October 10, 2007

Are America's Schools Safe?

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer 

The elementary school on my street is once again brimming with excitement and back-to-school jitters. (It’s always hard to tell who is more nervous, the children or the parents.)   

As the new school year began and parents packed their kids off for classrooms and dorm rooms, this school year might bring some extra worry, with the Virginia Tech shooting last April reopening old Columbine High School-style image wounds. And last year’s shocking shooting in a rural Pennsylvania Amish school made it seem like no school was really safe. 

But the truth is schools are among the safest places for young people to be. 

Still, fears of a rampage-style shooting linger as the school year begins again. School-based law enforcement, which is lobbying for a piece of Homeland Security funding, is among the fastest growing sectors of the security industry. 

In our quest to ensure that kids are safe, we’ve overlooked one key fact: crime in America’s schools is on the decline.image 

Overall, violent crime has fallen sharply since the early 1990s. Homicide arrest rates among juveniles in particular plunged by 77 percent between 1993 and 2003. School-aged kids are 122 times more likely to die in an accident than die at school. Five- to 14-year-olds are four times more likely to die of pneumonia or the flu than to die at school. 

According to the U.S. Department of Education, crime in schools was cut in half between 1992 and 2002 and has continued to decline since. Serious violent crime remains rare in school – the vast majority of schools report none. The most common form of violence is one many of us likely remember well: the old-fashioned fistfight. 

Even during the 1990s, when fears of school shootings ran high and violence was at its peak, students had less than a seven in 10 million chance of being killed at school. College campuses are also very safe. This year’s horrific incident at Virginia Tech was clearly an aberration—campus violence is considerably lower than it is off-campus across the nation. 

The few schools that do have considerable safety problems still tend to have far lower crime rates than their surrounding neighborhoods do. Urban high school students are three times more likely to be victimized away from school than on school property. And in suburbia, students are still twice as likely to be victims of violence away from school grounds than while at school.image 

Regardless of where they live, kids are significantly safer at school than anywhere else. Children are much more likely to be victimized by adults than by each other. Statistically, kids are actually safer in the company of other students than they are with their parents. And for young people, being engaged in education may itself act as a protective factor against violent victimization and criminal involvement. 

While killings within families and at workplaces vastly outnumber school shootings overall, when violence does happen at schools it strikes a particular chord. As sites connected with both learning and youth, schools represent repositories of hope for the future. 

Children’s safety in schools should remain a primary concern. We may all feel better knowing that security equipment and emergency procedures are in place. But some districts have arguably overreacted and put policies in place that may satisfy anxious parents but do little to improve school safety.image 

For example, so-called "zero tolerance" policies employed in schools across the country mandate increased punishments for the most minor infractions. Sounds good on paper, but the reality is that many kids who have been suspended based on these rules had “weapons” such as manicure kits and fingers pointed like guns, or had thrown potato chips at another student. Understanding intent goes out the window when we become so afraid that a student with a steak knife used to cut an onion for a science project demonstration gets suspended. A 2001 study, published in the journal Educational Leadership, found that eight in ten students disciplined under zero tolerance rules were not serious threats to school safety. 

Recent events can re-open old worries about school violence and mask the reality that schools are significantly safer now than they were a decade ago. Safety is an emotional issue, one that parents and politicians can agree is important. 

There is a danger, however, in focusing so much on unlikely events that we ignore many of the complex issues plaguing so many schools: overcrowding, outdated materials, decaying facilities and overwhelmed teachers, not to mention alienating students with rigid one-size-fits-all policies. This, coupled with skyrocketing tuition at colleges and universities means that many are being shut out of higher education entirely, giving them less reason to commit themselves to education. Perhaps the biggest danger facing our nation’s schools is using our scarce resources to massage our fears rather than to educate a generation.


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Should safety just be an issue discussed within the context of violent, weapons related crime? What about bullying, which can be as devasting to children's sense of security and safety as gun-toting teens in black trenches, with the added effect of persistent assaults on self-esteem and feelings of self-worth.


A new report entitled “The State of School Safety in American Schools” speaks of sexual assault, violent cliques and violent parents as commonplace in suburban, urban and rural schools nationwide.

The report was developed by the SERAPH Research team of SERAPH.net a group composed of educators and crime researchers. The team used interviews with 1,520 educators, 925 law enforcement officials and numerous scientific studies to create a detailed assessment of problems facing American schools.

