Counter to popular narratives, American schools may actually be getting safer.
Reports of student victimization at school continue to decline, and students’ reports of fear of harm at school also keep falling, data released today show.
Between 1992 and 2014, the total victimization rate at school fell from 181 victimizations per 1,000 students in 1992 to 33 victimizations per 1,000 students in 2014, according to the most recent federal data. Those victimizations include incidents such as theft, assault, robbery, and sexual assault.
The data come from an annual report, Indicators of School Crime and Safety, which is produced jointly by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the U.S. Department of Justice.
“The data show that we have made progress; bullying is down, crime is down, but it’s not enough,” Peggy G. Carr, acting commissioner of NCES, said in a statement. “There is still much policy makers should be concerned about. Incident levels are still much too high.”
The data is collected from surveys of students, teachers, and principals and from official reporting done by K-12 schools, colleges, and universities. It includes a range of indicators about how schools keep students safe, how they administer discipline, and teachers’ perceptions of safety and classroom order.
Students generally seemed to see school as a safer place, the data show. The percentage of students who reported being afraid of attack or harm at school or on the way to and from school decreased from 12 percent in 1995 to 3 percent in 2013.
And about 21.5 percent of survey respondents ages 12-18 reported being bullied at school in 2013, down from 28.1 percent in 2005, according to the report. That’s in keeping with other federal data sources and student surveys that show decreases in rates of school bullying.
Concerns About School Safety
By 2013, high school students who reported being in a physical fight on school property dropped to 8 percent, down from 16 percent two decades earlier, the data show.
So what should schools make of this? How is it that, as multiple indicators point to improved school safety, parents still call it one of their top concerns?
Polling organization Gallup has found that such concerns seem to spike after school shootings. In 2015, Gallup found that about 29 percent of its parental poll respondents answered affirmatively to the question: “Thinking about your eldest child, when he or she is at school, do you fear for his or her physical safety?”
U.S. parents' fears about school safety reached a high of 55% in April 1999 after the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado. Parents' concern typically peaks immediately following high-profile shootings—as seen in 2001 (45%) after the Santana High School shooting in California, and in 2006 (35%) after a shooting in an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania—and then fades. The low point in parental concern (15%) came in August 2008."
More recently, public concern about school safety saw an uptick after the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. In the wake of that event, lawmakers around the country passed bills requiring safety drills, revising gun laws, and creating task forces to examine the state of school security. At the same time, private companies began peddling products like bullet-proof backpacks to parents and schools.
Monday’s report is the first federal data to include those deaths. Preliminary data show that there were 53 school-associated violent deaths, including 11 suicides in 2012-13, the report says. That includes the 26 children and school staff shot at the school and gunman Adam Lanza, who turned the gun on himself as police responded. While that number is higher than the previous year’s total of 45, it is not a complete outlier in 20 years of trend data.
So what are schools doing to improve safety? From 1999-2000 to 2013-14, the percentage of public schools reporting the use of security cameras increased from 19 percent to 75 percent, and the number of public schools that controlled access to buildings increased from 75 percent to 93 percent. During the 2013-14 school year, 88 percent of schools had a written plan for how to respond to a shooting, but only 70 percent of those had drilled students on the use of the plan.
Beyond that, schools around the country have also undergone efforts to monitor and improve school climates to ensure that students feel safe, supported, and engaged. Such efforts, often paired with social-emotional learning, can decrease rates of bullying and other forms of victimization, experts have said.
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- Suit by Parents, Pro-Charter Group: N.Y.C. Schools Have School Climate Problems
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.