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School Climate & Safety

Violence, Hate Crimes in Schools Surged in Pre-COVID Period, Federal Watchdog Finds

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 29, 2021 7 min read
Hands of people point to a boy insinuating bullying.
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Sexual assaults, physical attacks, and other hostile behaviors in schools rose significantly in several school years prior to the pandemic, according to a federal government watchdog’s new report, but the data offer little insight into the trajectory of such incidents during the disruption from COVID-19.

Hate crimes, in particular, which frequently involve students targeted based on their race, national origin, or sexual orientation, increased by an estimated 81 percent in K-12 public schools between the 2015-16 and 2017-18 school years, the two most recent school years for which the Government Accountability Office gathered such data. Meanwhile, the number of assaults with a weapon nearly doubled during that same time frame, the GAO found in its report published earlier this month. And an estimated 20 percent of students in middle and high schools were bullied in school in recent years, the report said.

The adoption of various strategies intended to address school violence and harassment also increased over that time. The GAO reported, for example, that an additional 18,000 schools adopted social-emotional learning programs between those two years, while the number of schools using police in schools—school resource officers—increased by 2,000. (There are roughly 99,000 public schools in the U.S.) And nearly every school has some sort of staff training designed to improve school climate, the GAO found.

The reported spike in hostile behaviors, based on a GAO survey of 4,800 school principals and other administrators, doesn’t tell us anything about the last few school years affected by COVID, although it does contribute to a pre-pandemic baseline of information about school climate.

Long-term data indicates that school climate and safety has improved significantly compared to a few decades ago. A joint report from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice published in 2019, for example, found that rates of students ages 12-17 reporting theft, assault, and other violent offenses both at and away from school had declined significantly since the early 1990s.

Yet the rate of students who reported fearing harm at school increased slightly from 2015 to 2017 after several years of decline, the report found.

Recent, high-profile investigations into districts concerning school climate and safety, with troubling results.

In 2019, for example, a federal civil-rights probe of Chicago Public Schools documented fundamental failures by school officials to protect students from sexual harm; the probe led to sweeping changes to how the nation’s third-largest school district responds to such incidents. Earlier this year, the Department of Justice found “serious and widespread racial harassment” in Utah’s Davis school district involving slurs and other incidents targeting Black and Asian students.

The issue of assaults and hostile behavior at schools has, if anything, grown more urgent as the pandemic has persisted. Anecdotal reports have fed concerns that violence at schools may be be on the rise this academic year, although it’s unclear whether an actual increase is taking place and, if so, what factors are behind it. Concerns about a growing number of hate crimes in schools have drawn significant attention in the last few years.

Apart from the direct harm done to students victimized by bullying, harassment, and assaults, the GAO noted that according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, “Even youth who have observed but not participated in bullying behavior report significantly more feelings of helplessness and less sense of connectedness and support from responsible adults (parents/schools) than youth who are have not witnessed bullying behavior.”

Bullying more prevalent in middle schools and smaller schools

About 1 in 5 students ages 12 to 18 were bullied, and bullying occurred in nearly every school, according to GAO estimates from student surveys in the 2014-15, 2016-17, and 2018-19 school years included in the new report. Middle school students were more likely to be bullied than their high school counterparts. Students in relatively small schools were more likely to report being bullied than their peers in relatively large schools. And among students who were bullied in 2018-19, about 1 in 4 were bullied “related to their race, national origin, religion, disability, gender, or sexual orientation.”

The agency also estimated that out of all students ages 12 to 18, 1 in 4 students saw hate words or symbols written at school, such as racial, anti-Semitic, and homophobic slurs.

In a GAO podcast, Jackie Nowicki, the office’s director for K-12 education issues, highlighted one case in which several students were captured on video physically assaulting a Muslim student and yanking her hijab off, while also taunting her with anti-Muslim slurs.

“We also know that these numbers are likely under-reported, because fewer than half of all bullied students reported the bullying to a teacher or another adult,” Nowicki said.

At the same time, rising awareness of racism and sexism in schools and society in general might be leading more people to report some incidents stemming from them, said James A. Densley, a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minn., who’s studied gun violence.

“We could take any reported increase in hate crimes at face value and as a bellwether for the state of our society right now, or we could say that hate crimes have always been under-reported and these data represent a course correction that includes changes in public perception,” Densley wrote in an email about the GAO report’s overall findings.

Efforts to track these and other incidents depend on the diligence from schools and others in reporting them, and the agency found the number of complaints of hostile behaviors in schools filed with the Education Department’s office for civil rights declined by 15 percent from the 2017-18 to 2019-20 school years.

The GAO said that decline was in part attributable to the shift to remote learning driven by the pandemic late in the 2019-20 academic year. But during interviews with civil rights advocates, the agency also heard criticism of the Trump administration’s approach to the Education Department’s office for civil rights, and of former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ decision to rescind guidance related to transgender students and other civil rights matters.

“Several civil rights experts we spoke with said that in recent years, changes to [the office for civil rights’] guidance made them reluctant to file some types of complaints on behalf of students or to encourage students and their families to file some types of complaints with OCR,” the GAO’s report states. “As OCR’s priorities changed, some civil rights experts lost confidence in OCR’s ability to address civil rights violations in schools.”

Representatives for one advocacy group reported, for example, that they were more likely to file such complaints in federal court than with OCR. DeVos rescinded Obama-era guidance in part due to concerns that the federal directives were ineffective and burdensome for school officials. Under DeVos, the department’s speed at resolving complaints to OCR involving hostile behaviors accelerated as time went on.

The Biden administration is looking to reinstate Obama guidance affecting school discipline and transgender students, and it is also looking to overhaul regulations for Title IX concerning sexual misconduct in K-12 schools.

Schools’ approach to safety and discipline can be difficult to characterize broadly. As of mid-November, 49 school districts serving 2 million students ended school police programs or cut their budgets since May 2020, when George Floyd’s murder led to nationwide protests and activism targeting police in general, according to Education Week research.

Report came in response to congressional request

The GAO issued the report, “Students’ Experiences with Bullying, Hate Speech, Hate Crimes, and Victimization in Schools,” in response to a request from Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the House education committee, for the agency to look into hostile behaviors and how schools responded to them.

“This GAO report confirms what we already know to be true: way too many students are bullied and targeted by other students for how they look, who they love, and how they worship, and while more steps have been taken to address this, there is still much more work to do,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., the vice chair of the House committee, said in a statement responding to the GAO’s findings. “It’s our job as leaders and educators to make sure our kids know they are not alone.”

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the ranking member of the committee, said the report underscores the need for greater transparency in pubic schools.

“If harassment, including sexual assaults, are on the rise or persisting in schools then why is the Biden Department of Education going to stop requiring schools to report allegations of sexual assaults by school staff members? As tax-funded institutions, K-12 public schools are not exempt from oversight,” Foxx said in a statement, referring to a Biden administration proposal to stop collecting information related to accusations of such incidents for the next Civil Rights Data Collection.

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