Editor's note: This version is from 2004. An updated version from 2011 is available.
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).
But the statistics on acts of school violence may not support that view. While some of the numbers point to a decline, others show no real change or only a slight increase over the past decade.
The 2002 "Indicators of School Crime and Safety" report from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice indicates that overall crime rates in schools have declined since their peak in the early ’90s. Between 1995 and 2001, the percentage of students who reported being victims of crime at school decreased from 10 percent to 6 percent. And the report also points out that in 2000, students were more than twice as likely to be the victim of violent crime away from school than in school.
The National School Safety Center, a nonprofit group advocating safe schools, tracks the number of school-associated violent deaths. For the 2001-02 school year, the group reports only five such deaths, down from 22 the prior year, 44 in 1997-98; and a high of 56 in 1992-93, the first year the organization tracked that statistic. Yet a report on youth violence from the U.S. surgeon general, finds that when looking at confidential self-reports by teenagers, perceptions of levels of violence among students have remained fairly stable over the past decade (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001).
Bullying, often cited as a cause for youth violence, has been on the rise, however. In 2001, 8 percent of students reported having been bullied in the past six months, up from 5 percent in 1999 (U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, 2002).
Regardless of how it is measured, any level of school violence violates the basic assumption that schools should be a safe and welcoming environment. Installing metal detectors, organizing police forces, performing hostage drills, and conducting anger-management training may sound like procedures that belong in detention centers, not at local schools, but those are exactly the kinds of measures that many schools find themselves considering.
Recent efforts to address the problem have also 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. A survey of the states conducted for Education Week’s Quality Counts 2003 annual report found that 28 states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation to enforce specific penalties for acts of school violence.
That same survey also found that 32 states and the District of Columbia have enacted some kind of bullying/harassment prevention program or legislation. These and other 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.
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.