The Columbine High School shootings were still fresh in the minds of educators across the nation in May 1999, when school district officials in the small, quiet town of Port Huron, Mich., unearthed a similarly violent student plot targeted for one of their middle schools. Four students from Holland Woods Middle School had allegedly written out a detailed plan of attack that included stealing firearms, capturing their principal, and then killing numerous students and staff members.
Had it been carried out, some experts say, the attack could have topped the violence that happened at Columbine High in Jefferson County, Colo., just a month before. But the apparent plot was thwarted after the boys, ages 12 to 14, began discussing the plan with friends. A fellow student who overheard one of their conversations alerted authorities.
But educators in Port Huron and other districts that have stopped potential attacks or suffered real in-school violence in recent years felt a painful sense of déjà vu last month when a troubled student entered Red Lake High School in Minnesota carrying a shotgun and a pistol and shot dead a school security guard, a teacher, five other students, and then himself.
Immediately, full-scale media attention followed, and the subject of school violence again was on the front pages of newspapers and a topic for talking heads on TV news programs. Lost in the media glare were the questions: Has school violence nationwide gotten better or worse? What does the research say?
“When you have a large-scale incident, it tends to give the perception that there is more violence in schools … or that schools are not safe,” says Jay Cerio, a professor of school psychology at Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y., who has conducted research on school violence. “But [that perception is] not true.”
Federal figures, for instance, show that the rate of reported violent crimes against students at school—such as murder, rape, and assault—declined from 48 victims per 1,000 students in 1992 to 24 per 1,000 for 2002.
In the city of Port Huron, which sits on the Canadian border, local school administrators and community members decided to try to improve school safety by improving their relationships with those who are at the heart of the issue: the students.
“The solutions lie with people,” says Superintendent William D. Kimball, who has been with the 13,200-student district more than 30 years and plans to retire in June. “We felt that to educate the students and staff [about topics such as bullying] was more productive than just trying to prevent someone from coming in [the building].”
After the 1999 student plan in Port Huron was uncovered, the district set up a 35-member community task force composed of educators, parents, and community and business leaders to review the district’s policies on safety and security. While the district did implement changes based on task force recommendations—such as standardized identification passes for employees and limits on access to school buildings by visitors—it resisted the idea of installing security equipment to monitor hallways and scan for potential weapons.
Instead, the committee focused on training teachers and administrators on what to do in a number of emergency situations—including severe weather, missing or kidnapped students, chemical spills, and school intrusions—and how to recognize and help students who were victims of bullying, felt like outsiders in the school community, or were showing signs of depression.
“School safety is a whole lot more than someone bringing a gun to school,” says Kimball, who acknowledges that after the incident six years ago the district did tighten its code of conduct so that any student who brought a gun to school would be subject to expulsion. “I think we’ve done more to make our schools safe than schools that just put in metal detectors. It’s a broader problem than that.”
Researchers agree that school shootings are only a small part of the bigger school safety picture, and that the public needs to have a broader understanding of all the kinds of incidents that fall under the term “safety.” The vast majority of criminal and victimization incidents that occur in schools do not involve physical violence, according to federal studies.
“Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2004,” released by the National Center for Education Statistics last November, found that 62 percent of all victimization incidents in schools were thefts. In addition, the report showed that students were nearly 3½ times more likely to experience violent crimes—such as sexual or aggravated assault—away from school than on school grounds.
School-based homicides and firearms-related incidents showed further evidence that students are likely to be safer while they are on school property than in their neighborhoods and homes. The report says, for instance, that between 1992 and 2000, 390 students died in violent deaths or accidents at school, with 234 of those incidents being homicides and 43 suicides. By contrast, over the same time period, more than 24,000 school-age children were the victims of homicides outside school, while nearly 17,000 students committed suicide. Other statistics also illustrate a picture of less, rather than more, school-based violence. The number of school-based homicides involving students, for example, dropped from 33 incidents during the 1998-99 school year to 14 by 2001-02, the latest year for which federal figures are available.
In fact, most experts estimate that fatal and nonfatal school shootings make up less than 1 percent of all reported episodes of violence in schools nationwide. The Justice Policy Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit research and public-policy organization, published a research report in 2000 that estimated that school-age children face a one-in-2-million chance of being killed by someone or dying in an accident at school.