“In 2000,” states research team leader Dale Yeager, “The United States Human Rights Projects' - National Campaign to Fight for Children asked SERAPH to create a detailed report on school safety for select members of the U.S. Congress. Because of the misconceptions about school safety by the public and many legislators we felt that releasing this years report to the public would assist in educating people about the problem.”

The report is available online at http://www.seraph.net/documents/SchoolSafetyInAmerica.pdf

The report covers many areas not traditional discussed in school safety research such as: Young Children and Aggression, Educational Philosophies and Student Aggression, Health Issues and School Safety, Sexually Transmitted Diseases, Piercing and Tattoos, Girl Aggression, Sexism and School Safety, Youth on Youth Sex Aggression

“The issue of school safety affects everyone in society. Juvenile crime, domestic violence, poverty are all tied to school safety issues. The report will provide factual information to the public so that they can understand the complexity of the problem and provide information to legislators so that they can assist schools in preventing and managing school safety issues.”

Truancy: The root of all school safety problems!

“No child falls through the cracks. They are dropped through or shoved through by lazy, emotionally immature adults and unethical professionals” Dale Yeager, SERAPH

After the Columbine shootings I made this statement during an interview on national television. The reporter asked if I really believed that statement and I replied, “absolutely!”

But you may ask what this statement has to do with the issue of truancy? Simple, truant children – who are routinely late or absent – come from dysfunctional homes. Those homes in my experience are lead by caregivers who are more concerned about there own pleasures and convenience than the welfare of their children. Some may say that this is an unkind assessment. My response to them is simple, visit these homes and you will see that this is not an aberration.

While some caregivers have a difficult time because of poverty, work schedules or transitioning to a single parent household; the majority simply refuse to exercise self control or basic order in their homes.

And this assessment is supported by various national studies. Research from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the U.S. Department of Education have found that child neglect and family disorganization are major factors in truancy. The OJJDP also found that “Truancy has been clearly identified as one of the early warning signs of students headed for potential delinquent activity, social isolation, or educational failure via suspension, expulsion, or dropping out.”

More disturbing is a document that I have used for many years in criminal profiling, the Juvenile Sex Offender Assessment Protocol (J-SOAP-II). In this well respected assessment tool, caregiver issues and truancy become connected as impetuses for teen sex offender development:

Inconstant and instable caregivers before the age of 10. Multiple changes in caregivers and living situations.
Chronic truancy, fighting with peers or teachers.
Dr Gerald Patterson sums up the issue this way, “Parenting plays a critical role in the development process of children. Early discipline failures are a primary casual factor in the development of conduct problems. Harsh discipline, low supervision, lack of parental involvement all add to the development of aggressive children”

Bullying, sexual harassment, negative behavior cliques and aggression towards staff are all done by children who come from dysfunctional homes. But beyond the home environment, schools have a big stake in controlling truancy. Not only is it a major part of NCLB compliance but it affects all school safety issues. The US DOE has tracked the following school issues that directly contribute to truancy.

· Lack of effective and consistently applied attendance policies.

· Poor record-keeping, making truancy difficult to spot.

· Teacher characteristics, such as lack of respect for students and neglect of diverse student needs.

· Unsafe environment, for example a school with ineffective discipline policies where bullying is tolerated. [5 percent of students in grades 9 through 12 skipped school because they felt unsafe at school or on their way to or from school.]

Truancy happens in rural, suburban and urban schools and all classes of families. School must take control of their truancy problems or they are bound to be overtaken by it.

A well managed school is a safe school!

I found your statistics very interesting and surprising. I'm glad that school violence isn't something to be really worried about. Parents should just be worrying about what their own child does at school.

I thought this article was very interesting. I always thought that school violence was on the rise, and it turns out I am wrong, which is a good thing. I am glad to hear that school violence is decreasing. However I honestly believe no matter how many statistics you give parents they are always going to be worried about sending their child to school. I think they worry so much because they cannot protect their child while they are at school and the parent is at work or home.

I am very pleased to know that school violence has increasingly decreased. Due to such great media emphasis that was placed on recent school homicides, I believed it to be more common and a greater threat than it really is. I agree with your statement that, from these stastics, schools should be spending more money to improve their education, than increasing security.

Hi!, My name is Jacob Featherstone, and Im taking a sociology class, the focus of this weeks chapter is Deviance. Its encouraging to hear that violence among youth has gone down in recent years, partiularly given the statistics of how much violence youth are exposed to today. Everywhere from televison to the internet, violence seems to be present. Your report is encouraging in that despite what you might hear on the news, Americas schools are, in reality very safe places for students to be. Great post!
Sincerely Jacob Featherstone

When reading this article,i noticed that the numbers your showing are very interesting. I feel that before parents worry about other children they need to learn about what their own children are doing at school.

