Following the return of most U.S. schoolchildren to full-time, in-person learning, a raft of anecdotal reports indicate that violence may be rising in K-12 schools.
Teachers are reporting breaking up fights in schools and are raising concerns about their own safety. Students have been caught with guns or other weapons on campuses in several high-profile incidents. And school shootings in 2021, though still very rare, are on track to surpass their pre-pandemic high.
But if an actual surge is taking place, what’s causing it? Will it reshape the contours of the fractious school-safety conversation? And what do district leaders need to consider as they try to respond?
Criminologists note that the nation is in the grip of a general spike of violence probably due to the pandemic and social unrest accompanying the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Their best guess is that those trends are trickling inexorably, and tragically, down to K-12 students.
“You study these things for so long and then you throw the rule book out. No one really knows why we’ve got the trends and violence we’re seeing right now,” said James A. Densley, a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University, in St. Paul, Minn., who studies gun violence. “But I think at the same time, we’re coming to the same sorts of conclusions.
“It’s a combination of the pandemic; a lack of trust in our institutions, particularly law enforcement; the presence of guns; the toxic, divisive, contentious times we live in. They’re all interacting together.”
What do we know about rates of school crime?
No recent, nationally representative data set exists to confirm that there have been more violent incidents so far in the 2021-22 school year, due to reporting lags and the generally disparate nature of the data across thousands of school systems.
The most-recent federal collection on school safety found that some types of violent crimes were on the rise as of the 2017-18 school year, though the figures still fell far below overall crime levels in schools in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Anecdotally, though, teachers, principals, and educators now say they are seeing an increase that has roughly paralleled the return of most students to in-person schooling.
In Anchorage, Alaska, fights and assaults are making up more of the suspensions issued so far this year. A brawl and stabbing in an Annapolis, Md., high school led to seven juvenile arrests. Pupils damaged elementary classrooms in Vermont, overturning furniture and supply bins. Parents in Baltimore County, Md., organized a protest in response to a perceived increase in violence. In Shreveport, La., a group of fathers are now taking shifts greeting students at the high school after 23 students were arrested in a one-week period.
The rhetoric surrounding these kinds of incidents is often red hot, with administrators and parents warning about even more-dire consequences if district leaders don’t do something now.
“Our students are sending us warning shots. Literal warning shots,” said Peter Balas, a principal at Alexandria City High School, in Alexandria Va., at a city council meeting earlier this month. Shortly after, the council voted to temporarily restore school police officers, who had been pulled from buildings last year in the wake of a wave of national protests about police violence. (A spokeswoman for the district denied a request to follow up with the principal.)
Teachers, too, have reported being victims of violence at school.
In Rochester, N.Y., high school English teacher Corrine Mundorff was in the middle of trying to break up a fight when, she says, a student sexually assaulted her, repeatedly groping her after she told the student not to.
The troubled city has long suffered from generational poverty and high crime rates. With so many kids out of school last year, some seem to have pulled into neighborhood turf squabbles, she said.
“We have some issues that we’ve been dealing with for years and years. This year, however we have brought our kids back—23,000 of them—and for some reason we’ve decided we were going to pretend the pandemic had never happened and ignore 18 months of trauma induced by the pandemic students have experienced,” Mundorff said in an interview. “And we’ve just had these arguments, these conflicts that ignited on day one. The violence that had been happening outside of the school just carried over.”
School shooting on par with pre-pandemic levels
Disparate sources of data generally support the notion that what’s happening in schools this year is actually a reflection of general trends.
National homicide rates soared in 2020, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, although other types of crime generally continued a steady decline. And Americans have been on a gun-buying spree during the pandemic. There are now simply more guns in desk drawers, on the streets, and in cabinets.
School shootings are also on track to outpace the figures in 2018 and 2019.
Education Week began its own tracker of school related shootings in 2018 in an attempt to cut through the morass of different definitions used by federal agencies and researchers. Our criteria are more restrictive than other collections. It includes only those incidents that take place during school hours or events, on school property, and in which at least one individual is wounded by a bullet.
According to EdWeek’s criteria, as of Monday of this week, there have been 24 incidents so far this year, resulting in 40 deaths or injuries. Two-thirds of these incidents occurred on or after Aug 1. There were also 24 incidents each in 2018 and 2019.
(The gun-control organization Everytown USA, which has more expansive criteria, also shows this year’s school shooting figures paralleling 2019’s.)
In 2018, Education Week journalists began tracking shootings on K-12 school property that resulted in firearm-related injuries or deaths. There is no single right way of calculating numbers like this, and the human toll is impossible to measure. We hope only to provide reliable information to help inform discussions, debates, and paths forward.
Below, you can find big-picture data on school shootings since 2018. (This chart will be updated as new information becomes available.)
Details of the incidents are distressingly familiar. At least six began with fights or altercations between students that spilled over into gun violence. Six occurred at—or just following—football games. Three appear to have been precipitated by a pattern of bullying.
School shootings nevertheless remain exceptionally rare, and the small sample makes EdWeek’s collection a limited proxy for trying to determine overall violence trends. But the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks and confirms shootings from thousands of data sources, found that more children, not fewer, were harmed by gun violence in 2020, when many students were working from home, than in each of the past seven years.
Finally, children, like adults, are tired, isolated, and traumatized by the last 20 months. The numbers of children visiting emergency rooms for mental-health issues increased dramatically in a seven-month period in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, causing three children’s health organizations recently to declare a mental health state of emergency.
The nation is still in the crisis of the pandemic with no real end in sight, pointed out Margaret A. Sedor, a school psychologist and a member of the National Association of School Psychologists’ school safety and crisis response committee. And students can display a range of crisis reactions, which may include aggression, in response to the losses of the last two years.
