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    What America Thinks
    Soon, a Break From Classes and School Crime

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, May 25, 1998

    In the next few weeks, most of America's schools will close their doors for the summer – and not a minute too soon for millions of children who attend schools awash in violence, drugs and crime.

    These besieged boys and girls include:

  • An estimated 15 million American school kids who say marijuana, crack or some other illicit drugs are sold at their school.
  • The 6 million who attend schools where street gangs are a fact of life in the classroom, hallways and on school yard.
  • The 1 million children who say they had been the victim of a violent asasult in the past six months while at school.

    Likewise, school is anything but a safe haven for the 1 million school kids who say they've seen a student with a gun at their school or the 3 million who say they personally knew a student who had brought a gun to school in the previous six months.

    Those estimates are based on a just-released survey of 9,954 school students who were between the ages of 12 and 19. The poll was conducted in 1995 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) as part of its National Crime Victimization Survey.

    Of course, the problems of drugs, guns and violence are hardly unique to the schools. It's a sad fact of American life that many of the kids who face these hazards in school are probably far safer there than they are on the mean streets just outside the schoolhouse doors.

    There is good news in the latest poll numbers, but it isn't that comforting. Compared to the results of a similar student survey conducted in 1989, the property crime rate in the nation's schools has not changed.

    About one in eight students in 1989 and again in 1995 said they had been the victim of a property crime while at school sometime during the past six months. But researchers also reported that the numbers of students reporting that they had been the victims of violent crime at school had increased, from 3.4 percent in 1989 to 4.2 percent in 1995.

    The survey also suggests that drugs were more available in our nation's schools in 1995. "In 1989, most students, 63 percent, reported that marijuana, cocaine, crack, or uppers/downers were available at school .... This number increased somewhat to 65.3 percent in 1995," BJS analysts reported.

    And street gangs were far more of a presence in America's schools. In just six years, the percentage of students "reporting street gang presence at school nearly doubled ... increasing from 15.3 percent to 28.4 percent."

    Yet their data revealed a disturbing confluence of many of these problems at certain schools. "A ... key finding was that various types of problems tended to co-exist. For instance, student reports of drug availability, street gang presence, and gun presence at school were all related to student reports of having experienced violent victimization at school," researchers wrote.

    The survey data also revealed that among students who said street gangs were active in their school, nearly two out of three said they had seen a student with a gun on school grounds or in a school bus sometime during the past six months. Half reported they personally knew someone who had carried a gun to school. (In contrast, about a third of all students attending schools where gangs were not a presence reported they had seen a student with a gun and a similar proportion said they knew someone who had brought a gun to school.)

    "In addition, students who reported that street gangs were present were more likely than students who reported that they were not present [in their schools] to say they had been violently victimized," researchers reported.

    Much of the rest of the numbers told basically a familiar story, but with some new twists. Boys were more likely than girls to have been victims of violent crime, but girls are catching up. In 1989, boys were twice as likely to have been violently attacked (4.8 percent vs. 2.0 percent). Six years later, that gap had closed, with 5.1 percent of the boys and 3.3 percent of the girls reporting that they had been violently victimized in the past six months.

    Younger students were far more likely than older students to be assaulted on school grounds: In 1995, 6.8 percent of all 12-year-olds said they had gotten into a fight or had otherwise been physically assaulted the previous six months, compared to 2.0 percent of all 18-year-olds.

    The Lighter Side

    Okay, enough with the ghastly kid crime news. Here's a pollster joke that made the rounds in various forms at the recent American Association for Public Opinion Research annual conference in St. Louis. (A version of the following version was offered by Sheldon Gawiser, NBC's political director, who chaired an AAPOR panel that discussed over-reports of intention to vote in pre-election polls.)

    A pollster finds a magic lamp on the beach in California. He rubs the lamp, and out comes a genie. "I will grant you a single wish," the genie says. "What is your desire?"

    "Well," says the pollster, "I've always wanted to go to Hawaii. But I hate to fly and I get seasick on ships. I'd really like a bridge from the mainland to Hawaii, so I can drive my car to the islands."

    The genie's face blanches. "Master, that is so hard: Think of the cost, the environmental impact, and the danger to ships crossing the sea. I beg you to make another wish."

    The pollster thinks for a minute. "Okay then, please tell me the questions to ask in a pre-election poll to accurately identify just those who really will vote."

    The genie considers this request a moment, then speaks: "Do you wish two lanes or four?"

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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