Are New Jersey public schools becoming increasingly dangerous? Or are schools just getting better at reporting incidents?

A Townsquare News Network analysis of statewide data found startling jumps in violence in a number of school districts.

We calculated the violence rate for every school district with at least 400 students and found that the most violence-prone districts are not in the Garden State's major cities, but in their blue-collar suburbs.

State education officials aren't sure what's behind these numbers but suggested that better training and state outreach to local districts could have played a role in some cases.

Violent spike

The Cumberland County school district of Bridgeton, which for years regularly reported no more than a dozen incidents of violence annually, saw that number skyrocket last school year to more than 200.

District officials did not return detailed requests for an explanation of the dramatic rise in violence in their district.

The state Department of Education also did not provide an explanation for the spike, but spokesman David Saenz said department officials "reach out to selected schools each year and conduct monitoring reviews when self-reported incident data indicate that the reported number of incidents may be under-reported."

State officials noted that the 8,261 violent incidents reported statewide last year was an increase over previous years, but added it was "unclear" whether that was "related to an actual increase in violence in schools, or whether it reflects an increase in accuracy of reporting at the local level."

 "Updated training manuals, targeted monitoring visits, and additional outreach to districts during the 2015-16 school year may have resulted in more accurate reporting by school districts," officials said in a statement accompanying the data release last month. "The Department is closely monitoring this data and is prepared to assist schools in implementing programs and training to address local issues."

Other districts that saw massive spikes in violence between 2011-12 and 2015-16 included:

  • Clifton — from 23 incidents to 123
  • Perth Amboy — from 57 to 143
  • Hamilton in Mercer County— from 22 to 89
  • Neptune — from 22 to 81
  • Pemberton — from 46 to 93

Violent incidents can include reports of fighting, assault, threatening to commit a violent crime, extortion, kidnapping, robbery or sexual assault.

At least two school districts may have accidentally over-reported violent incidents. Looking at the rate of violence, South Amboy schools were the most violent in Middlesex County, with 3 violent incidents for every 100 students.

But city schools Superintendent Jorge Diaz earlier this year told New Jersey 101.5 that the data reported to the state was inaccurate because school administrators misunderstood what should be counted as violent incidents.

"For example, a number of incidents involving age-typical contact amongst elementary school students were incorrectly reported as 'assaults,' thus leading to an inflated number of 'violent' incidents on the state report," Diaz said in an email. "The administration has since corrected this issue and has aligned its reporting with state requirements. Accordingly, the public school expect to see a sizable decrease in the number of reported incidents beginning with the second half of the 2016-2017 school year."

After the Townsquare News Network published this article, Elmwood Park schools superintendent Anthony Grieco said Memorial Middle School over-reported violent incidents because of how employees interpreted the definitions. The state report says the district had 35 incidents of violence during the 2015-2016 school year, which would have made the district one of the most violent in Bergen County. But Grieco says that number should have been 19. For the most recent school year, the number of violent reports was even less — 12 — Grieco said.

School violence rate

Here are the districts with highest rate of violence in each county in 2015-16. For comparison, we also mention the district in each county with the highest total violent incidents. We exclude districts with less than 400 students.

[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this chart had the incorrect data for the Hunterdon County district of Union.]

ATLANTIC

Greater Egg Harbor
Violent incidents: 79 — Enrollment: 3,273 students

Meanwhile, the district in the county with the most violent incidents was Atlantic City, with 95 reports.


BERGEN

Elmwood Park*
Violent incidents: 35* — Enrollment: 2,525

Elmwood Park schools superintendent says the actual number of violent incidents should have been 19. If that is the case, then Fairview, which reported 18 violent incidents among a student enrollment of 1,333, would have had the highest rate in the county. Englewood, which reported 35 incidents, had the highest total in the county.


BURLINGTON

Willingboro
Violent incidents 136 — Enrollment: 3,660

In addition to having the highest violence rate, Willingboro also had the most violent incidents in the entire county.


CAMDEN

Magnolia
Violent incidents: 12 — Enrollment: 429

Elsewhere in the county, the district with the most violent incidents was Cherry Hill, with 50 reports.


CAPE MAY

Lower Cape May Regional
Violent incidents: 28 — Enrollment 1,373

Elsewhere in the county, the district with the most violent incidents was Middle Township, with 47 reports.


CUMBERLAND

Lawrence
Violent incidents: 31 — Enrollment: 487

Elsewhere in the county, the district with the most violent incidents was Bridgeton, with 205 reports.


ESSEX

East Orange
Violent incidents: 140 — Enrollment: 9,218

Elsewhere in the county, the district with the most violent incidents was Newark, with 194 reports.


