Reports of student victimization at public schools continued a decades-long pattern of decline, and students’ reports of fear of harm at school also kept falling, new federal data show.
Between 1992 and 2014, the total victimization rate at schools fell from 181 per 1,000 students to 33 per 1,000 students. Those victimizations include incidents such as theft, assault, robbery, and sexual assault.
The data come from the annual “Indicators of School Crime and Safety” report, 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, the acting commissioner of the NCES, said in a statement. “There is still much policymakers should be concerned about. Incident levels are still much too high.”
The data are collected from surveys of students, teachers, and principals, as well as official reporting done by K-12 schools, colleges, and universities. The report 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.
About 21.5 percent of survey respondents ages 12 to 18 reported being bullied at school in 2013, down from 28.1 percent in 2005, according to the report. The survey does not ask students about bullying in general. Rather, it asks if they have been a victim of a menu of specific behaviors, including pushing, shoving, and exclusion from group activities.
But the bullying finding is in keeping with other federal data sources and student surveys that use different measures to gauge rates of the behavior.
In 2013, approximately 7 percent of students ages 12 to 18 reported being cyberbullied anywhere during the school year, according to the report, which does not include a year-by-year chart of this statistic.
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.
Local Data Important
Despite the federal findings, it’s important for policymakers and school districts to use state and local-level data to make decisions about safety, school security consultant Kenneth Trump said. Parents won’t be comforted by improving national data if their own children’s schools are experiencing high rates of peer victimization, problems with gangs, or emerging drug-abuse issues, he said.
And federal lawmakers shouldn’t assume they’re off the hook, either, Trump said. He cited a March report from the Government Accountability Office that found poor coordination among federal agencies to assist schools in preparing for emergencies.
Trump said that the report’s findings on K-12 crime are largely based on surveys of nationally representative groups of principals and students, not direct reports of incidents from every school in the country. Because of that, Trump said the report ends up downplaying safety issues in schools.
“People need to understand that this data is very limited in scope and depth from multiple surveys,” he said. “Federal statistics grossly underestimate the reality of school crime and violence. Public perception seems to overestimate it. The reality is probably somewhere in between.”
Parents Still Worry
Even as multiple indicators point to improved school safety, parents still call it one of their top concerns.
The 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?”
That number peaked at 55 percent in April 1999 after the Columbine High School massacre. It reached its low point, 15 percent, in August 2008.
More recently, concern about school safety rose after the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. In the wake of that tragedy, lawmakers around the country passed bills requiring safety drills, revising gun laws, and creating task forces to examine school security.
The new report is the first to include federal data on the Sandy Hook 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 Sandy Hook 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 1999-00 to 2013-14, public schools reporting the use of security cameras increased from 19 percent to 75 percent, and the number of 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 have undergone changes to monitor and improve school climate to ensure students feel safe, supported, and engaged. Those efforts, often paired with social-emotional learning, can decrease bullying and other forms of victimization, experts have said.
A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2016 edition of Education Week as National Survey Shows Rise in Student Safety