For the past several weeks, 9 On your Side investigative reporter Valerie Cavazos has been looking into changes in the TUSD disciplinary policy.
Those changes, according to many insiders, have resulted in further chaos within many schools involving student safety and further decline in student learning. We've found major disruptions beyond what is considered normal at schools throughout the Tucson Unified School district and at all levels -- elementary, middle and high schools.
Insiders say the district's push to reduce suspensions and expulsions to meet a federal anti-discrimination court order is causing district wide disorder. The information we are about to expose may be shocking, but not to many on the front-lines -- principals, teachers and staff as well as parents and students.
Some tell me it's an escalating problem and they've been too afraid to speak up until now. Video captured on cell phones of middle school girls brawling at Booth-Fickett Magnet School.
3 separate fights in the past month outside on school grounds and in the hallway as staff try to break it up. The fights happened after principal Chuck Bermudez was shown the door following his tell-all interview with KGUN9 last month. He complained that major shifts in the discipline policy these past two school years have led to more aggressive misbehavior.
Bermudez, insiders, and education experts tell KGUN9 student violations at many TUSD schools are being downplayed and under-reported in the name of incident reduction.
He said, "It's very clear. It's very deliberate by the directors who are guiding these principals by cabinet leaders. They want those numbers to look low."
KGUN9 received through the Freedom Of Information Act a stack of reports -- totaling just over 600 pages -- of violations at several schools that insiders and parents tell KGUN9 have serious discipline issues. Schools are required to report every incident -- from tardiness to aggravated assault. The violation and actions taken by school staff are recorded in these Incident Detail Reports, but there are no details on what actually happened. KGUN9 obtained some specifics not included in these reports.
At Cholla High School on April 6th, an insider tells me a senior backed a first year teacher against the wall and then put him in a choke-hold. Because the assault was against a teacher, TUSD's discipline policy identifies the violation as "aggravated assault" -- a level 5 violation, which is the highest level infraction and state law requires a mandatory report to law enforcement.
High level educators, attorneys and teachers told Cavazos that it's aggravated assault. But in the Incident Detail Report, the only recorded incident that day is labeled "Disorderly Conduct" and "Endangerment" -- both level 3 violations.
And we could find no reported call to police involving the choke-hold incident on the teacher.
The consequences doled out to the offender "Out of School Suspension" for 3 days and "Reassigned to a Different Class" for 1 day.
Cavazos asked Bermudez: "What is the responsibility of the principals? If you believe you're violating state law." Bermudez answered, "It puts the principal in a tough position."
At another school, an TUSD insider says a student recently brought a dangerous "weapon" on campus, a level 4 violation, but a district administrator forced the principal to downgrade it to -- level 3 -- a dangerous item.
Cavazos asked, "Is that a state law violation?" Bermudez answered, "It's against the law to reclassify something that's a weapon to a dangerous item. If that weapon by definition meets all the criteria then it should stay. It should not be lessoned because we don't want to suspend the child."
Erickson Elementary -- an eastside school with 465 students and a history of discipline problems, including this school year. Documents KGUN9 obtained show a disturbing incident that educators say was downplayed. In November, a student "was lured into the bathroom and two students punched him in the head and stomach repeatedly." The victim was sent to ER. Bermudez said, "Anytime a student is taken to an emergency room or if a student is injured, you must call the police." But there's no report of police being called.
The should be identified as "aggravated assault" because the fight caused "serious physical injury," but that's not what appears on the report.The incident was first labeled disorderly conduct and then upgraded to assault in the Incident Detail Report. The two students received Out of School Suspension for 4 days.
Here's another incident reported in February. A student was "repeatedly banging another student's head on the ground" in a classroom -- and the victim was hurt - "sent to the health office." I consulted international bullying expert Sheri Bauman.
Cavazos: "What would you consider that?"
Bauman: "That's a level 4. That's an assault."
Bermudez: "It should be an assault. It's just that simple."
It was labeled "Disorderly Conduct" -- a level 3 violation and the student received 2 day detention.
We also have some details of incidents labeled "Minor Aggressive Act" -- a Level 2 violation. "A minor aggressive act is when someone comes up to you and pokes you," he said. But some of these incidents are more severe. One student "pushed a student into a pole" and the student "cut his head" and was "sent to the health office." A 3rd grader, who later had 9 more serious violations, began "chasing students aggressively, pushed the monitor, and choked another student." Bermudez said, "If a child is being choked and a monitor is being pushed, that's an assault.>
Downplaying the incidents could explain why the Incident Detail Report shows the number of assaults at Erickson dropped -- from 33 last year -- to 5 -- this school year.
In fact, there were dramatic shifts in reporting of low level incidents.
There were 218 reports of "Minor Aggressive Acts" in the 2014/15 school year -- and only 10 this school year.
"Disruption" in class -- like talking loudly and throwing objects -- dropped from 125 to 0 -- meaning there were no reported disruptions in class the entire school year.
And "Defiance towards Authorities" dipped from 105 to only 3 -- an incredible 97 percent decrease.
As a result, the dramatic drop in reported incidents reduced the number of pages in the Incident Detail Report from 80 last school year to only 6 pages this school year.
All the education experts I consulted say it's highly unlikely a school can make such a drastic improvement in one year --
"It's fear. You don't want to get your numbers up. You don't want to have those high discipline numbers," said Bermudez.
If you're going to make a significant change in the way something operates, you can't do it on the cheap. You just can't. Because then you get what we have. Sounds like chaos," said Bauman.
And Bermudez is worried fights like these can lead to something much worse. Bermudez said, "When a tragedy happens. That's going to be the wake up call that maybe this approach is the wrong approach."
We reached out to the district about our investigation and we received this response:
"The school board will hear more about the work to update the Code of Conduct in June and the Tucson Unified School District Communications department will keep KGUN and other local media outlets informed to ensure the community can be involved and up to date."