District holds itself accountable on violence and vandalism reporting

While the Cherry Hill School District’s Violence and Vandalism Report saw a spike in incidents during the 2018-2019 school year with 210 incidents compared to 131 incidents the year prior, the district is still fairing well for its size, according to Superintendent Joseph Meloche. 

“With 11,000 kids in our school that are in school for 182 days, 210 is a really, really low number,” Meloche said. 

The district presented the annual report at last Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting. Director of Security Anthony Saporito explained how a particularly low number of incidents during the 2017-2018 school year combined with a slight uptick in 2018-2019 makes the one-year increase appear alarming, but 2017-2018 represents an “anomaly” year with lower instances than usual.

He said when they pull back and look at the data over the last five years, the district’s 2018-2019 incidents are about on par with the years prior to 2017-2018. In 2016-2017 the district reported 185 incidents. There were 203 incidents in 2015-2016 and 164 incidents in 2014-2015. 

The report accounts for incidents of violence, vandalism, weapons, substance use and HIB confirmed incidents. Saporito took a deeper dive into some of the categories to walk the board through some of the numbers.

Substance use saw one of the highest spikes with incidents more than doubling from 13 in 2017-2018 to 33 in 2018-2019. Saporito said they’re attributing the rise to the recent trend of vaping, but he anticipates those incidents dropping in the year to come now that they know where and when vaping is taking place.

Incidents of violence also more than doubled, with the district reporting 29 in 2017-2018 and 64 in 2018-2019. Saporito said he went through the data and found a few different factors at play. The district’s Behavior and Emotional Support program reported an increase in incidents with 12 staff members having been “technically assaulted” during confrontations with students in the program, according to Saporito. 

He also found that at the high school level, the district saw an increase in “mutual fights” where two or more students come to blows. He said there were about 28 more of these incidents last year. 

The number of incidents involving weapons only saw a slight increase from three to five. Saporito said all five incidents involved knives. Two of these occurrences happened when students brought a knife to school to show off, but neither of the students used them or threatened anyone with the weapon. Three of the incidents occurred when students were found to have knives in their backpack that they didn’t realize were there.

Saporito gave a rundown of some of the safe school practices the district currently has in place. He said the district has character education programming, and the Cherry Hill Police Department regularly gives social media and safety presentations to students. 

Last year, the district expanded its campus police officer program to the middle and elementary school levels, and all of these officers have to undergo Student Resource Officer training and certification by July 2020.

The district has one fire drill and one safety drill a month at every building. Security blinds were recently installed on the interior door of every classroom in the district, so that in the event of a lockdown, no one can see into the classroom from the outside. 

Saporito also emphasized that numbers sometimes don’t tell the full story. He cited a drug-related incident last year that involved 16 students as an example. He said by law, each of these students were reported out as a separate incident. 

“So, the numbers get artificially inflated at times,” Saporito said.

Meloche said they often hear Cherry Hill’s numbers cited compared to other Camden County districts, but given the sheer size of the district (the 12th largest in the state), their numbers are bound to look higher. 

“The reality is the majority of the other school districts in Camden County would fit inside Cherry Hill, not one or two – the majority of them,” Meloche said. 

He also emphasized these are self-reported numbers and not all districts are equally diligent in reporting. He said Cherry Hill is very diligent in their reporting. 

“We hold ourselves accountable,” Meloche said. “If something takes place, we report it.”

The next meeting of the Cherry Hill Board of Education will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 26 at 7 p.m. at the Malberg Administration Building.