from schools and districts,” acting state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said in a statement.

“As the law emphasizes, awareness is a necessary first step to taking the type of action that will create safer learning environments for children.”

The bullying law Cerf referred to was signed last year and implemented in September. It requires school districts to hold anti-bullying programs during the school year and aggressively investigate and report all bullying incidents.

Department of Education officials said the data required by the new bullying law will be included in next year’s report.

This year’s report and district data from the last four school years are available at http://www.state.nj.us/education/schools/vandv/index.html.

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