Pennsylvania's Department of Education has failed to properly monitor school safety statewide, and its lax approach hurts students, parents and teachers, the state auditor general said yesterday.
The department puts out stale safety reports that deny parents critical information, Auditor General Jack Wagner said in his report.
An audit of school-safety policies showed that state officials fail to check the accuracy of school-violence statistics, make sure districts have proper emergency-planning measures, or oversee fixes to school-safety problems, he said.
The department has not established a cabinet level office of safe schools, as required by law, and it fails to heed the recommendations of Philadelphia's safe-schools advocate or to direct his work properly, Wagner said.
"I cannot stand here today and assure the public that we are doing everything humanly possible" to ensure students' safety, Wagner said at a news conference. "The Department of Education needs to be more proactive, provide more leadership than they have, and they need to do it today."
Education Department officials disagreed with nearly all of Wagner's six findings and his 25 recommendations, saying that he overlooked improvements, that they chose to funnel resources to classrooms rather than to bureaucracy, and that their oversight was adequate.
"We would rather spend $2 million in efforts to directly improve school safety in hallways and classrooms," said Michael Race, department spokesman.
Wagner, a Democrat reelected in November to a four-year term, took aim at the often-contentious relationship between the department and Philadelphia's safe-schools advocate, an independent watchdog. Jack Stollsteimer, a former federal prosecutor, was named by Gov. Rendell in 2006.
"We need to listen to what that person is saying. That person is being paid for by the taxpayers of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and can provide very important data to help us correct problems within the School District of Philadelphia," Wagner said.
Despite his praise for Stollsteimer, Wagner also said the overseer needed tighter state oversight. He pointed out that Stollsteimer and his predecessor, Harvey Rice, failed to meet state mandates to deliver reports or produced them late.
Stollsteimer stirred controversy earlier this year when he issued a report warning that school safety was a grave and worsening problem and that the Philadelphia School District often failed to punish and rehabilitate violent students.
The state refused to release his document, calling it misleading and inaccurate. It released its own report, which reached virtually the same conclusions Stollsteimer did but which was sharply critical of his work.
Some of Stollsteimer's conclusions have since been embraced by district superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who has directed schools to enforce discipline codes.
Wagner also suggested moving Stollsteimer's office to another government agency.
Stollsteimer declined to comment on the report.
Wagner said that the department violated state law by not independently checking violence statistics sent by districts and reporting data more than a year later - too late to help parents.
The state is required by law to release an annual school-safety report, identifying the state's most dangerous schools and the number of violent incidents in each district.
"We have found these reports are consistently late, and by the time they become public, they have very little value," Wagner said.
The audit also found that the department failed to verify whether persistently dangerous schools - all in Philadelphia - had taken corrective action.
It also said the state failed to distribute school-safety grants properly and allowed grantees to spend money improperly.
The audit covered school years 2001 through '06.
Joseph Torsella, chair of the state Board of Education, said the board would use Wagner's report in its study of school safety.
Safety "ought to be a basic guarantee to students, parents, teachers and professionals," he said.