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'Anywhere, At Any Time': Violence in Schools Spreads Past Cities

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A 16-year-old high school freshman was stabbed to death last month when three schoolmates stormed a social-studies class in Dartmouth, Mass., a suburban town of some 27,000 residents near New Bedford.

In January, a teacher and a custodian died in the tiny town of Grayson, Ky., after a 17-year-old student allegedly shot them.

And in the rural hamlet of Walton, N.Y., a high school English teacher is recovering from the shattered jawbone she suffered when she was shot in the face by a rifle-wielding 15-year-old student last December.

Across the nation, such incidents of violence--once solely associated with large metropolitan districts--are becoming more and more common in smaller cities, suburbs, and rural areas.

"There's no geographic exclusion anymore,'' Bill Martin, a spokesman for the National Education Association, said last week. "It could happen anywhere at any time.''

Barbara Guzzo, a program-implementation manager at Committee for Children, a nonprofit education group in Seattle, said requests for her organization's pre-K-8 violence-prevention curricula come from communities of all sizes all over the country and "have clearly picked up in the last two years.''

"It's not just an urban issue anymore,'' she said.

The reasons for the increase in violence have not been clearly delineated, researchers and educators agree.

But some of the guns, gang activity, and bad attitudes now evident in suburbs, small towns, and rural areas can be traced to the migration of families who have moved there from the cities, experts say.

Also, they note, some of the factors that have been linked to destructive behavior by urban youngsters--such as the lack of parental involvement and the profusion of violent media messages--are simply taking hold in nonurban areas.

"We are a violent society,'' Virginia Wilcox, the teacher who was shot in her Walton classroom, said last week. "It seems the entertainment world feels it has to do one thing bigger and better than the last movie'' by including more violence.

More Problems for Teachers

While national statistics on the incidence of school violence by geographical region do not exist, the anecdotal evidence is plentiful.

Two years ago, for instance, the National School Safety Center in California was not receiving any calls about school use of metal detectors, one barometer of concern over violence, said the center's deputy director, George E. Butterfield.

About a year ago, however, queries started coming in from all over the country, and, in the past six months, interest in metal detectors has escalated sharply, he said.

Often, he said, it is suburban school districts that turn to metal detectors because they have not confronted much violence in the past and they feel they have to have the most "high-tech solution.''

They want to send the message "'We're not messing around here,''' Mr. Butterfield said.

And, from all indications, Mr. Butterfield said, school violence "is continuing to increase in suburban and rural areas.''

In a survey released by the New York State United Teachers union last week, 81 percent of the state's teachers'-union presidents, many of whom are in suburban or rural areas, report an increase in the last five years in either the frequency or severity of student-discipline problems.

A sample of the responses from five suburban and rural counties in New York shows that officials from a majority of the school districts in all five counties said that teachers encounter more discipline problems today than five years ago.

In rural Madison County, located between Syracuse and Utica, for example, union presidents in all five of the county's districts said student discipline problems were worse, and four out of five district presidents said fighting or physical violence between students was more frequent.

And two districts in Madison County reported more frequent incidents of weapons on campus.

Arrests, Gun Possession Up

School administrators nationally also report that schools have become more unsafe than five years ago.

In a poll of 1,216 administrators conducted by the National School Boards Association and researchers at Xavier University in Cincinnati and released in February, 54 percent of suburban officials reported more violent acts than five years ago, compared with 64 percent of urban administrators.

At the same time, 43 percent of school executives in small towns also reported more violence than five years before.

Federal Bureau of Investigation figures appear to confirm violence among youngsters is moving into less populated areas.

Juvenile arrests for crimes in general, while still relatively few, went up in both suburban and rural counties between 1990 and 1991, according to the most recent F.B.I. uniform crime reports, released last year. (See Education Week, Sept. 9, 1992.)

Total criminal arrests of those under 18 in suburban counties went up 5.2 percent in that one year--while arrests of all ages went down 1.9 percent--and juvenile arrests in rural counties increased 2.5 percent, about the same rise as for all ages together.

But juvenile arrests for violent crime--murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault--jumped more sharply in both types of communities: 11.8 percent in the suburbs, from 8,025 to 8,969, and 17.7 percent in rural counties, from 2,057 to 2,422.

Officials in Fairfax County, Va., an affluent suburb of Washington, know firsthand about the growth of violence and weapons.

Four or five years ago, officials there said, they could count on the fingers of one hand the number of students found with guns.

As of April 12, however, 50 of the 86 recommendations for expulsion this school year related to weapons possession, and 36 of those were for guns, said Dolores Bohen, the assistant superintendent for communications in Fairfax County schools.

Last year, just 60 expulsions had been recommended by the same date, she said.

Assaults among students are also on the rise, she said.

While the weapons and expulsion figures are "minuscule'' compared to the district's 136,000-student enrollment, Ms. Bohen said, they are enough to have prompted recent training of administrators and teachers in crisis communications and conflict resolution and the involvement of students in promoting anti-violence, anti-weapons messages.

Even without large numbers of violent incidents, the 48,000-student Wichita, Kan., school district has, within the past three years, developed a 40-point plan on gangs and drugs and has made metal detectors available to any principal who wants one, said Paul Longhofer, the assistant superintendent for planning and communications.

One month ago, the district had its first shooting inside a school building when two girls at an alternative high school got into a fight. One girl, a 9th grader, allegedly produced a small-caliber handgun and shot the other girl three times, Mr. Longhofer said. The victim was still recovering in the hospital last week, he said.

Denial Is 'Biggest Problem'

Aside from the many problems raised by the violence itself, Mr. Butterfield of the school safety center said "denial is the biggest problem''--especially among school officials in suburban and rural areas.

Schools in general tend either not to report violence or to underreport it, he said.

The N.S.B.A.-Xavier University poll, for example, revealed an apparent "not-in-my-district attitude'' among administrators.

The results showed a wide discrepancy between the incidence of violence administrators said they encounter in their own districts compared with the amount of violence they think is happening in neighboring areas and the nation as a whole.

Of all administrators surveyed, 39 percent thought school violence had increased in their own districts, 63 percent believed it had done so in neighboring districts, and 97 percent said there was more school violence now nationally than five years ago.

In some suburban and rural districts, where approval of the school budget is put to a popular vote, school officials' reluctance to grapple with growing violence may stem from a fear of sullying community opinion of the schools, said Thelma Gail (Tigi) Armour, a former art teacher in the rural community of Sidney, N.Y.

Ms. Armour, who was scheduled to speak at the convention of the New York State teachers' union in Buffalo last week, is disabled and in constant pain after a high school girl crushed her right wrist and hand two years ago with a stack of hardcover books when she tried to break up a lunchroom fight.

While she bristles at the notion that the violence is imported from larger communities, Ms. Armour said she understands the denial.

"As a rural community, we don't want to have to realize we have a responsibility to do something about our problem,'' she said.

But, she added, "it is our problem. It is our kids. It's the people down the street. We can't lay the blame someplace else.''

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