Schools Still Safest Places for Kids[*]


Following the killings at Columbine and other schools around the country in the late 1990s, public officials reacted with a frenzy. It was a classic case of exception-based policies: a few, isolated cases that were clearly the exception rather than the rule became the basis for wide-ranging policies. One report noted at the time that “A moral panic swept the country as parents and children suddenly feared for their safety at school.” One middle-school principal claimed school shootings could happen anywhere—yet in his community there had been a 26% drop in juvenile crime in the past several years and no murders had been committed.

In the years preceding Columbine, juvenile violence had been on a significant decline. Most citizens believed, however, that crime was out of control. One report noted that despite a 13% drop in homicides between 1990 and 1995, the coverage of homicides on the three major television networks went up by 240%. There was a 27% drop in school-associated violent deaths (including suicides) between 1992 and 1998, but the public believed schools were no longer safe. Between the 1997/98 and the 1998/99 school years (8 school shootings including Columbine and Jonesboro occurred during those years), there was a 40% decrease in school-associated violent deaths (from 43 to 26). The number of people in the United States who reported being fearful of their schools rose nearly 50% during that same period.

This report noted that in the school year 1998/99, there were 26 student deaths on school grounds (including 14 at Columbine). Based on the number of violent deaths on school grounds, the likelihood of a child being killed at school during that year was one in two million. In contrast, 71% of parents polled thought that a school shooting was “likely” to happen in their community. Similarly, despite the fact that juvenile homicide arrests had declined by 56% between 1993 and 1998, 62% of those polled believed that juvenile crime was increasing. While 4% of all juvenile homicides occur in rural areas, 54% of rural parents feared for their children’s safety in schools vs. 46% for urban and 44% for suburban parents.

Finally, the report noted that student self-reports and opinions about their safety at school should have reassured their parents. Student reports of fights on and off school grounds declined by 14%, with a 9% decline in fights on school grounds during this same period of time. Only 3.5% of students reported being injured in a fight (down from 4.4%); self-reports of carrying a weapon declined from 26% to 18%; there was a 25% decline in the number of students who reported carrying a gun to school in the previous 30 days (from 7.9% to 5.9%). The percentage of youths who said they were afraid of being the victim of a serious crime either inside or outside school was 24, down from 40% in 1994; 87% thought their schools were safe.

Publications like the 1999 Juvenile Offenders and Victims National Report and the 2000 Annual Report on School Safety reinforced the fact that serious (especially violent) crime within the public schools was a relatively rare event.  The former report noted that: “Serious violent crime appears to be prevalent in only a minority of the Nation’s public schools.” Less than 15% of high schools and middle schools contacted police about violent incidents. The percentage of students reporting any type of victimization remained the same in 1989 and 1995 (15%). Echoing numerous studies conducted over many years, the report noted that there is a much greater risk of being the victim of a serious crime in places other than at school. The 2000 Annual Report on School Safety essentially said the same thing. The report noted that in 1999, about 8% of students nationwide reported being threatened or injured with a weapon at school, about the same percentage as in 1993.

Has anything changed during the decade since these reports were issued and the claims that schools were “killing fields”?  A 2010 report on school safety found that during the school year 2008/2009 there were 38 school-associated violent deaths—in a population of about 55.6 million students in grades prekindergarten through 12. There were 15 homicides and 7 suicides of school-age youth.  There were 1.2 million victims of nonfatal crimes at school, including 619,000 thefts and 743,100 violent crimes (which include simple assault).  The report noted that victimization surveys revealed that only 4% of students between the ages of 12-18 said they were victims at school during the past 6 months: 3% reported a theft and 2% reported a “violent victimization”—but less than .5% reported that this was a “serious violent victimization.”

This report also noted that 83% of public schools reported no serious violent crime; 13% of public schools reported at least one violent incident to the police. The rate of serious violent crime at school was 4 (per 1,000 students) compared to a rate of 8 away from school.  Of the students in grades 9–12, 8% reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property. Ten percent of males and 5% of females reported an incident with a weapon. Between 1993 and 2009, the percentages of students carrying a weapon at least one day onto school property declined from 12% to 6%. Almost a third (31%) of the students reporting being in a physical fight sometime during the previous year versus 11% who reported being in a physical fight on school property. Within city schools only 10% of teachers reported being threatened with injury (5% said they had been attacked by a student), compared to just 6% in rural or suburban schools.

These numbers completely contradict the beliefs among the general population, law enforcement, and politicians that public schools have become “war zones” or anything approaching that description.  Some schools do have higher rates of criminal conduct than others, particularly in the poorest (and lowest funded) schools in the inner cities. The Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago conducted a two-year study and found that building strong relationships between teachers and students can foster safe environments even in crime-ridden neighborhoods. The report also found that schools with higher suspension rates were less safe than schools with lower rates. Students across the Chicago Public Schools felt safer inside their classrooms than in areas with little adult supervision.

© 2011, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.


[*] This is taken from the author’s second edition of Delinquency and Juvenile Justice in American Society to be published by Waveland Press this fall.