Maine Department of Education struggles to accurately compile school weapons data

A Good Day Maine investigation found the Maine Department of Education's data collection system and transition to a new one has made it difficult to accurately compile a list of the number of weapons found in Maine schools (WGME).

PORTLAND (WGME) – A data systems transition and a “difficult to access” database has delayed the Maine Department of Education from accurately compiling data on the number of weapons found in schools.

The state sent incorrect data to CBS 13 three times since our September 28 request for the number of weapons found in every district in Maine over the last 10 years. This is publicly available information through Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.

“I’m a little terrified, frankly, that they could have gotten it so wrong,” said State Sen. Rebecca Millett (D-Cape Elizabeth), who sits on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

“For me, it’s like, well, what is the truth? Where do we lie as a state?”

A Good Day Maine investigation aimed to look at the number of weapons found in schools in Maine and compare that data to national trends in other states across the country.

[PART 2: Data collected from districts directly shows knives reported as most common weapon found in schools]

However, when we received the first set of data from the DOE on October 5 and shared it with superintendents, we discovered the numbers were off.

For example, the spreadsheet said Sanford schools had 84 possession of firearms incidents, but when we asked Superintendent David Theoharides, he provided data to CBS 13 that showed just one firearm found on school grounds.

“If I had to say what the data is from the state, they got the 84 in the wrong spot,” said Theoharides.

CBS 13 pointed out the error to the Maine Department of Education, and a spokesperson told us the data was queried incorrectly. A second set of weapons data was sent to us on October 31.

The second set of data showed dramatically fewer firearms incidents – just 28 – compared to 1,312 in the first spreadsheet.

In addition to the state data, CBS 13 requested the weapons numbers from 31 school districts directly. Lakes Region Schools Superintendent Al Smith felt the numbers from the state were still wrong, writing in an email on November 6, “in one case (the Maine Department of Education) had actually record (sic) the same incident 4 times.”

Smith contacted the DOE and on November 6, CBS 13 was sent a third set of data, with the following email from DOE’s director of communications, Rachel Paling.

“Attached is some updated data. There are 83 less on this spreadsheet than the previous. We have discovered that some students had more than one resolution for the weapon incident. For example, they may have been suspended and then later expelled for the same incident. This duplication was not taken into account previously.”

In a follow up email, which also requested an on-camera interview, CBS 13 asked several more questions, including why there was a dramatic decrease in the number of weapons incidents year-to-year. This was a question we initially asked after receiving the first set of data. For example, per the DOE’s third set of data, the grand total of weapons incidents in Maine schools during 2012 was 239. By 2016, that number dropped to 57.

The first response we received on this issue from Paling explained that the state started using a new behavior module in the data collection system in 2010. She writes it “requires more information from schools about the incident (Incident Name, Incident Type, and Incident Resolution). Over the years, we have found that the data is not always reported correctly resulting in inaccuracies in the data.” Paling says, often schools are not identifying the type of weapon found on school grounds.

We asked again about why this was happening, and on November 7 we received another email stating there could be further inaccuracies in the data, and the state would need more time to review the numbers – which wouldn’t happen until after Thanksgiving. Paling also wrote they would not make someone available to speak on camera, writing "this is one of the business (sic) seasons at the Department of Education with our usual data submission deadlines on top of implementing the new data systems."

Sanford Superintendent David Theoharides says part of the problem could be the state’s new data collection system introduced this year. Theoharides says all schools use a student information system to collect weapons data. He says there are several different systems districts use, and they’re all supposed to sync up to the state’s new system – automatically sending weapons data when the district records an incident.

“While it promises to be a good product, now they're going through huge growing pains trying to get it to synchronize back with the local school districts,” Theoharides said.

“I think it's to be expected when you implement a new system that there are going to be bugs, but sometimes I wish – and this is my bias on it – that the state would do the testing first and then implement it, rather than implement it and say ‘Oh, we've got a problem.’"

Sen. Millett agrees, and wants answers from the state.

"At the state level, the education committee will certainly be asking questions of the department as to why did this come about? Why weren't you able to provide this information in a timely manner?”

We asked the DOE about the problems with their system and whether it was tested before implementation. In an email, Paling responded, "the Department did testing however staff were not able to test every single possible scenario within the time frame. Implementing a new data system rarely goes on without bugs."

Paling added there are a lot of moving parts to putting a new data system in place. "Maine DOE has to work with the State’s Office of Information Technology and that is a major component to timing and implementation as well."

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