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Don't cover up school crime

School principals abuse their authority by suppressing reports of campus crime. The shadowy practice, far from scotching bad publicity, only heightens the concern about individual schools. It also undermines the relationship between school administrators and police, two arms of government that need to work closer together.

School officials in Hillsborough, where several recent crimes have gone unreported, should end the secrecy before it does any further damage to their credibility. Campus police cannot do their job when administrators intervene in what inarguably are serious criminal cases. The practical effect of undercutting the authority of campus police can be as risky for the entire school population as for individual officers.

The School Board should ask Blake High School principal David Best to publicly explain his handling of a reported assault against a 15-year-old girl. The girl's parents told the Times' Amy Herdy that Best urged them not to involve the police. (Best denies the claim.) Two weeks after the incident, the girl's mother _ sensing the matter had stalled _ called police. Now authorities fear the time lag has compromised the investigation.

The assault, according to Tampa police, was not the first problem at Blake. Nor is it an isolated example of crime going unreported. Sheriff's deputies said they, too, were discouraged from making arrests and reporting crimes at other Hillsborough schools after administrators expressed fear of making the newspaper.

The district, in defending the principals' actions, has confused the issue by making unfair comparisons between everyday roughhousing _ pushing in the lunch line, for example _ and criminal assault. Reasonable people know when to call police, and school principals should, too.

The problem reflects the vast authority principals wield over individual schools. Hillsborough is no anomaly. A study by the U.S. Department of Education, released in March, showed that 61 percent of America's public schools had no crime-reporting policy. Despite 4,000 sexual assaults, 7,000 robberies and 11,000 fights involving weapons during the last school year, four of five principals surveyed said discipline was only a minor or moderate problem.

A new agreement in Hillsborough, spelling out when principals should call police, will be a positive step. It sometimes is helpful to codify the obvious. The School Board should also take this opportunity to underscore the parallel interests of principals and police. Nobody likes bad publicity. But false images do not make the classroom safe or conducive to learning.