School Climate & Safety

Report Claims Guns More Plentiful at Schools

By Jessica Portner — September 27, 2000 4 min read
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Thousands more students are bringing guns to school than U.S. Department of Education statistics show because principals, afraid to tarnish their schools’ reputations, are underreporting the problem, a new report contends.

For More Information

Read the full report, “School-based Surveillance of Violence, Injury, and Disciplinary Actions,” from the Hamilton Fish Institute.

The report, released this month by the Hamilton Fish Institute, a federally financed research group affiliated with George Washington University, compares data from several leading national and state studies to reach its conclusions. Nationally, the study found “100 times more guns in the hands of children attending American schools than principals have been reporting to Congress,” the authors write.

Under the Gun Free Schools Act of 1994, principals are required to report to their districts or states the number of firearms confiscated in their schools every year. Researchers compared those statistics with data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which also receives federal subsidies.

The Gun Free Schools Act report from 1995 shows that 2,317 high school students were considered for expulsion for carrying a firearm to school that year. Extrapolating from the 1995 adolescent-health survey, the researchers estimate that 287,500 high school students had carried a gun to school in a 30-day period.

Hamilton Fish researchers said that one reason for the dramatic disparity in the numbers was that many students who carried guns weren’t detected. The researchers found that the disparities held up when they looked at several individual state surveys. An anonymous survey of Washington state youths in 1998, for example, turned up a total of 2,834 students in four grades carrying a gun to school over a 30-day period. Yet, only 190 students were caught with a gun at school in all grades during the entire year, according to Washington state education department data.

“This underestimation is huge,” said Paul M. Kingery, the executive director of the institute, which is located in Washington. He said that student surveys tend to be more accurate reflections of school crime because they are anonymous, while school leaders have a stake in what they report.

“Principals keep statistics artificially low,” he asserted, “because if the number of incidents goes up, they potentially risk placing their jobs and school funding in jeopardy.”

Mr. Kingery said the inconsistencies have policy implications because fewer resources are earmarked to address school crime if the problem is minimized. He recommends overhauling the way information is collected to improve the reliability of school crime estimates.

Numbers Disputed

Education Department officials strongly criticized the report last week.

William Modzeleski, the director of the department’s safe and drug-free schools office, called the report “foolhardy” and said the authors were “confused.”

“Not one person believes that schools are teeming with guns,” Mr. Modzeleski said. “I reject this out of hand.”

But Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., called the study “a bold move” that had exposed a general denial among administrators that crime occurs in their schools.

Mr. Stephens said that perception was exemplified in a survey. While 98 percent of administrators said they believed school crime was increasing, according to the survey, only 63 percent said it was rising in nearby schools. And only 39 percent said crime was on the rise in their own districts.

“To get an accurate perception of crime and violence, you have to look at unacknowledged and undetected crime,” Mr. Stephens said. “Even in reported crime, there are significant discrepancies between law- enforcement agencies and school systems, who feel it will make them look bad if they report crime,” he said.

No Hiding?

Some educators said the report’s findings reflect the fact that administrators are unaware of many guns that make it onto campus, not that they are concealing offenses.

“There are probably more guns in schools than are reported,” said Gerald N. Tirozzi, the president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “I can’t imagine, short of a body search on every student, how in God’s name any principal is going to know which student is carrying a weapon.”

Mr. Tirozzi dismissed the report’s contention that principals are hiding their knowledge of guns at school to protect their own reputations.

Since the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, they are even more vigilant, he said. “They are willing to turn in anything,” Mr. Tirozzi said of school administrators. “To even suggest [principals] would hide something like that from police is terribly wrong.”

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