Duval County School District most dangerous in Florida

I-TEAM finds the most incidents of crime, bad behavior in local public schools

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Arsons, attacks, sex crimes, weapons: just a sample of what's happening inside Duval County public schools. The I-TEAM spent three weeks digging through the most current state data and uncovered Jacksonville is home to the most dangerous school district in Florida -- and it's by a wide margin.

In the 2014-2015 school year, Duval County had 11,537 total incidents of crime, violence and disruptive behavior. The next closest on the list is Miami-Dade County with 8,854 total incidents.

The Florida Department of Education (FDOE) tracks what's happening inside each school, in every county across the state. It currently has 26 categories for incidents ranging from disruptive behavior to violent crimes. The I-TEAM went back and looked at four years of incidents -- from the year before Dr. Nikolai Vitti got here to the most current data, which is from the 2014-2015 school year. That's where we found an explosion of incidents. (Find your child's school with the interactive map at the bottom of this article.)

WATCH PART 2: Vitti addresses policies surrounding fighting

In the 2014-2015 school year in Duval County, two categories were especially high: fighting and physical attacks. District-wide, there were 3,603 fights and 6,017 physical attacks. FDOE defines a physical attack as "an actual and intentional striking of another person against his/her will, or the intentional causing of bodily harm to an individual."

"The school has a lot of bullying. How can the kids be prepared for the future? They cannot," said parent Daisy Conway.

The Duval County mother of three is frustrated and disappointed in the Northside public schools her children are zoned to attend. She is so concerned about fights, physical attacks and other violence happening to her kids, she busses her elementary school daughter Jolee, middle school son Mario, and high school daughter Lynda more than an hour one way to other schools in Jacksonville.

Conway lives in ZIP code 32209, which is home to the most violent school in all of Florida for fighting -- according to data tracked by the FDOE. That school is Northwestern Middle, with 128 fights in the 2014-2015 school year alone. To put it in perspective, that averages to at least three fights every week.

Northwestern Middle is where her son Mario is supposed to go, but Conway pushed to have him moved elsewhere.

The elementary school that feeds into Northwestern Middle is George Washington Carver Elementary. That school reported 56 fights the same year -- with 26 young students getting hurt. 

"Somebody needs to do something about it," said Conway. "That is our future there, the kids."

Three Duval County schools had more than 100 fights during the 2014-20215 school year, according to FDOE date. Two more had nearly 100. 

The I-TEAM found, out of all those fights listed above, none were reported to outside law enforcement. In fact, we found of the 3,603 total fights across the entire district -- where 110 students were hurt -- none went to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office. They all were handled by school district police. 

For physical attacks, that's where a student is attacked without fighting back, Duval County reported 6,017 in the 2014-2015 school year. 

The list of incidents goes on. There were 11,537 total incidents in Duval County in the 2014-2015 school year. Of those, we found 870 were reported to outside law enforcement -- that's equal to 7-1/2 percent.

Here are some of the others the I-TEAM found -- all primarily handled internally within the district:

  • Arsons: 8
  • Batteries: 88
  • Breaking and entering: 16
  • Bullying: 98
  • Campus disruptions: 240
  • Drugs: 408
  • Harassment: 71
  • Larceny/theft: 121
  • Robberies: 9
  • Sex offenses: 40
  • Sexual harassment: 54
  • Threats: 53
  • Weapons: 27

"Well, that tells me that maybe they need to adjust the code of conduct," said News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith.

Smith used to work as a school resource officer in Jacksonville. He says Superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti changed the reporting rules so that kids wouldn't ruin their futures.

"That was done to try not to have a criminal record on these kids at such a young age," Smith explained.

But Smith admits, it may be backfiring if kids think they face little punishment for crimes on campus.

"The student doesn't feel as though he's been disciplined at all, that they can continue," Smith told the I-TEAM. Some teachers complain students have to commit several offenses in order to get a suspension from school, so they feel that some of the students feel emboldened that they can misbehave before they're disciplined."