But some school safety experts argue that the federal studies are fundamentally flawed because they base their conclusions on 3- to 4-year-old data that do not provide an accurate picture of the most current trends. In addition, they contend, because many episodes of school crime and violence are not reported to police, federal data may be underestimating its prevalence.
“Research oftentimes is very slim, inconsistent, or behind by several years,” says Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center, a nonprofit organization based in Westlake Village, Calif., that advocates strategies and programs to create safe schools. “Some indicators have [shown] a decrease in [school-based] crime, but the question is, what is being measured?”
Other authorities also say that the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to identify schools with high amounts of criminal or violent activity as persistently dangerous, has only exacerbated the problem of underreporting. Schools faced with the possibility of being labeled “persistently dangerous” have no incentive to accurately report episodes of violence, critics say. (“Guidance Urges Input on ‘Dangerous Schools’ Definitions,” June 9, 2004.)
“For the U.S. Department of Education to tell the American education community and public in general that school crime is declining is misleading,” Kenneth S. Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, said in an e-mail interview.
Trump’s school safety consulting firm, which is based in Cleveland, tracks reports of school crime and violence and annually surveys school-based police officers. “Today’s school administrators need to know what has happened over the past year and what to expect tomorrow,” Trump says. “They do not have time, need, or interest in more federal ‘paralysis by analysis’ of antiquated and inaccurate data from three or four years ago.”
For instance, his firm’s 2004 report on school violence, released in February of this year, found that 86 percent of 758 school resource officers surveyed said that crimes at their schools were underreported, and that 78 percent said they had confiscated a weapon from a student in the past year. Federal surveys, Trump says, rely too heavily on limited academic and self-reported information, rather than actual criminal incidents reported to law enforcement or covered by the news media.
Still, some researchers disagree with Stephens’ and Trump’s assessment of school crime data. Jean O’Neil, the director of research and evaluation for the Washington-based National Crime Prevention Council, a national nonprofit educational organization that focuses on crime-prevention information, doesn’t believe that federal studies are inaccurate or misleading.
“Kids don’t usually report to police,” she says, pointing out that because federal studies gather information directly from 12- to 17-year-olds, the data are less filtered than studies based directly on incidents reported to police.
All forms of crime in the United States, from theft to murder, O’Neil observes, are down to their lowest levels in more than 30 years, with a drop of as much as 60 percent since the early 1990s. According to federal figures, violent crime has declined steadily since 1993, when there were 4.1 million violent crimes committed in the United States. In 2002, that number had dropped to 1.8 million. O’Neil says student crime and violence has followed that trend, in large part, because schools—through tough zero-tolerance policies—have made it clear that violence will not be tolerated, and that there are severe consequences if a student brings a weapon onto campus. She also notes that greater public awareness of bullying, and improvements in school security technology and planning, have helped.
Nearly half the 428 students who attend Holland Woods Middle School in Port Huron are considered at risk of failing in school, and 20 percent to 25 percent require special education. No single racial or ethnic group dominates the school, located an hour north of Detroit.
Principal Cheryl Rogers has found students to be good at handling diversity, particularly since the start of the school’s peer-mediation program.
“Having conflict is a part of the natural order,” Rogers says. “But learning how to problem-solve is a life skill, and that’s what this program is teaching kids.”
The program—which was started shortly after four Holland Woods students were arrested for the 1999, Columbine-style plot—is another part of the Port Huron district’s effort to avert violent incidents by reaching out to students rather than just tightening school security. (Two of the four boys involved in the plot were charged with intent to commit bodily harm and were sentenced to four years of probation, according to media accounts. Charges were dropped against a third student, and another boy was acquitted in a jury trial.)
Every school year, the district enlists about 60 peer mediators from the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. The students undergo 10 hours of training during an annual summer youth camp, where they learn how to conduct effective mediation. They’re taught how to establish and maintain ground rules, speak using neutral language, address potential problems, brainstorm conflict resolutions, and develop communication skills, such as paraphrasing.
Once they’re fully trained, peer mediators can deal with a variety of disputes, from petty theft to bullying. Mediation forms are available in every classroom, and the school allows students to request mediation and choose their mediators, although an adult must approve the mediation before it can take place.
“This creates a school climate where kids know they have more than one way to solve problems,” says Rogers. “You catch the early stages of bullying and prevent [conflicts] from becoming more serious.”