“They’ve had almost two years of being socialized and acculturated in a different way, and we need to acknowledge and support community re-engagement,” she said.
What it all adds up to, said Densley, is this: The global pandemic has exacerbated risk factors for violence in general, like loneliness, isolation, and economic instability. Violence also tends to rise at times of uncertainty, especially when distrust in public institutions is high. And social media serves as an accelerant, whipping up anger and frenzy.
“Now you tie that together with last year’s record gun sales—and we’ve got more people carrying guns in public because of more lax laws in that regard,” he said. “And you can sort of put two and two together and say guns are just more likely to be found in the hands of juveniles.”
Some districts consider a return to school-based policing
Those sobering conclusions seem primed to restart an already searing debate over the role that school resource officers and other safety personnel play in schools.
Earlier this summer, Education Week found that a small number of U.S. school districts removed police officers or cut their school-policing budgets in the wake of racial-justice protests in 2020. Some of those communities, like Alexandria, Va., are now beginning to have second thoughts.
In Rochester, the president of the teachers’ union and three other labor groups representing educators recently demanded that the district consider several options, including restoring SROs in high schools, increasing the number of school safety officers, and offering evening or remote learning options for disruptive students.
The district did not respond to a request for comment on its safety plans. Its superintendent has acknowledged the concerns about violence in public statements.
In other places, advocates fear that more violence could put paid to longstanding efforts there to remove school officers.
The Shelby County district, which includes Memphis, has resuscitated the idea of a “peace force” staffed by district-hired police officers in the wake of a harrowing shooting at a public K-8 school in late September, apparently prompted by bullying, that left one student in critical condition.
“I’m very concerned about the child, obviously. But my second thought is, ‘Oh no, what does this do to trying to get law enforcement out of schools?’ Because so many people think [having a police officer] is like a Band-Aid,” said Cardell Orrin, the Memphis executive director at Stand for Children Tennessee, which has pushed to remove sheriffs’ deputies from schools. “It makes people feel better rather than solving the challenges, and it potentially further criminalizes children. That is the fear, and I think that’s the fear nationally, too.”
Researchers continue to learn more about SROs and the tradeoffs that having them can mean for students. In an important study released earlier this month, a team of researchers studying federal data found that having an SRO did reduce some violent incidents in schools, mainly fights, but did not appear to reduce shootings or firearm-related incidents.
And their presence came at a high price: It meant that a higher proportion of students were suspended, arrested, or referred to the juvenile-justice systems, and the toll fell disproportionately on Black students. (The research has not yet been peer reviewed.)
Districts will need to honor the complexities
Even these new insights, though, don’t always make it clear what’s happening in the black box. For one thing, it’s ultimately principals who make the call on whether to suspend students, not officers themselves, and principals who, alongside officers, can refer students into the juvenile justice system. Put another way, the research appears to point to broader cultural problems in schools.
People want to see what you’re doing for safety, and police are very visible. Connecting kids with resources or using social workers or school psychologists—those things are not as kind of in-your-face or apparent.
The body of school safety literature invariably recommends that improved school culture and safety hinge on strong relationships between adults and students.
Getting kids back into school and back in routines and being reconnected with their peers and classmates is a critical step, said Sedor, the school psychologist. But it demands that districts think systematically about how to support students, and that they move from merely reacting to incidents to intervention and wellness-promotion efforts.
“I think it’s bringing folks together and acknowledging that things have changed and talking about fear and loss, and then problem-solving and strengthening coping strategies,” she said. “It’s about relationships and being able to listen.”
But desperate to respond to frightened communities, districts often seek out immediate, tangible improvements rather than the painstaking work of improving school culture. For good or ill, police officers and other hardening measures—fences, metal detectors, bulletproof glass—signify safety, even though, for the most part, not much evidence suggests they contribute to safer schools.
“People want to see what you’re doing for safety, and police are very visible. Connecting kids with resources or using social workers or school psychologists—those things are not as kind of in-your-face or apparent,” noted Joe McKenna, a senior research associate at WestEd’s Justice & Prevention Research Center.
Even teachers who say they’re close to their breaking points acknowledge the complex calculus.
“I know that teachers are annoyed that the focus keeps going to school resources officers because there are so many more levels to it, and everyone just focuses on them,” said Mundorff, the Rochester teacher. “Would it be helpful to have one? Sure. Does that solve all our problems? Absolutely not. We have three social workers for 952 students who are carrying tons of trauma. And now we have students who weren’t carrying trauma before the pandemic and the ones before are carrying a ton more.”
In Madison, Wis., Gloria Reyes represents the radical middle when it comes to the ongoing school safety conversation.
A former law enforcement officer, she served on the city school board when it voted in June 2020 to remove SROs. She now teaches classes, including on racism within the criminal justice system at Madison College, and runs a local nonprofit.
She strongly supports the restorative justice programs that have replaced school policing in the district, but she’s also concerned that teachers and other educators aren’t well trained to respond to incidents of violence. And while she agrees that communities have for far too long relied on police for things they shouldn’t, they’ve simultaneously neglected other critical social investments, she notes.
If rising violence is due to a simple equation—that hurt kids hurt other kids—the solution, she fears, is complex.
“We have to have professionals out in our communities, visiting with families and visiting with children and doing the outreach and support,” Reyes said. “You know, it’s going to take families, parents, teachers, social workers—it’s going to take everyone to prevent fighting.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2021 edition of Education Week as Violence in Schools Seems To Be Increasing. Why?