The way schools are developing these days they are getting safer and safer. The way that the structure of education is developing it is becoming very safe. That is what must happen.

It's good to know that school violence is decreasing, i think were learning to teach kids different ways to handle their problems than violence. Also, the statistics are very interesting to me.

It helps make people at ease to hear that violence is declining. Schools seem to be safer, since many of them now have police. This might be a hassle for some students, but it is for their safety. I wish my school had that, but it's a good thing that the only violence I've ever seen in my school is fist fights. The statistics that you had were very interesting also.

This was a really pleasing article. I was pretty surprised that violence in schools has actually gone down. The media always gets stories of bad things and turns the stories into things we hear of for days, if not weeks. I think worrying parents need to know these statistics.

I found it very interesting that five to fourteen year olds are four times as likely to die of pneumonia than to die at school. Schools are becoming more dangerous every day, especially students going through adolesent. That statistic surprised me very much.

I find it very reassuring with all the statistics that were given saying schools are actually pretty safe. Even though I know school is safe, sometimes when I see someone at school who isn't treated as well as they should, I always have a little fear that they will come and try to kill those who didn't treat him or her very well.

This blog is really great. I also think that school crimes hit a specific chord and thats why people note these crimes more then the ones at occur at home. It is very interesting to actually read that children are more safe with other children then they are with their parents. Parents do freak out when it comes to school saftry, but I think its a more of "it's not that I dont trust you, I dont trust them" type of thing. Schools need to focus more on bettering education then stopping violence. The "zero tolerance" policy takes time away from the real reason we are at school.

I think that people worry too much about their children going to school, and like you said, school is probably safer than being at home sometimes. But I do think that schools are becoming to safe to the extent that one can't even breathe without getting into some sort of trouble in some way. Though we all are worried about our children in the hands of other people, I think that the schools should not have to go about safety so drastically. But you make an excellent point on everything you've got to say about the issue.

This article really focuses on interesting views. The idea of the previous college shootings really does bring about a feeling of uneasiness for students and parents. But, knowing that the crime and violence in schools is declining really does help calm those fears. I have seen for myself a few fistfights in my high school career and each time my school has taken the right approaches on dealing with those students. I never really am fearful of getting hurt at school and I do believe that I am safe there. I am sure that other schools are of course different thought. At school many kids are afraid of causing trouble and getting caught for it. They are unsure of the consequences they will receive so sometimes they don't even risk causing a scene. Again, you made very strong points from multiple areas of the mind. I definitely agree that schools are safer than many believe them to be and the statistics that were presented really did contribute in a strong way. Thank you for the post.

I personally think that bulling has a huge factor in high school and college for shootings and deaths. I don't think school is safe for kids anymore. The parents are getting weaponds in their house and they are not keeping it locked up or away from the kids. The teachers and professors need to pay attention to students more and to stop it before things get worse. School should be safe for the kids, but it seems to be not safe anymore. The young kids seeem to be the ones that are more safe then the high school ones. The young kids seem to not care about things as much as the high school students.

I agree that school truly is a safe place, although the VT shootings were horrendous and frightening. The media seems to heighten fears in things like these just on the coverage it gets. I think our fears are blown out of proportion when it comes to school shootings, it can happen, but the likelihood of it occurring is minimal. Schools go through extensive security procedures to ensure that our school systems are safe and a comfortable place for the students.

As a student, I'm never afraid of going to school or being a victim of violence at my school. However, when I hear about shootings or when I am reminded of the crimes in the past, it always makes me fear just for the unknown. We never know when something like this is going to happen and I think that sort of thinking contributes to a lot of the fear people have about sending their children to school. However, I enjoyed the optimistic tone of your article and it was definitely encouraging to know that schools are safer than what we are led to believe.

It's very sad that some students cannot feel safe in a school environment. One of the things mentioned in this article is the danger of having students in buildings which are falling apart. I think this is a sign of the fact that such little attention is giving to education by the national government. I am a firm believer that if education is increased, most everything will run much more smoothly.

That being said, it has also been said that legislation to prevent bullying in Michigan schools recently was horribly flawed. One of the loopholes easily found by students, or especially, by parents, was the acceptance of bullying based on highly-held opinions. This is, basically, an excuse to bully based on things such as religion. This is not acceptable.

The structure of education is growing to be safer. The education provided is also teaching to on how to present grievances rather than violence. Kudos to parent they also key contributors to discipline.

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