When a lunchroom monitor at Centre Avenue Elementary School in East Rockaway sees a group of fourth-grade girls hanging out in a clique that other girls aren't invited to join, the girls are spoken to and the incident is written up, according to school rules.
At the end of each school year, Principal Timothy Silk tallies such incidents on a form under the heading "intimidation, harassment, menacing or bullying," and reports them to the state Education Department -- something he is required to do by law.
Silk said he thought little of reporting such minor social blowups -- in the 2010-11 school year there were 128 -- until he learned that many other schools weren't reporting any incidents at all.
Officials from across Long Island said that without legal training, it's very hard for them to determine when a student is, for example, guilty of "menacing," and when they are guilty of "criminal mischief."
While a glossary of terms and some "frequently asked questions" are answered on the state education department's website, the officials say it is not enough to get teachers and school administrators to report incidents consistently or accurately.
"When you look at the form, you have no idea what you're supposed to put in there," Silk said. "They need clearer definitions, and they need to make a tool that will work for both 5-year-olds and 17-year-olds."
Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice has written a letter to state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. asking him to address how violent and disruptive incident data is recorded across the state, saying that until school officials get serious about reporting incidents accurately and uniformly, they are missing a real opportunity to address the problem and make change.
"The wild discrepancies in the violent incidents and bullying that schools report undermine the usefulness of the data, hinders policymakers' ability to address problems and deprives parents of the opportunity to know the truth about the level of violence and bullying in the schools their children attend," she wrote.
The data is used to determine which schools are designated as "persistently dangerous" under the No Child Left Behind law, which allows parents to transfer their children to other schools. It is also used to determine which schools get funding, and how much, for diversity, anti-bullying and anti-cyberbullying training for its students and teachers.
Roberta Gerold, superintendent of the Middle Country school district, said the last training she recalls was four or five years ago. She said she tried to make sure data from the 14 schools in her district is consistent, but she has no idea whether they use the same standards as other districts.
"There is not a consistent understanding of the legalese within that report [what the schools send to the state]," Gerold said. "We don't really know the difference between criminal mischief and menacing, so you interpret it from the information you have and hope that you are right."
Rice cited several examples of questionable data, including:
Two Locust Valley elementary schools reported 22 sexual offenses -- more than all Nassau high schools combined.
An incident in an unnamed elementary school in which a third-grader sprayed hand sanitizer on a classmate's arm, which was found to be "assault with a weapon," and the hand sanitizer was found to be a "dangerous chemical."
A fifth-grader at another school who "pantsed" his classmates was reported to have committed several sexual offenses.
Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for King, said his office will respond to the letter soon.
"We share the district attorney's concerns regarding the accuracy of the data and [what is] reported to us, and that we, in turn, report to the public, and we will continue working to improve these systems."
Rice is not the first to lodge a complaint about the way violent incident statistics are recorded by schools. In 2006 and 2007, the state and New York City comptrollers each issued reports saying school officials were significantly underreporting cases of violent and disruptive behavior. Though some subsequent improvements were made in monitoring the data, much more is needed, Rice said.
Rice asked King for better training for teachers and administrators, clearer reporting categories, and a better way to report gang activity. She also asked that data be entered by school officials throughout the year, rather than at the end of each year, and that school officials who intentionally misreport data be sanctioned.
"The issue isn't doing the reporting, it's doing it in a meaningful way," Rice said. "The goal here is to promote a safe and healthy learning environment for kids."