In the final years of the 20th century, following a spate of widely publicized school shootings and other high-profile incidents of juvenile violence on school grounds, safety at American educational institutions became an issue. The primary controversy has revolved around whether school violence is a legitimate and realistic cause for worry or panic or whether the actual statistics are quite encouraging despite some political and / or scholarly claims to the contrary. In other words, while some argue that our public schools are experiencing some kind of epidemic of violence, others maintain that citizens should rest assured that our public schools are relatively safe places.
Competing and often contradictory claims about the frequency or rarity of these types of happenings, as well as calls for legislative action aimed at their prevention, flooded the popular media and academic literature alike in the wake of more than a few high-profile shootings. As justification for the passage of the Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act of 1999, it was stated that “Congress finds that juveniles between the ages of 10 years and 14 years are committing increasing numbers of murders and other serious crimes . . . the tragedy in Jonesboro, Arkansas, is, unfortunately, an all too common occurrence in the United States.” In sharp contrast, the Final Report of the Bi-Partisan Working Group on Youth Violence asserted that “there are many misconceptions about the prevalence of youth violence in our society and it is important to peel back the veneer of hot-tempered discourse that often surrounds the issue . . . it is important to note that, statistically speaking, schools are among the safest places for children to be” (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice 2000).
II. Key Moments / Events
III. Important Persons / Legal Decisions
Public concern about school crime in general and violence in particular can be traced back to the origins of the public school system in the United States (Crews and Counts 1997). Additional attention was directed to the issue with the publication of the Task Force Report: Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime in 1967 and the Office of Education of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare made suggestions as to the role schools could play in curtailing youth crime. Congressional hearings held at the time reflected the broad public concern about delinquency and violence in schools (U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary 1975); over the course of the years since, criminologists and laypersons alike have attempted to shed some light on the nature, extent, and root causes of school-based violence.
The three-year period between 1996 and 1999 in particular appeared to many Americans to be fraught with news stories about school violence, and the issue was frequently represented as signaling the beginning of a possible juvenile crime epidemic. On February 2, 1996, 14-year-old Barry Loukaitis opened fire on his algebra class in Moses Lake, Washington, killing two students and a teacher and wounding another individual. Later that month, in Bethel, Alaska, 16-year-old Evan Ramsey killed a fellow student as well as the principal, in addition to wounding two other persons. In October of the following year, in Pearl, Mississippi, 16-year-old Luke Woodham killed two classmates and injured seven. The month of December brought two high-profile cases; the first involved 14-year-old Michael Carneal, who opened fire on a prayer circle at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky, killing three students and wounding five others. That same month, 14-year-old Colt Todd in Stamps, Arkansas, shot two of his classmates while they stood in the school parking lot.
In March 1998, in one of the most widely publicized school shootings, four students and a teacher were killed and 10 others wounded when Mitchell Johnson, age 13, and Andrew Golden, age 11, emptied Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas, with a false fire alarm. The case received national coverage, and news magazines led with headlines such as “The Hunter and the Choirboy” (Labi 1998) and “The Boys behind the Ambush” (Gegax, Adler, and Pederson 1998). Throughout the country, politicians, academics, pediatricians, and parents alike were questioning how something like this could happen and what could be done to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
Four other incidents of school shootings were recorded in 1998, in Edinboro, Pennsylvania; Fayetteville, Tennessee; Springfield, Oregon; and Richmond, Virginia. The deadliest recorded school shooting until 2007 took place the following April in Littleton, Colorado, when 18-year-old Eric Harris and 17-year-old Dylan Klebold had plotted for a year to kill 500 people and blow up Columbine High School. At the end of their hour-long rampage, 12 students and a teacher were dead and an additional 23 people were seriously injured. Klebold and Harris then turned the guns on themselves, effectively ending any hopes of determining definitively what caused them to engage in such unthinkable behavior. Speculation was rife and law enforcement officials suggested that indications of what Klebold and Harris were plotting had existed prior to the attack. Klebold had written a graphic story about slaughtering preppy students as well as a detailed paper about Charles Manson. Harris, in addition to writing about Nazis and guns in schools, made notes about killing in a massacre “to-do” list, including such things as reminders to obtain gas cans, nails, and duff el bags. Further notes and diaries found after their deaths described instances of bullying victimization at school and repeated expressions of rage, hatred, and resentment.
