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School Climate & Safety

School Violence Down, Report Says, But Worry High

By Jessica Portner — April 12, 2000 3 min read

Public fear of school shootings has not abated despite statistics that show the number of violent crimes on campuses is small and continues to decline, according to a report scheduled for release this week.

In its second report, titled “School House Hype: Two Years Later,” the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute contends that schools’ fear of lawsuits has driven up the number of student suspensions and prompted schools to buy high-tech security devices that are only marginally effective in reducing crime.

Follow Up

“School House Hype: Two Years Later” is available online at www.cjcj.org/schoolhousehype/

“Our young people are neither schoolhouse assassins nor the kids on the other side of the yellow tape, weeping over their classmates,” said Vincent Schir-aldi, the director of the private, nonprofit institute. “They don’t need us to turn their schools into prisons; they need our support to live healthy, happy lives,” he said.

The report, a compilation of federal school-crime data, public-policy research, and recent opinion polls, shows that the number of school-associated violent deaths has decreased 40 percent, from 43 in 1998 to 26 last year, in a population of 52 million U.S. students.

In addition, a 1998 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 1993 and 1997, reports of physical fights fell 14 percent, reports of students being injured in fights dropped 20 percent, and the number of students who reported having carried a weapon in the past 30 days decreased by 30 percent.

Fear of Crime

Still, the report says, fears of school crime continue to permeate society and drive public policy. In a telephone poll conducted by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News in 1998, 71 percent of the respondents said they thought it was likely a school shooting could happen in their community.

Meanwhile, suspensions and expulsions are at an all-time high, the institute notes. Citing federal U.S. Department of Education data, the report says that suspensions have increased steadily for all students, rising from 1.7 million to 3.1 million—or 6.8 percent of all students—in 1997.

In Maryland, another study found that more than 60 percent of student suspensions were for nonviolent acts.

Nationwide, expulsions in general have disproportionately been issued to African- American and special education students, the report says. An analysis of data by the Applied Research Center, an Oakland, Calif.-based education research group, shows that in the Phoenix public schools, black students were expelled at 22 times the rate of white students. And in Austin, Texas, Denver, and San Francisco, black youths were expelled at three to four times the rate of white students.

To address their fears of school shootings, the report says, schools are increasingly turning to elaborate security measures. The authors point out one school system that hired SWAT teams to practice emergency evacuation drills in which “wounded” students were airlifted to safety by helicopter.

A study last year by the University of Maryland suggests, however, that such safety drills, along with the institution of metal detectors and locker searches, often make students feel less safe and do not reduce the crime rate at schools, the report says.

In their recommendations, the authors point the finger at journalists and public officials who, they say, often inflame public fears of crime at schools. They also suggest the enactment of strict gun laws to regulate children’s access to firearms.

“The nation needs to stop focusing exclusively on kids bringing guns to school, and address the more fundamental questions of how kids got those guns in the first place,” the report says.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as School Violence Down, Report Says, But Worry High

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