A seemingly routine Santa Barbara school board discussion over a survey asking kids about drugs, alcohol and violence turned tense last week when a board member accused district staff members of suppressing alarming statistics about violence.

School board member Bob Noel chastised district officials for, among other things, putting together a summary version of a larger report that, on the one hand, seemed to single out San Marcos High as the most dangerous of the three local high schools, but on the other omitted the specific numbers that led to the conclusion.

“I question this invidious comparison between our schools without a much more elaborate explanation,” Noel said. “This is very damning.”

Noel, a frequent critic of district officials, also complained that the condensed version of the report presented to the board on Dec. 11 made no mention of the 60 or so ninth-graders who reported, in December of 2006, that they had brought a gun to campus in the past 12 months.

“Why are you so selective in what you’re telling the public?” Noel asked district staff members. Later, he said, “I believe they go to great lengths to keep those kinds of data from the public. It’s all part of the effort to put a happy spin on everything.”

With Santa Barbara having witnessed two teen-on-teen murders in the past year, local officials have been on edge about gang violence. On Jan. 15, the school board will host a workshop that will address several options for keeping students safe, such as enclosing the campuses in fences, installing video cameras in the hallways and putting metal detectors in the doorways.

Last week, the presentation in question was the condensed version of what is known as the annual Healthy Kids Survey, which is given to about 4,000 local students in grades 5,7,9 and 11. The full report is about 100 pages long.

(Click here to see the full report—questions on violence start on page 95—here for some of the key findings, and here for the school district’s condensed version.)

At last week’s Dec. 11 board meeting, the condensed version, presented by Davis Hayden, the district’s research and technology director, showed that San Marcos High had the highest number of students who answered “yes” to three questions: whether they had been in a fight, whether they were a member of a gang, and whether they felt unsafe. Santa Barbara High had the second highest, and Dos Pueblos High had the least.

Hayden, who in response to Noel offered to produce the more elaborate figures on the spot but received no answer from the board, said that to focus too heavily on the statistically small numbers of students who reported such things would be alarmist.

“Over all, at all the campuses, the No. 1 answer by far is they feel safe,” he said on Monday. Hayden added that the survey’s information on violence is less reliable than on drug and alcohol use, because the survey only recently added the questions on violence, leaving the district with little or no basis for measuring trends.

For years, the state has required that school districts across California administer the survey every other year. (Santa Barbara received a state grant that allows the district to conduct the survey annually, in conjunction with a local nonprofit organization called Fighting Back, which focuses on teen drinking and drug use.)

Although the survey — which is created by a state contractor called WestEd — has long been a way to track trends in teen drinking and drug use, it only recently added about a dozen questions dealing with violence and safety.

Every year, staff members at the Santa Barbara school district condense the findings into a summarized report they present to the school board. It was this report that Noel found lacking.

Noel shared some other statistics pertaining to campus violence that were not included in the board presentation. Among them:

  • 22 percent of the ninth-graders surveyed said they were afraid of getting beat up.
  • 10 percent of the students interviewed said they had brought a weapon besides a gun — such as a knife or club — to school in the last 12 months ending in December of 2006.

As for the 60-plus freshmen who reported bringing a gun to campus, Noel acknowledged that the number represented not even 5 percent of the students surveyed.

“(Say) half of them are liars; only 30 kids brought guns to campus — that’s (still) too damn many guns on campus,” he said. “I say these are relevant data and I take the district to task for not putting some energy into bringing these data to the public.”

He continued, “That’s an important issue for this community, even if it doesn’t seem to be an important issue for this administration.”

That comment drew a sharp rejoinder from Superintendent Brian Sarvis.

“I beg your pardon,” Sarvis said. “That’s not an important issue for us? We’ve been talking about gang violence — we’ve been talking about keeping students safe — for months and months.”

The other board members seemed less fixated on the violence portion of the survey.

School board member Nancy Harter on Monday said the numbers of students reporting such issues are too statistically small to put much faith in, especially given the mischievous nature of teenagers.

“I hear so much anecdotal evidence that kids don’t take (the survey) seriously,” she said. “That said, if there was one gun on any campus, it was one gun too many.”

Harter added that it is more important to move forward on considering the options that will be discussed at the board workshop 6 p.m. on Jan. 15.

Last week’s late-night discussion prompted Teachers Union President Layne Wheeler to speak in defense of San Marcos High School — as a parent.

“Unfortunately, San Marcos, where my kids go, looks like a place where you wouldn’t want your kids to go,” he said. “I think it’s a wonderful school. … I am always concerned when (incomplete) data goes out, and it just becomes a sound bite in some news report.”

The school’s principal, Craig Morgan, couldn’t be reached for comment Monday.