Key Moments / Events
In light of the widespread coverage in the popular media of these high-profile incidents of school violence, the Justice Policy Institute examined data gathered from an earlier study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and concluded that the likelihood of children becoming victims of school-based violence was as minute as “one in two million” (Olweus 1993). The following month, President Clinton addressed Americans and asserted that “the overwhelming majority of our schools are, in fact, safe” (CNN 1998), a comment reiterated by Attorney General Janet Reno and Education Secretary Richard W. Riley in the report titled Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools (Dwyer, Osher, and Warger 1998). Subsequent administrations have essentially reiterated such views.
In Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2009, the 12th installment of a series of annual reports jointly compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, data are presented suggesting that students may actually be better protected against the potentiality of violent crime victimization at school than away from it. The report analyzes the incidence of violent deaths at school (defined as a self- or other-inflicted death occurring on the school grounds) as well as nonfatal student victimization. Violent deaths for children between the ages of 5 and 18 years of age were determined to have declined from 30 to 21 between the 2006 –2007 and 2007–2008 school years. During the 2006 –2007 academic year (the latest year for which complete data are available), 8 suicides were recorded among school-aged youth, which statisticians have calculated translates into less than one suicide per million students. During that same school year, 1,748 children within the same age range were victims of homicide and 1,296 committed suicide away from school. The conclusion to be drawn is that youth were nearly 60 times more likely to be murdered and 160 times more likely to commit suicide away from school than at school (National Center for Education Statistics 2009).
In addition to violent incidents in which students were killed, the Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2009 report also measured the incidence and frequency of nonfatal violent victimizations of students, including such offenses as rape, sexual assaults, robbery, and aggravated assault. The authors determined that in each survey year between 1992 and 2007, students reported lower rates of serious violent victimization at school than away from school. Approximately 118,000 students were victims of serious violent crimes at school in 2007 as compared with nearly 164,000 serious violent crime victimizations away from school. Taken as a rate, this figure suggests that 4 students between the ages of 12 and 18 years out of every 1,000 were victims of serious violent crimes at school during this time period, compared with approximately 6 students out of every 1,000 who were victimized away from school. In previous years the ratio was even more dramatic (for example, 8 per 1,000 at school versus 24 per 1,000 away from school in 1997). Less than 1 percent of school-aged children reported serious violent crime victimization within the previous six months (National Center for Education Statistics 2009).
Despite the publication and dissemination of this report and earlier editions of it, a telephone poll by Hart and Teeter Research taken days after the shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas, revealed that 71 percent of 1,004 adult respondents thought it was very likely or likely that a school shooting could happen in their community (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice 2000, 5). A USA Today poll from April 21, 1999, conducted the day after the Littleton, Colorado, shooting found that 68 percent of Americans thought it was likely that a shooting could happen in their town or city and that respondents were 49 percent more likely to be fearful of their schools than in the previous year. A CBS News phone poll two days after the Littleton, Colorado, shooting (April 22, 1999) found that 80 percent of Americans expected more school shootings, and the number of people listing crime as the most important problem increased fourfold (from 4 to 16 percent) in the week after the Littleton shooting. Two years later, a Gallup poll revealed that 63 percent of parents still thought it likely that a Columbine-type shooting could happen in their community (Gallup 2001). Matters were only made worse following a mass shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech in 2007 in which 32 people were killed. Although the incident took place on a college campus rather than within a local school district, students, teachers, parents, and administrators remained fearful regarding the prospect of further gun violence in U.S. schools (Fallahi et al. 2009).
