South Lakes and Herndon high schools rank among the top five high schools in Fairfax County in fights and serious incidents as reported by the schools to the Virginia Department of Education.
Officials at those two schools say that their schools are safe, and that the state data make the situation appear far more dangerous than it is.
According to a county-wide analysis of Virginia Department of Education school safety records over the last three full school years, South Lakes, with 109 fights, is ranked fourth. Herndon, which totaled 98 fights over the same period, fall of 2000 to spring of 2003, is ranked fifth.
In the last year, both schools fell within the top five Fairfax County high schools for total number of “serious incidents” reported to the state as well.
South Lakes tallied 18 serious incidents, while Herndon reported 14 that occurred from fall 2002 to spring 2003. The average last year for regular, four-year Fairfax County high schools was approximately nine serious incidents.
A “serious incident” is more serious than a “fight;” a “serious incident” is an altercation involving more than minor injuries to a student or staff member, said Julie Grimes, a spokeswoman for the state education department.
“Serious incidents usually involve blood,” Grimes said.
PRINCIPALS AND SECURITY officers at both South Lakes and Herndon high schools said that their schools are safe. The state’s school safety data paints a picture far worse than the actual level of violence at the high schools, they say, which are safer than urban schools in Alexandria and Washington, D.C.
“When you put 2,300 kids under the age of 18 in the same place, at the same time, you’re going to have conflicts, but overall fights are seldom,” said Janice Leslie, Herndon’s principal.
Out of dozens of interviews with students at South Lakes and Herndon, few said they were surprised their school ranked among the most violent public high schools in Fairfax County. Almost every student interviewed said they had witnessed at least one serious fight recently. At the same time, all students interviewed said they feel safe at school.
“Fights happen here like at any school, but no one really feels unsafe,” said Antoine Williams, a 17-year-old senior at South Lakes.
Two weeks ago, Williams’ cousin was in a fight at South Lakes in which a girl's forehead was cut, he said. The three girls involved in the fight were given a day of in-school suspension, he said.
A 16-year-old female South Lakes student was arrested last month for stabbing a male classmate in the leg during school. The victim was treated and released from Inova Fairfax Hospital with minor injuries, according to a police report.
At Herndon three weeks ago, a girl and a boy exchanged blows in the foyer outside the school’s gym, according to several eyewitnesses.
“One of them was lying on the ground and the other tried to stomp on her face,” said Herndon freshman Chris Robinson, 14.
Dave Tipton, a Fairfax County police officer assigned to South Lakes, said he is skeptical the incidents students mentioned were as serious as reported. Such reports of violence, he said, often become overblown as the story winds its way through the school rumor mill.
“A lot of these things get exaggerated from Point A to Point B,” he said.
SOUTH LAKES Principal Realista Rodriguez acknowledged that her school’s violence statistics are high, but said other factors, such as socio-economic levels, must be considered to understand the whole picture.
“The numbers are high, but we’re doing our job to make sure this place is safe and sound,” Rodriguez said.
Unlike Langley or Oakton high schools, which have relatively low school violence numbers, South Lakes has an unusually high percentage of low-income students, a factor that can often lead to fights, she said. The school is 28 percent economically disadvantaged, according to U.S. Department of Education data.
Rodriguez’s school also has more special education students than its neighboring schools, according to Fairfax County records. Included in the 230 special education students are 60 teenagers classified as emotionally disturbed. Many of these students lack impulse control, Rodriguez said, sometimes leading to conflict with other students or faculty members.
Misunderstandings between different ethnicities can also lead to disruptions in a school as diverse as South Lakes, Rodriguez said. South Lakes is 51 percent white, 19 percent black, 16 percent Hispanic, and 11 percent Asian, according to federal records.
“When you have so many different cultures, you might have some misinterpretation of behavior,” Rodriguez said.
In comparison, Herndon is just slightly less diverse than South Lakes. However, there is a significant gap between the two schools regarding income level and special education. At Herndon, 13.8 percent of the students are considered economically disadvantaged and there are only 156 special education students enrolled, according to federal and county records.
Herndon’s statistics must be interpreted in the context of the total size of the student body, said Leslie, Herndon’s principal.
Herndon has 681 more students than South Lakes, so there is less violence per capita at Herndon than the overall numbers suggest.
“There [are] going to be issues, but you just deal with them,” Leslie said. “Conflicts happen and we wish they didn’t.”
SCHOOL SAFETY statistics are far from perfect. Individual schools self-report incidents to the state education department, using a uniform coding system. Because schools are reporting the data themselves, it is safe to assume that the numbers are not 100 percent accurate, according to a 2003 Virginia Department of Education report on safety in Virginia public schools.
High numbers of incidents could indicate that a school is dangerous, or it could suggest that a school is less tolerant of disruption and is more likely to discipline students, according to the state education department report.
Officials at both Herndon and South Lakes said the state school safety statistics appear to be too high. Though the state coding system is fairly specific, declaring an incident a fight or a serious incident is inherently subjective and could lead to skewed data.
“I don’t have a lot of faith in these numbers,” Leslie said.
Some incidents the state codifies as “serious” may not actually involve any physical violence, said Tipton, the police officer assigned to South Lakes. If a student brings a knife or paintball gun to school, the state might list that as serious, even if the weapon is not used, he said.
“When you walk around this building, it seems safe,” Rodriguez said. “We want the students to feel safe. We want the environment to be conducive to learning. Disruptions are not tolerated.”
HERNDON and South Lakes, like most middle schools and all high schools in Fairfax County, are patrolled by hand-picked Fairfax County police officers and teams of trained security specialists, many of whom are former police officers themselves, said Fred Ellis, director of Fairfax County Public School’s office of safety and security.
The police officers, officially called School Resource Officers, and the security specialists are trained to defuse conflicts without resorting to physical or defensive tactics, Ellis said.
An essential component of high school security is to simply treat the students with dignity, Tipton said. When students trust their SRO, they are more likely to provide tips about planned fights and they can more effectively prevent violence before it happens, he said.
“Kids in today’s world, they want to be trusted and respected,” said Tipton, an 18-year veteran of the county police force who has been assigned to South Lakes for three years. “If you build a relationship before it starts, you got it made.”
When Tipton patrols the halls of South Lakes, he jokes with the teenagers, many of whom he knows by name.
If Tipton happens upon two students about to fight, he gives them his “What are you thinking?” look, pointing his index finger toward his temple. More often than not, Tipton said, the students’ aggression quickly dissipates, having taken that moment to ponder the consequences of fighting on school grounds.
“If you treat them right, you’re good to go,” he said.
Whatever happens in society will probably be reflected in high school, and violence is certainly no exception, Tipton said.
Aislynn Raymond, an 18-year-old senior at South Lakes, agreed that violence is bound to happen occasionally, but said things aren't as awful as they appear.
“We’ve definitely got a bad reputation, but I don’t think we deserve it,” she said.
RIDGE LOUX, president of South Lakes’ Parent, Teacher and Student Association, said violence is a regrettable fact of life in modern society, but South Lakes' security officers keep things generally safe.
“From what I see, the school does as good a job as possible to keep it safe,” Loux said. “Life in a modern day high school is going to be unfortunately different than it used to be. This doesn’t just happen in inner-city schools.”
The president of Herndon’s PTSA, Lisa Lombardozzi, said most of the incidents at HHS are isolated and that she is skeptical of the state education department statistics.
“I don’t think it’s a violent school more than any other,” she said. “Our school security staff does a good job.”