It's a fear one former Duval County substitute teacher says she had for herself. Kiara Ansley brought a stun gun to her classroom for protection this year. It got her fired.

"I definitely want everyone to understand, my intentions were not to hurt the children, the students. I want them to understand that I did it to protect myself. I felt threatened," said Ansley.

The I-TEAM dug through school incident numbers over the last four school years to compare data before and after Vitti took over as superintendent. We found an explosion of disruptions and violence recently. Here's a look at the total incidents reported to FDOE district-wide:

  • 2011-2012 (prior to Vitti): 4,578 
  • 2012-2013 (Vitti's 1st year): 4,455
  • 2013-2014 (Vitti's 2nd year): 4, 608
  • 2014-2015 (Vitti's 3rd year): 11,537 

Superintendent Vitti's response 

The I-TEAM took all of the district incident data we compiled to get answers from Vitti. In a very candid interview that lasted about an hour, nothing was off limits. He admits there is a fighting problem with no quick fix, but he wanted to make it clear that he believes Duval County's 198 schools are safe.

"My four children attend public schools and if I didn't feel our schools were safe I wouldn't put my own children in them," Vitti said. "I think that's the ultimate testament of my faith in our public school system. I think our job is to be completely transparent when these instances occur because that's what is required of us by the state. Unfortunately, other districts aren't taking this as seriously as we are."

Looking at total incidents reported to FDOE in the 2014-2015 school year, Duval County had 11,537, followed by Miami-Dade County with 8,854, and Broward County follows with 6,039 total incidents.

Vitti tells the I-TEAM, although Duval County leads the state, it's not because Jacksonville schools are more dangerous. He says it's because the county is reporting true numbers of what's happening in the district to FDOE.

"It's completely clear that other districts aren't reporting incidents. You look at the data, I had staff run and 40 percent of schools didn't have a fight or attack at all," said Vitti. "Honestly, I don't think we're looking at an apples to apples comparison, and honestly, I think the Florida Department of Education has dropped the ball a little on this."

Remember Duval County reported 6,017 physical attacks to FDOE in the 2014-2015 school year. Miami-Dade County reported 24. Broward County reported zero.

"The positive from those numbers show we are reporting, but the huge discrepancy shows others are not," said Vitti.

The I-TEAM pressed the FDOE to find out if there is a penalty for a district not reporting accurate answers. While FDOE officials would not answer that specifically, Press Secretary Alix Miller did say the following: 

"FDOE works directly with districts to ensure incidents are being reported accurately.When staff identifies over- or under-reporting, those errors are often resolved with training or minor changes to student information systems."

FDOE also acknowledges that because the physical attack category was a category added to the 2014-2015 school year, there may have been inconsistencies from individual schools and is working with districts to get accurate numbers in the future.

Despite what other districts are reporting or not reporting, there have been a large number of incidents that did occur in Duval County, and Vitti does no dispute they paint a troubling picture.

"Does Duval County have a fighting problem?" the I-TEAM asked.

Well, I think every fight is a problem. I do believe we have too much fighting in our schools, period," Vitti answered. "We have students who are not guided, not supervised, not supported, not loved and they come to school with all that anger, all that tension, all of that aggression and that plays out in our schools."

WATCH PART 3: Vitti on fighting in Duval schools

"Do you need to reach out to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office more about this crime happening in schools?" we asked Vitti.

"Fighting isn't a crime, so I'm confused by the idea of associating fighting with a crime. I think all of us grew up and saw fights and fights were not criminalized," he said.

The Florida Department of Education defines fighting as "mutual combat, mutual altercation." "When two or more persons mutually participate in use of force or physical violence that requires physical restraint or results in injury."

As for physical attacks, there were 6,017 reported to FDOE in the 2014-2015 school year, only nine were reported to outside law enforcement. All the others were handled by Duval County's own school police.

"Do you feel like your [school] police are doing enough?" the I-TEAM asked.

"I don't think it's only the police responsibility. There is a deep parent component to this," he said. "I do believe children are seeing consequences for their behavior. I'm open to hearing how consequences need to be stricter."