Dewey G. Cornell of the Virginia Youth Violence Project has contended that despite the encouraging statistics demonstrating that school violence is not, as some would suggest, an epidemic, it is unsurprising that parents and politicians would be concerned that the opposite is true. He has stated “public perception is easily skewed by media attention to a handful of extreme cases” (Cornell 2003, 1). He alludes to the 2002 version of the Indicators of School Crime and Safety study and confirms that the rate of violent crime in public schools in the United States has declined steadily since 1994, with the rate of serious violent crime in 2001 holding steady at half of what it was in 1994 (Cornell 2003, 3).
Kenneth S. Trump, the president of the National School Safety and Security Service, has argued that the methodology of the Indicators of School Crime and Safety study is flawed and that school violence levels are not on the decline, as the research seems to claim. He posits that by utilizing reported crime incidents rather than random sampling, “the federal report grossly underestimates the extent of school crime” (Scarpa 2005, 19). Instead, Trump refers to statistics indicating that the number of school-associated violent deaths “jumped to 49 in 2003–2004, more than the two prior school years combined and greater than any school year since 1999” (Scarpa 2005, 19).
Part of the discrepancy may be attributed to the fact that the actual sources of data about school violence in particular and juvenile violence in general may offer contradictory evidence. The Surgeon General’s Report on Youth Violence highlights this inconsistency, arguing that official reports and self-reports—the two primary means of obtaining information about violent acts committed by juveniles—are inherently at odds (Satcher 1999). Official reports rely on the number of recorded arrests of juveniles to measure the extent of their lawbreaking behavior, and the surge in arrests for violent crime between 1983 and 1993 is believed to be largely attributable to the proliferation of firearms use by teenagers and the subsequent increased likelihood that confrontations between individuals in that age cohort would turn not only violent but lethal. With an increasing number of schools in all jurisdictions today (rural, suburban, and urban) installing metal detectors and placing security officers on campus, the number of students carrying guns to school has dropped. It is therefore expected that altercations would be less likely to result in homicide and serious injury and thus less likely to draw the attention of police officers. By 1999, arrest rates for homicide, rape, and robbery had all dropped below the rates for 1983. Arrest rates for aggravated assault were higher in 1999 than they were in 1983 but had nonetheless declined significantly since 1994.
These official statistics are at odds with the data derived from self-reports of juveniles. Confi dential surveys, according to the Surgeon General’s Report, find that 13 to 15 percent of high school seniors report having committed an act of serious violence in recent years (1993 to 1998). These acts are unlikely to involve firearms and therefore generally do not draw the attention of law enforcement officials. It is estimated that between the early 1980s and late 1990s, the number of violent acts perpetrated by high school seniors increased by nearly 50 percent, a trend similar to that found in arrests for violent crimes in general for all age groups. The surgeon general concludes that youth violence remains an ongoing national problem, albeit one that is largely hidden from public view.
Important Persons / Legal Decisions
In the introduction to the third edition of his landmark book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Stanley Cohen describes the phenomenon of school violence and argues that with the media coverage of each incident, the idea arose that bullying and school shootings were not only commonplace but becoming all too familiar. He alludes to the types of headlines generated by newspapers and magazines (not entirely dissimilar from those employed in the aftermath of the Jonesboro massacre)—such as “The Monsters Next Door: What Made Them Do It?” and “Murderous Revenge of the Trench Coat Misfits”—in identifying school violence as the subject of a modern-day moral panic. One characteristic of a moral panic, according to Cohen, is disproportionality; in other words, it is not that the events in question do not take place but rather that they do not take place with as alarming frequency as indicated by the media (Cohen 2005).
