School Climate & Safety Commentary

Zero Tolerance For Zero Knowledge

By Ron Avi Astor & Rami Benbenishty — July 26, 2005 7 min read
By gathering reliable local data on school safety and then disseminating such information to the public, we can empower those who are struggling to achieve their dreams under trying circumstances.

The heart-wrenching images of communities ravaged by school shootings are seared into our national consciousness. Fears of contagion and a perceived worsening of the school violence problem are crippling outcomes. After the shootings on the Red Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota this past spring, a Gallup/CNN poll reported that close to three-quarters of the American public believed such school shootings were likely to happen in their communities, and 60 percent did not think those tragic events could be prevented.

Given the billions of dollars spent nationally on school safety and violence-prevention measures since the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, the profound influence of such events on the nation’s confidence is notable. The irony becomes more pronounced when one considers that public perceptions of failure in this area are occurring at a time of historic reductions in school violence. During the past 12 years, school crimes as a whole have dropped by approximately two-thirds. Theft and violent crimes on school grounds have declined by about 50 percent. Even serious violent crimes on school grounds, comparatively low to begin with, have shown reductions. (The statistics are contained in the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice’s “Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2004.”)

What explains this mismatch in public perception vs. reality? For starters, there is a pervasive lack of information available to the general public. Most citizens are not aware of the massive reductions in school violence. Media reporting plays a large role in this dynamic. As researchers, we regularly hear reporters say that these historic reductions are not “newsworthy” or “interesting” to the general public. Recently, one reporter explained off the record that “we don’t report when planes land safely.” Having heard such arguments over many years, we suspect they are common in the news industry. But we urge the media to actively report the improving trends. Increased coverage of successful violence-prevention efforts would reflect the national reality in a more honest way.

Clearly though, the lack of adequate public information cannot be attributed to media reporting alone. Nationally, there is almost a complete void of local information on school violence issues. This situation is perplexing, since the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires states and districts to collect local school safety data through surveys and other means. The logic behind this requirement is simple: Students cannot achieve high academic standards in schools with persistent, chronic, and severe violence. Under the law, parents who have children in “persistently dangerous” schools are allowed to shift their children’s attendance to “safer” schools to increase their chances of attending more academically sound schools.

But how would parents determine if their child’s school was safe or unsafe? Academically, the NCLB law provides detailed information about the status of schools on an array of standardized academic indicators. Low-performing schools are targeted for improvement or for restructuring. But what if a school has low academic performance because of persistent violence? How would the parents know? If this federal legislation is to be effective, parents need to know the extent of violence in their children’s schools.

What do we parents know now? Sadly, the answer is that we don’t know very much because no one has collected that information or made it open to us. How many fights occurred in our local schools last year? We don’t know. How many students carry weapons in our sons’ and daughters’ schools? We don’t know. How many students in our neighborhood schools see other students carrying weapons on school grounds or on the routes to and from school? We don’t know. How many students or teachers in our children’s schools have seen violent gang activity on school grounds? We don’t know. How many students in our own community feel unsafe at school or even skip school altogether because they are afraid of bullies? We don’t know. Unfortunately, the vast majority of schools in the United States would not be able to answer the most rudimentary questions parents or students might ask regarding school violence.

How can this be, if the No Child Left Behind law is so specific about collecting local school violence information? Unfortunately, the law allows states to define their own criteria for what constitutes a “persistently dangerous” school. The designation is based mainly on the number of expulsions over a three-year period. This is problematic, since, as many studies have shown, suspensions and expulsions tend to be highly susceptible to administrators’ discretion. Pragmatic principals may well come up with other kinds of interventions to avoid stigmatizing or labeling their schools. This may explain why, in a populous state such as California, with approximately 37 million residents and more than 9,000 public schools, there are currently no schools designated by the state as “persistently dangerous.” This makes the No Child Left Behind law’s goal of providing parents with safety information about their child’s school a farce.

What can be done? We have several suggestions based on more than 30 years of research on school violence, conducted both internationally and in the United States.

All schools should be required to conduct yearly student and teacher surveys on school violence. Asking students about the problems they experience and how they would deal with them gives young people a voice in the process and should be the basis for identifying problems and solutions. And the focus should not be restricted to extreme examples, such as shootings. Students and teachers should be asked about common forms of violence: bullying, teasing, sexual harassment, threats, and others. It also would be important to know how safe students feel at school, and whether they believe the school’s teachers and staff members are responding effectively to violent incidents.

Collecting data is not enough, however. Often, such information never filters back to the public. It should rapidly be made available to students, parents, teachers, the local media, and community organizations. This is a critical first step in establishing public awareness. Opening the information to all would help create an information-based dialogue on how to address violence at any given school, rather than allow opinion-based reaction to cloud the issues.

The NCLB law provides detailed information about the status of schools on an array of standardized academic indicators, but what if a school has low academic performance because of persistent violence?

Solutions should be based on local data over time. Schools do not have the same problems or personalities, and they change. Our research suggests that even within the same communities, schools tend to have different kinds of violence. One may have a problem with weapons, another with sexual harassment, and a third might have a high incidence of school fights or hate crimes. Each form of violence begs a very different kind of response. In the absence of good local data, school districts tend to select a one-size-fits-all program, targeting perhaps only one form of violence, such as bullying. If schools that don’t have that problem are forced to implement the district’s program, the result is a huge waste of public funds and school time. Finding out what type of problem a local school has would seem an obvious first step.

Once a program or intervention is selected, parents should know whether or not it works at their school. Given the expense involved, parents and the general public have a right to know if school prevention programs are in fact effective. If they aren’t, why continue to use them? If they are, why not let people know about it? Without local data, no school will be able to demonstrate success.

Children who are sexually harassed at school, see many school fights, or are frightened because they believe there are weapons on school grounds may not be able to reach the No Child Left Behind law’s academic goals because of emotional trauma. Schools that have these kinds of persistent problems should be expected first to improve the social climate and lower the levels of threat and victimization. Only then can their students and teachers be expected to perform well on academics.

Otherwise, we are punishing children for being unable to learn in a persistently harmful and dangerous environment. This is not fair. Nor is it inevitable. By gathering reliable local data on school safety and then disseminating such information to the public, we can empower those who are struggling to achieve their dreams under trying circumstances.


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