School Climate & Safety

School Crime Rate Drops, Federal Report Says

By Rhea R. Borja — December 07, 2004 4 min read
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The rate of violent crime in public schools dropped 50 percent between 1992 and 2002, according to a study released last week by the U.S. departments of Education and Justice.

School safety experts gave mixed reviews to the report. Some said the findings show that safety plans are working, while others in the field argued that the federal numbers greatly understate the extent of crime on K-12 campuses.

Violent crimes over that decade dropped from 48 to 24 incidents a year per 1,000 students at school. The drop in the violent victimization rate out of school was even more precipitous, from 71 to 26 crimes per 1,000 students.

The numbers were based on information from the Justice Department, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the “National Crime Victimization Survey, 1992-2002.” Violent crimes include rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and theft.

The report, “Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2004,” is available online from the National Center for Education Statistics. ()

In addition, the percentage of high school students between 1993 and 2003 who reported having carried a gun, a knife, or another weapon to school within a month of the survey decreased by half, from 12 percent to 6 percent. The percentage of high school students who said they had been in a physical fight at school within a month of the survey also declined, though less sharply, from 16 percent to 13 percent.

The reported decrease in such incidents at school mirrors the overall decline in violent crime, especially youth-related crime, between 1994 and 2000, according to figures from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Justice Department, and other national sources.

In fact, violent crime declined more sharply among juveniles than adults in that period, according to an analysis of FBI data by the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research group in Washington. Juvenile arrests for murder dropped by 68 percent, for robbery by 51 percent, and for aggravated assault by 22 percent.

“The falling rate of violence in American communities during the late 1990s was disproportionately caused by young people,” senior research associate Jeffrey Butts and senior fellow Jeremy Travis of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center write in their report “The Rise and Fall of American Youth Violence: 1980 to 2000.”

Critics Question Data

The researchers give some possible reasons for the decline in juvenile violence, such as the influence of a strong economy in the 1990s, the growth of community policing, less cultural tolerance for violence, and more aggressive policies to regulate firearms.

A few school safety experts, though, say the new school crime study may create a false sense of security because it’s based on underreported and outdated information.

“The federal statistics grossly underrepresent school violence,” said Kenneth S.Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm. “These numbers are based on limited academic surveys and self-surveys, not actual criminal incidents. Also, we know that crime in schools is underreported to school law enforcement.”

He pointed to an annual survey released last week by the National Association of School Resource Officers, based in Osprey, Fla. The group’s report says that more than 86 percent of 758 school-based police officers surveyed said that school crimes were underreported. Findings in the past three annual NASRO surveys were similar.

“When police officers who are in schools and on the front lines of protecting our children tell us there are serious concerns with school crime reporting, it is irresponsible for those sitting in offices in D.C. to mislead the American public,” Sgt. Sean Burke, the vice president of NASRO and a police supervisor in Lawrence, Mass., said in a statement.

But William Modzeleski of the Education Department countered that the federal report was methodologically sound and tracked with the overall decline in national crime rates.

“What you see is what you get,” Mr. Modzeleski, the associate deputy under secretary of the office of safe and drug-free schools, said of the results of the report. “We are paying more attention to [school crime].”

Prevention Pays Off

The findings of the 189-page school crime report were based on a wide range of sources, including data collections from the FBI, the National Center for Education Statistics, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and surveys of students, teachers, and principals.

At least one school safety expert scoffs at the notion that the report uses bad data and misleads the public.

While it may be impossible to get a completely accurate picture of school crime, the report is a good indicator of the state of school safety and shows that the safety and crisis plans now mandatory for schools in almost 30 states are working, said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center, a nonprofit group based in Westlake Village, Calif.

Stronger crisis-prevention and security plans are in place in many districts, especially since a spate of multiple shootings in schools in the late 1990s and the added concerns about security following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“This is probably the best information that’s out there, and we can take some guidance from it,” Mr. Stephens said of the federal report. “Schools and school safety officers should take credit for their crisis-prevention and responsible supervision plans out there.”

Still, Mr. Stephens added, more work should be done to prevent incidents such as name-calling and bullying. The percentage of 12- to 18-year-old students who reported they were bullied at school rose from 5 percent in 1999 to 8 percent in 2001, according to the school crime report. That figure dropped slightly to 7 percent in 2003.

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