Cohen’s arguments are substantiated by the work of Dewey Cornell, who demonstrates that the rate of violent crime in American public schools has declined since 1994 and that, since the late 1990s, the number of homicides committed at school has actually dropped from 35 in 1998, to 25 in 1999, to a low of 2 in 2002, and 4 in 2003 (Cornell 2003). Moreover, he calculates the actual risk of a student-perpetrated homicide taking place at a particular school by referring to the 53 million students who attend the nation’s 119,000 public and private schools. He cites 2003 data from the National School Safety Center to demonstrate that between the 1992–1993 school year and the 2001– 2002 school year, there were 93 incidents of student-perpetrator homicides on school grounds. Taken as an annual average, he contends that this translates to approximately 9.3 incidents each year over a 10-year period, which, when divided into the 119,000 schools in the United States, ultimately amounts to an annual probability of any school experiencing a student-perpetrated homicide of 0.0000781, or one in every 12,804. Put another way, a parent or teacher can expect a student to commit a homicide at a specific school once every 12,804 years. Cornell argues decisively that schools are not dangerous places but rather generally safe, constructive environments that may be, from time to time, plagued by random incidents of violence.
In 2008 Congress passed the School Safety Enhancements Act, which, among other features, made schools accountable for keeping students safe during their formative years. Schools now face legal action or potentially even closure if it is determined that the environment they provide is in any way unsafe or dangerous. To that end, schools have experimented with different strategies for the prevention of violence and crime. Some have, as mentioned previously, begun utilizing metal detectors and relying upon assistance from private security officers or police officials. Others have implemented dress codes to discourage the wearing of gang colors or gang insignia and to equalize fashion options regardless of the socioeconomic status of individual students (some of whom might be able to afford brand-name clothes while others could not, thereby causing a rift that might provide grounds for bullying or denigration). Many schools have begun incorporating peer mediation programs into their curricula, encouraging students to arbitrate disputes between their classmates and to ensure that each party is given a fair opportunity to voice concerns and express emotional responses. Some schools are finding these programs easier to implement than others, and research indicates that the selection of appropriate peer mentors and training of both the peer mentors and faculty or staff supervisors is key in bringing about a successful resolution.
It is uncertain whether these strategies will be effective in preventing school violence in the long run. Meta-analysis of the existing literature reflects mixed findings (Scheckner et al. 2004), suggesting that how a program is designed and developed as well as whether there is strong faculty and administrative support (specifically financial support) will have a strong impact on how successful it will be. What some criminologists find worrying is that as schools struggle to ensure safe environments for their students, lest they be court-ordered to close, they may find themselves attempting to conceal evidence of certain types of questionable behavior by arguing that it is not specifically indicative of an unsafe environment at school.
The Washington Post reported one such incident in Frederick County, Maryland, which involved a six-year-old girl being fondled by a middle schooler while being driven to her program for gifted students. The bus driver involved in the incident reported seeing middle-school boys describing sex acts to first-graders and attempting to shove a condom into another boy’s mouth. When the bus driver told the six-year-old’s mother about the fondling incident months later, he also mentioned that he had informed school officials; when pressed, the school denied having any record of the report. Beverly Glenn, the executive director of the Hamilton Fish Institute in Washington, explains that such actions are becoming increasingly common because schools do not want to be designated as unsafe for fear of losing students and consequently losing money. Instead, an increasing number of such incidents are being handled internally whenever possible, with the implicit justification that the acts themselves, if they take place as this one did on the way either to or from school, are not committed on school grounds and therefore do not render the school environment unsafe (Williams 2005).
It is unclear, then, precisely how useful and effective the various strategies—both school-based and legislative—have been in controlling school violence and whether the problem is actually escalating in severity or diminishing. What is certain is that whenever incidents involving children—either as victims or perpetrators—take place, the news media will report them and further promote the idea that the problem is “all too familiar” and is reaching “epidemic proportions.” It is imperative, then, that readers and viewers analyze these reports critically in order to distinguish between fact and myth.
Leanne R. Owen
- CBS News Poll, April 22, 1999.
- Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, School House Hype: Two Years Later. San Francisco: Author, 2000.
- CNN, “Clinton Unveils National Guide on School Violence: Program Designed to Help Identify Troubled Kids.” August 27, 1998.
- Cohen, S., