Are America's Schools Safe?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.