Crime on school grounds dropped 3.2 percent statewide, according to the latest annual report from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
Locally, the rate within the three Surry County school systems, as a whole, remained the same, though Mount Airy reported the fifth lowest crime rate in the state.
The Department of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education presented its 2015-16 report to the General Assembly earlier this month.
Total criminal acts reported dropped by 327 after an increase in 2014-15 (up 215 at that time). With a rate of 6.62 acts per 1,000 students, the state had its lowest frequency in the past five years covered in the report.
State Board Chairman Bill Cobey said he was glad to learn that school crime and violence acts and the disciplinary consequences for such acts decreased last year.
“Schools must be safe havens if we want our teachers to be effective and our students to excel academically,” Cobey said. He added that it is imperative for educators to have strong support from parents and the school community to have the most positive impact on this key measure of school success.
As might be expected, the crime rate is much higher at the high school level than at middle school and elementary grades. The rate of acts per 1,000 students is 12.75 for high schoolers (down from 13.19 the year before).
The top four crimes reported all stayed in the same order in the ranking.
First on the list was possession of a controlled substance at 4,639 occurrences, down 33 acts from the prior year. This can include prescription drugs in someone else’s name or cough syrup that they’re not supposed to have, local school officials noted.
Second was possession of a weapon (not including firearms or explosives) with 2,746, down about 10 percent (306) from the year before.
Third was assault on a teacher or other school personnel at 1,329, up 57 acts. Fourth was possession of alcohol at 934, down 16.
Those four crimes make up 9,648 of the 10,020 reported acts for the year (96.3 percent).
Next in the top 10 were possession of a firearm or explosive (including fireworks) at 118, up from 86 the year before. Sexual assault (not including rape) was 82; bomb threats, 69; assault with a weapon, 39; assault inflicting serious injury, 29; and sexual offense, 16.
Also reported were nine cases of robbery with a weapon, eight cases of setting fire to a school building, one case of rape and one case of “death by other than natural causes.”
The state report shows that the assault on school personnel numbers are inflated by the inclusion of actions of preschoolers. Of the 1,329 attacks, 560 were committed by pre-K children (including biting and kicking), compared to 290 by high schoolers.
Similarly, 627 acts of bringing a weapon to school came from pre-K compared to 1,068 by high school kids.
Preschoolers can see something interesting that their parents own and bring it to school to show their friends, noted Jeff Tunstall, assistant superintendent of Surry County Schools. Sometimes this is a prohibited item that they don’t think anything about like a firecracker.
Also, in rural areas like the Foothills, there is a cultural element to consider, Tunstall said. Country boys are raised with pocket knives for use on the farm or going fishing. It’s a tool to them, not a weapon, but they are still a banned item because they could be dangerous in the wrong situation.
In Surry County, the number of reportable crimes was identical with 39 in each of the past two years for Mount Airy, Surry County and Elkin school systems.
Yadkin had an unusually high rate in 2014-15, but came down drastically in the new report, while Wilkes saw its number jump up.
With smaller school systems, just a handful of actions can make the percentage swing wildly up or down, Tunstall pointed out. Elkin didn’t have a single reported crime in 2014-15, and just five acts the next year, but that made the rate jump from 0.0 to 12.92, slightly above the state average of 12.75.
On the other hand, Mount Airy had the fifth-lowest rate in the state with just one reportable crime (four districts had none). The Granite Bears had three in 2014-15, so the rate per 1,000 dropped from 5.74 to 1.89.
Surry County Schools (made up of North Surry, East Surry, Surry Central and the Early College) had 33 acts, down three from the year before. That made the rate slide from 13.60 to 12.70.
Yadkin had 43 crimes in 2014-15 and 16 the next year, so the rate plunged from 24.87 to 9.21.
Wilkes went the other direction, increasing from 36 acts to 55, raising the rate from 12.06 to 18.39.
Stokes had just one more act (22, up from 21), but with slightly fewer students enrolled, too, that made the rate change almost a whole point from 9.83 to 10.78.
Carrie Venable, Mount Airy City School’s public information officer, said the new report “confirmed MACS is among the safest schools in the state. … MACS creates a safe learning environment where students think critically, innovatively solve problems, and become responsible citizens and confident leaders with a passion for learning.”
As for how small districts like Mount Airy and Elkin can have such low crime rates, Venable stated, “Small schools enable teachers, staff and administrators to create healthy relationships with students and families that positively impact the quality and safety of schools.”
“MACS works hard to build relationships early in a student’s educational career through Leader in Me, building leadership capacity, as well as effective discipline and self-control strategies,” said Dr. Kim Morrison, city schools superintendent. “We have caring teachers who go above and beyond in building relationships with students and families. This is reflected in our data.”
School systems gave credit to local law enforcement for having an impact on crime and discipline issues.
Sonia Dickerson, SCS director of communications, gave thanks to Sheriff Graham Atkinson. “We appreciate all the support that we receive from Sheriff Atkinson and the sheriff’s office.”
“The staff at Mount Airy High School, including our school resource officer, has developed a culture of mutual trust and respect with our students,” said Dr. Sandy George, principal. “We are able to have meaningful conversations when students are conflicted. The relationships we have with our students has lead to a decrease in discipline.”
Venable said, “MACS is grateful for the strong partnership that exists between the Mount Airy Police Department and the district. Chief Dale Watson goes the extra mile in ensuring that students are supported and that MACS is doing all it can to ensure safety for everyone.”
Watson was among the community leaders who met several times over the fall to create a new four-year strategic plan for the city.
Reach Jeff at 415-4692.