Schools across the country saw a rise in cyberbullying, student behavioral issues, and school shootings over 10 years concluding with the 2019-20 school year, according to the latest baseline federal data on school crime and safety.
The data is compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics from federal surveys.
School safety has become an intense focus in the aftermath of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 21 people and with the rise of behavioral issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Four in 10 educators reported feeling less safe than they did five years ago and 6 in 10 teachers and administrators said they fear “purposeful mass homicide” in recent Education Week surveys.
The NCES data only cover incidents through the 2019-20 school year—a period that includes the first several months of the pandemic, which affected data collection. As a result NCES urged caution in comparing the latest data with previous years. Nevertheless, it shines a light on decades of trends in student behavior and school security.
Among the key highlights from the report:
School shootings: There were 93 school shootings with casualties at public and private schools in 2019-20, the most at that point since the 2000-01 school year, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database. The database defines a shooting as anytime “a gun is brandished or fired on school property or a bullet hits school property for any reason, regardless of the number of victims, time of day, day of the week, or reason.”
Education Week also publishes a school shooting tracker, which reported 24 shootings in public and private schools over the 2019 calendar year and 10 shootings in 2020. The media organization uses a different and more selective definition. It considers a shooting as an incident in which a firearm is discharged in a school building or on a school bus while school is in session and an individual, other than the suspect or perpetrator, has a bullet wound from the incident. So far in 2022, there have been 27 school shootings, according to the tracker.
- Safety and security practices: The report showed a sharp increase in the use of safety tools and personnel. In 2019-20, 91 percent of schools used security cameras in buildings, which was up from the 61 percent that reported the same in 2009-10. Sixty-five percent of schools also reported having security staff present at least once a week in 2019-20, which was up from the 43 percent that reported the same in 2009-10.
Bullying: Both students and school leaders reported a decrease in incidents of bullying from the 2009 to the 2019 calendar years. In 2019, 22 percent of students ages 12 to 18 reported being bullied at school during the school year in the annual School Crime Supplement survey. That number is a 6 percentage point decrease from the 28 percent of students who reported being bullied in 2009.
Cyberbullying tells a different story. In the 2019-20 school year, 16 percent of public school leaders reported cyberbullying, which was double the 8 percent of school leaders that reported it in 2009-10. But surveys of students, which asked if students experienced “electronic bullying” in the past year, showed no measurable difference in the prevalence of cyberbullying over the decade.
Even with the changes in trends over time, bullying and cyberbullying were among the most prevalent discipline issues for schools; 15 percent of schools reporting that bullying occurred among students at least once a week in 2019-20.
- Student attacks on teachers: In 2019-20, 10 percent of schools reported verbal abuse of teachers, a 5 percentage point jump from 2009-10. Fifteen percent of schools reported student disrespect for teachers other than verbal abuse, which was an increase over the 9 percent reported in 2009-10. Schools also saw an increase in “widespread disorder in the classroom,” with 4 percent of schools reporting it in 2019-20 compared to 3 percent in 2009-10.
Crime: The first months of the COVID-19 pandemic meant fewer incidents in which children were the victims of crime, including theft, rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault, at school. From July 1, 2019, to Nov. 30, 2020, there were 11 victimizations per 1,000 students ages 12 to 18, which is a 60 percent drop from July 2018 through November 2019 numbers, according to the report.
In 2019-20 overall, 77 percent of public schools recorded one or more incidents of crime, and 47 percent of schools reported one or more incidents to law enforcement, according to the report. Those numbers were a decrease from 2009-10, in which 85 percent of schools reported one or more incidents of crime and 60 percent reported one or more incidents to law enforcement.
Alcohol and drug use: Fewer 9th through 12th graders reported using alcohol in 2019 than in 2009. In 2019, 29 percent of students reported using alcohol on at least one day in the 30 days prior to taking the survey, a decline from the 42 percent of students who reported the same in 2009.
Twenty-two percent of students reported using marijuana at least once in the 30 days prior to the survey and 22 percent said someone offered, sold, or gave them illegal drugs on school property in that same time period. The numbers were not measurably different from 2009 data.
Mental health services: Schools were more likely to assess student mental health in 2019-20 than in the 2017-18 school year. Over half of public schools, 55 percent, reported using diagnostic mental health assessments to evaluate students for mental health disorders in 2019-20, an increase over the 51 percent who did the same in 2017-18.
However, fewer schools—42 percent—reported actually providing treatment to students identified as having mental illnesses through the diagnostic testing. In 2017-18, 38 percent of schools offered treatment. Schools said those efforts were largely hindered by a lack of adequate funding and available mental health providers, according to the report.