GLOUCESTER

Clayton
Violent incidents: 31 — Enrollment: 1,449

Elsewhere in the county, the district  with the most violent incidents was Gateway Regional, with 44 reports.


HUDSON

Hoboken
Violent incidents: 21 — Enrollment: 1,943

Elsewhere in the county, the district with the most violent incidents was Union City, with 70 reports.


HUNTERDON

Readington
Violent incidents: 11 — Enrollment: 1,674

Elsewhere in the county, Hunterdon Central Regional had the most violent incidents, with 13 reports.


MERCER

Mercer County Special Services
Violent incidents: 15 — Enrollment: 645

Elsewhere in the county, the district  with the most violent incidents was Trenton, with 129 reports.


MIDDLESEX

South Amboy*
Violent incidents: 32* — Enrollment: 1,067

South Amboy's school superintendent says administrators over-reported violent incidents. See the story above for his explanation. Elsewhere in the county, the district with the most violent incidents was Perth Amboy, with 143 reports.


MONMOUTH

Keansburg
Violent incidents: 35 — Enrollment: 1,512

Elsewhere in the county, the district with the most violent incidents was Neptune, with 81.


MORRIS

East Hanover
Violent incidents: 12 — Enrollment: 970

Elsewhere in the county, the district with the most violent incidents was Morris, with 38 reports.


OCEAN

Little Egg Harbor
Violent incidents: 20 — Enrollment: 1,572

Elsewhere in the county, the district with the most violent incidents was Brick, with 78 reports.


PASSAIC

Haledon
Violent incidents: 27 — Enrollment: 1,058

Elsewhere in the county, the district with the most violent incidents was Clifton, with 123 reports.


SALEM

Woodstown-Pilesgrove Regional
Violent incidents: 24 — Enrollment: 1,510

In addition to the violence rate, Woodstown-Pilesgrove Regional also had the most violent incidents in the county.


SOMERSET

Bound Brook
Violent incidents: 26 — Enrollment: 1,822

Elsewhere in the county, the district with the most violent incidents was Franklin, with 39 reports.


SUSSEX

Newton
Violent incidents: 27 — Enrollment: 1,550

In addition to the violence rate, Newton also had the most violent incidents in the county.


UNION

Kenilworth
Violent incidents: 18 — Enrollment: 1,412

Elsewhere in the county, the district with the most violent incidents was Elizabeth, with 76 reports.


WARREN

North Warren Regional
Violent incidents: 14 — Enrollment: 890

Elsewhere in the county, the district with the most violent incidents was Warren Hills Regional, with 21 reports. [EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this chart had the incorrect number of violent incidents for North Warren Regional.]


Calculating the rate

Districts in some Hunterdon, Cumberland and Burlington county districts reported comparable or even higher incidences of violence to schools in New Jersey's roughest cities.

New Jersey 101.5 calculated the violence rate for 460 public school districts and 32 charter schools with enrollments of at least 400 students.

Some charter schools, which often are touted as alternatives to struggling or failing public schools, had higher violence rates than the school districts in their cities.

2015-16 REPORT

— 5,995 bullying incidents in all schools. Lower than 12,024 reported in 2012-12

— 3,010 drug cases. Lower than 3,482 in 2011-12

— 1,423 vandalism incidents. Lower than 1,924 in 2011-12

— 1,000 weapons reported. Lower than 1,125 in 2011-12

New Horizons Community Charter School in Newark reported 24.1 incidents per 100 students. Lady Liberty Academy Charter School, also in Newark, had a rate of 15.6 per 100.

The Newark school district, on the other hand, had a rate of 0.5 per 100 — the same as Princeton, Sayreville, Freehold Regional and others.

New Horizons, which has less than 500 students, reported 105 incidents. Newark district schools, which have 80 times as many students as that charter, reported 190 violent incidents. Charter school representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

School districts have been recording violence, vandalism and drug numbers for three decades. Recently, districts also have been reporting instances of bullying and harassment.

District superintendents are required to report these tallies twice a year during public school board meetings. Districts also have to provide annual training on the reporting requirements and have policies against falsifying reports.

State education officials use the collected data to spot trends, Department of Education spokesman David Saenz Jr. said.

"The annual report is shared with the public, where it is hoped to stimulate local discussions about what activities and programs need to be emphasized in order to keep schools safe for students and staff," he told New Jersey 101.5. "The public should view these results as an opportunity to have a public discussion about school safety."

Your district

Data for all districts. Rate is number of reported violent incidents per 100 students. See a mistake? Email Sergio.Bichao@townsquaremedia.com

Sign up for the WPG Talk Radio 104.1 Newsletter

Get South Jersey news and information e-mailed to you every week.