Right now, the district uses progressive discipline approach. One fight gets a student suspended. If a student gets into multiple fights, he/she will be sent to an alternative school or expulsion. If a student fights on a school bus, he/she is off for the year. If that student is involved in a second school bus fight, he/she is never allowed to ride the bus again.

Vitti adds he has a discipline board, and if that board wants to toughen the penalties, he's willing to hear new ideas.

"Research is awful clear to tell those that want a zero tolerance policy that does not work. It doesn't work for the individual and it doesn't work for the school. Simply removing a child from the learning environment doesn't teach anyone what to do differently," Vitti added. "Before we look at police, teachers, the principals, I think we need to look at parents."

Support at home and at school

William Batts is proving support at home works, even in some of the toughest neighborhoods. Batts' two children and three grandchildren all went to Northwestern Middle and graduated with honors. Remember, Northwestern Middle is home to the most fights in the state during the 2014-2015 school year: 128 reported to the FDOE.

It's time for all of us who are parents to wake up, parents and grandparents, don't expect someone else to raise your child that you're not raising. That's the way I see it," Batts told the I-TEAM.

He says the answer to fixing the fighting and violence occurring at school starts at home.

"Parents ought to get a hand on their own children," Batts added. "Respect is taught at home. You go to school to learn, you don't go to school to get respect, unless you give it."

What Batts does for his children and grandchildren is what Vitti would like to see for every child. But, the superintendent knows not all children have that support at home and the district can't leave them behind.

"That's why public education is so important. For many of our students, this is the last resort. This is the last vehicle to see something beyond their home. That's why we have to stay true to the mission to serve all students," Vitti explained.

Vitti tells the I-TEAM he's trying everything to help students who come from troubled homes to be successful at all schools in the district. He's addling life coaches, placing mental health counselor, high school and college mentors -- just to name a few.

How other counties stack up

When added up, the incidents of crime, violence and disruptive behavior in other Northeast Florida counties equal less than a third of the incidents in Duval County.

Duval is the 20th largest school district in the nation -- with over 128,000 students in almost 200 schools.

WATCH PART 4: How other school districts stack up with crime, violence

Despite the fact that other counties have fewer incidents, the I-TEAM found that some local counties and schools still lead in some categories.

St. Johns County Public Schools reported 400 incidents to the state in the 2014-2015 school year. Fighting ranked at the top, followed by drug use, harassment and alcohol. St. Augustine High School reported 51 incidents of crime, violence and bad behavior – the most in the district.

Creekside High School in St. Johns County and Fleming Island High School in Clay County tied as the second worst schools in the state for alcohol.

Fleming Island High also reported the most overall incidents in Clay County. District-wide, there were 465 incidents. Drug-use topped the list, followed by tobacco and fighting.

Nassau County reported 120 incidents, including six cases of sexual harassment. Hilliard Middle-Senior High School led the district with problems.

Alachua County had the most incidents of bullying in the state of Florida -- with 118 cases reported in the most recent school year. They also led the state with 379 cases of threat/intimidation.

Alachua’s Westwood Middle School had 29 reports of harassment -- more than any other school in the state.
Baker County’s biggest problem was fighting. Baker County Middle School reported the most, with 84 cases of fighting.

Columbia County was the second in the state for sex offenses. Columbia High School reported the total most incidents across the district.

Putnam County’s biggest problem was tobacco, and Interlachen High School reported the most incidents in the county.

Bradford County’s biggest crime problem was with drug use and possession.

The Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind is its own district. The school had four reports of sexual offenses in the 2014-2015 school year, but its biggest problem was bullying.

While these schools had less overall crime than Duval schools, the numbers could still be alarming to parents.

News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith said the best thing parents can do is be engaged in their child’s education.

“Get inside the school and get involved yourself,” Smith said. “Don’t just leave it up to the school district to handle everything themselves.”

About the Authors:

Lynnsey Gardner is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning investigative reporter and fill-in anchor for The Local Station.