School Climate & Safety

More Schools Are Reporting Serious Violence and Hiring Police

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 25, 2019 5 min read
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Nearly half of schools are employing police. Many more schools than previously are now engaging in more “restorative practices” and alternative forms of discipline meant to keep students in schools rather than at home or in detention facilities.

Yet after a period of decline, serious violent incidents are on the rise in American schools.

All these changes are revealed in new federal data released on Thursday.

Those data paint a conflicting picture of the state of safety in schools—posing difficult questions on nearly all sides of the roiling debate, including those who support “hardening” schools with more armed personnel; those who believe alternatives to suspension are making schools less safe; and those who argue that school police are a direct cause of the “school to prison pipeline” that disproportionately affects black students.

The federal data collection, conducted by the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Education, is based on a nationally representative survey of schools from the 2017-18 school year.

While it gives a snapshot of the general state of school safety, it does not support cause-and-effect explanations about what is driving the patterns. But that is unlikely to prevent advocates from pressing the data into service to support any number of claims.

Here are three of the report’s biggest takeaways.

Many schools are employing police, and those officers are packing heat.

Nearly half of all schools, or 45 percent, now report having a school resource officer working in their schools at least full- or part-time. SROs are police officers who theoretically have some training on working with children and adolescents, though this is not always borne out in practice.

While that figure is not a statistically significant increase from 2015-16, the data do show that schools report using more full-time SROs, 24 percent, compared to 21 percent in 2015-16. And it is much higher than in 2009-10, when only 31 percent of schools reported having an SRO.

SROs were virtually unheard of before the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999, but have increased steadily since then.

The recent uptick this decade could be due to actions districts have taken in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., massacre, in 2012. The data collection took place right as the Parkland, Fla., shooting occurred, and now that several states have passed legislation arming more school officials, it’s likelier that these figures are now even higher.

In all, the number of schools with a full- or part-time law enforcement officer—including SROs—grew from 39,900 in 2015-16 to 42,100 in 2017-18. Of course, officers are not equally distributed among schools; some have more than one. An estimate of the total number of police officers in schools was not yet available, federal officials said.

Nearly all law-enforcement officials in the schools that employ them carry firearms of some sort: 90 percent. Ninety-one percent also carry physical restraints, such as handcuffs or stun guns.

However, schools reported a significant increase in the percent of police in schools who wear body cameras. That figure jumped from 16 percent to 33 percent. Body cameras have grown in popularity as the debate over police accountability and racial discrimination has intensified. They are widely supported by the public despite mixed reports of their effectiveness in changing police behavior.

Serious violent incidents, including hate crimes and sexual assault reports in schools, are rising.

Reports of violent incidents were statistically the same as in 2015-16, occurring in 71 percent of schools. Fights, threats, possession of a sharp object, and theft were the most common incidents.

But there was a significant increase in the number of serious violent incidents: Twenty-one percent of schools reported a serious violent incident—rape, attacks using weapons, or robbery—up from about 15.5 percent in 2015-16. Such incidents are still exceedingly rare, occurring on the order of just over 1 in 1,000 students, but the increase is disturbing nevertheless. Much of this appears to have been driven by an increase in threats made while in possession a weapon, but there are a few other notable patterns.

While incidents of rape did not rise, reports of other types of sexual assault increased by a statistically significant amount, with about 5 percent of schools reporting one, up from about 3 percent. It is unclear how to interpret this.

One possibility: The #MeToo movement got underway right as this collection began, and more students may feel comfortable or empowered to report these incidents to their schools, but the data don’t say one way or another.

Similarly, the percentage of schools reporting hate crimes increased, from 1 percent to nearly 2 percent in 2017-18, another statistically significant increase.

This figure represents only about 1,600 schools in all, but it’s worth noting in the wake of current political discourse. Last year, for example, researchers found evidence of a “Trump effect” of racialized bullying following the 2016 presidential election, and there were some viral examples of students shouting “build the wall” or teachers dressing up in racist costumes. Education Week also covered the phenomenon in its “Documenting Hate” project.

Again, though, the federal data can only support conjectures, and it’s also possible that the discourse around race unleashed by the 2016 election and its aftermath simply brought more awareness to these issues, and encouraged their reporting.

Nearly all schools claim to be using “social emotional learning.” Fewer report using restorative practices.

Nearly 90 percent of schools report using “social emotional learning” practices in their schools, compared with 66 percent in 2015-16, a sign that this instructional trend has truly taken off in public schools.

Social emotional learning generally focuses on explicitly teaching students life skills such as how to improve their relationships, self-management, and responsible decisionmaking. But it’s a difficult term to define, teach, and measure, and it’s not clear that all schools are truly integrating these concepts rather than making it an “add on” for teachers and students.

Increasingly, schools are having students participate in restorative circles, a specific kind of peer mediation that requires students in conflict to come together to talk through the problem, find solutions, and commit to reestablishing healthy school norms. That figure jumped to 42 percent in 2017-18, from 34 percent. Experts, though, caution that restorative justice work is difficult and that not all schools are well equipped to do it.

The move towards “softer” methods of school discipline has been one of the major subtexts in school safety discussions, especially following the shooting in Parkland. Several families who lost children in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas have become vocal critics of Broward County, Fla.,’s alternative discipline program—as well as the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce racial disparities in school discipline practices.

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