Violence and Safety
Updated June 6, 2011
A string of horrific school shootings in the late 1990s ("A Colo. Community Looks for Answers After Deadly Attack," April 28, 1999) catapulted the issues of school violence and safety into the national spotlight, leaving parents, teachers, and policymakers wondering why the attacks had happened and what could be done to better protect the nation's schoolchildren.
Those high-profile shootings—especially the most deadly incident, at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., in 1999—also led to a public perception that deadly youth violence was on the rise. An April 2000 Gallup poll found that 66 percent of all adults, and 63 percent of parents with children in school, believed it was very or somewhat likely that a Columbine-style shooting could occur in their communities (Carlson & Simmons, 2001).
However, federal statistics on acts of school violence show violence has steadily declined from a peak in the early 1990s, and the numbers continued to fall during the 2000s, according to the 2010 "Indicators of School Crime and Safety" report from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. Between 1995 and 2007, the percentage of students who reported being victims of crime at school decreased from 10 percent to about 4 percent.
The number of homicides at schools also was down over the decade of the 2000s compared to the 1990s. While the years 1992 to 1999 averaged 31.1 homicides per year, the average from 2000 to 2009 was 19.4 per year. (U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, 2010)
Polls have found the level of public fear also subsiding. A series of Gallup polls that asked parents if they feared for their oldest child's safety at school saw the number answering "yes" drop from greater than 47 percent in surveys conducted in 1999 to 25 percent in 2006.
What has increased significantly is reported cases of bullying, often cited as a cause for youth violence.
In 2007, 32 percent of students reported having been bullied in the past six months, up from 7 percent in 2001. In 2007, 21 percent of students said they had been bullied by being made fun of; 18 percent reported being the subject of rumors; 11 percent said they were pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on; 6 percent said they were threatened with harm; 5 percent said they were excluded from activities intentionally; 4 percent said someone tried to make them do something they did not want to do; and 4 percent said their property was destroyed (U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, 2010).
Recent efforts to address the problem have included the adoption of "zero tolerance" policies that require students to be expelled for up to a year if they engage in violent acts or make threats of violence against teachers or other students.
In addition, at least 44 states and the District of Columbia had some kind of bullying/harassment prevention program or legislation by the end of 2010, and 31 had anti-bullying laws that specifically mentioned "electronic harassment," according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, which tracks such legislation ("State Cyberbullying Laws Range from Guidance to Mandate," Feb. 9, 2011). Such preventative measures being adopted by states, districts, and schools are meant to promote the "protective factors" that reduce incidents of violence while also reducing "risk factors" that are more likely to lead to violent acts (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001).
A study by the Center for Adolescent Health, based at the University of Minnesota, found that factors such as race and family income were poor predictors of future violence. Instead, protective factors such as a positive family relationship or the expectation and desire to attend college reduced the chance of violence, while risk factors such as having frequent problems with schoolwork or having repeated a grade were statistically linked to increased violence (Blum, Beuhring, & Rinehart, 2000).
These risk and protective factors are a product of both the home and school environments and, accordingly, many of the programs designed to address such factors involve not only schools, but also parents and the surrounding community. The School Violence Resource Center, part of the National Center for Rural Law Enforcement, has information on nearly 50 model programs that address youth violence.
Very few of those programs are solely school-based, suggesting that the role of violence prevention is not the exclusive responsibility of schools. Local communities, consulting organizations, and policymakers are all being asked to play integral roles in violence-prevention efforts. But ultimately, schools do face the challenge of setting up support systems that ensure students have a safe haven for learning.