Bullying, Thefts Persist Despite Drop in Violence
Effects of Harm Can Linger, Report Finds

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 11, 2009

Even though spasms of intense violence erupt on campuses occasionally and linger in the social consciousness, violence at schools across the country has been decreasing for a number of years.

That doesn't necessarily mean schools are safe havens. Consider:

-- Eighty-six percent of public schools in 2005-06 reported that one or more violent incidents, thefts of items valued at $10 or greater or other crimes had occurred -- a rate of 46 crimes per 1,000 enrolled students.

-- Almost a third of students ages 12 to 18 reported being bullied inside school.

-- Nearly a quarter of teenagers reported the presence of gangs at their schools.

The statistics appear in a federal report published last month, the latest in a series on crime in schools nationwide. The publication of "Indicators of School Crime and Safety" coincided with the 10th anniversary of the slaying of 13 people at Columbine High School in Colorado by two students, who then killed themselves.

"For both students and teachers, victimization at school can have lasting effects," the report says. "In addition to experiencing loneliness, depression, and adjustment difficulties, victimized children are more prone to truancy, poor academic performance, dropping out of school and violent behaviors."

The annual reports, a combined effort of the Education and Justice departments, use the most recent statistics available. Federal authorities cull information from a handful of surveys and studies. For the 2009 report, much of the data came from the 2006-07 school year, when an estimated 55.5 million students were enrolled from pre-kindergarten through grade 12.

Statistics tell only part of the story, and they are a result of imperfect reporting systems. Education leaders acknowledge the difficulty of obtaining an accurate picture of violence in schools. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, some schools are labeled "persistently dangerous." Criteria for that label vary from state to state and can include severe criminal incidents or cumulative disciplinary cases. But experts say any attempt to pinpoint issues with particular schools is problematic because principals are not keen to report incidents that might cast their schools in a bad light. In addition, principals often differ on approaches to measuring and defusing conflicts.

Still, the federal government's numbers are the most authoritative. At left are selected statistics from the new report and previous ones that help paint a picture of the public school environment.

Many Reasons for Decline

Katrina Baum, a researcher at the Bureau of Justice Statistics and one of the authors of the "Indicators of School Crime and Safety" report, said the decline in violence in schools is in line with an overall dip in crime in the United States.

But experts on crime say the decrease is the result of several factors. Here are excerpts from a discussion on school violence between Washington Post staff writer Valerie Strauss and Lynn Addington, an associate professor of public affairs at American University and an expert on the quality of crime data, school violence and the fear of victimization.

What is the most prevalent kind of crime at school?

With regards to schools and the 10th anniversary of Columbine, it is important for parents to understand that extreme violence is very rare at school. The more prevalent type of crime [and abuse] is theft and bullying or peer harassment. That is much more common in schools, as it is in society in general.

Other than the decline in reported crime in the United States overall, what else explains the drop in school crime? Are metal detectors helping, for example?

It is difficult to explain why it is declining, and it is frustrating criminologists because it is multifaceted. We can't point to one thing alone to explain the decline. If you look at trends in school security, there hasn't actually been a large increase in metal detectors. What you have seen since Columbine is more cameras and school security guards. But whether you can point to that as being the reason for the decline, I would say you have to take into account other actions as well.

Like anti-bullying programs?

A lot of attention has been given to programs against bullying, taking a whole-school approach to this, and when they work well, they change the attitude that kids have toward their school. The kids have more of a stake in the school. . . . It's like people taking their own steps into making their neighborhoods safer. That is going to go a long way, as opposed to putting a few more police officers on the street.

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