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Buffalo school officials contend that problems with student violence are no worse than in any other similar district. In fact, they say, schools here are among the safest in the country.

The only problem is that they can't prove it. And from the standpoint of community confidence in the school system, perception may be mistaken for reality in the absence of hard data to dispel misperceptions.

Right now, the perception is that the schools have a problem. The call last week by the Buffalo Teachers Federation for a crackdown on violent students in the wake of several assaults on teachers has helped put that issue on the public agenda.

The BTF demand follows a spate of incidents this year. The most publicized involved a special-education teacher who was hospitalized after being assaulted while breaking up a fight.

Other incidents included a high school teacher being punched in the jaw after trying to discipline a student, and an elementary school instructor being kicked and punched after telling a pupil to sit down.

In all, union officials say, there have been 20 such incidents this year.

But while even a single attack on a teacher is more than should be tolerated, there is no way to put the BTF number in perspective because the district's record-keeping has been so lax in this area.

School officials have never kept comprehensive figures on assaults on teachers and could not give a comparison figure from last year. So there is no way of knowing whether assaults really are up, or whether the union is just making a greater effort to publicize them this year in a bid to emphasize the need for discipline.

In either case, it leaves the district vulnerable. If assaults really are up, school officials need to know it because it means that current methods being employed to quell student violence aren't working. The district may need to intensify its array of disciplinary, peer mediation and conflict-resolution programs or augment them with other approaches.

On the other hand, if attacks this year are no more numerous than in years past, the public needs to know that things are not getting worse in the Buffalo schools. A district trying to regain its stature can't afford any loss of confidence by the taxpayers and parents who must support it.

But these city school officials cannot say much of anything definitively as long as they remain in the dark about what is really going on.

District officials say that will change. They are now starting to compile figures on assaults on teachers, and will at least have a snapshot of the first semester by early January. That will give the district a benchmark for comparison measurements in future years.

The fact that the district's Alternative High School for problem students has only about 200 kids -- in a district of nearly 47,000 -- indicates that student violence may not be an inordinate problem in Buffalo.

But district officials now appear to realize that until they do a better job of keeping tabs on students prone to fighting, they cannot really offer that reassurance to parents or anyone else.

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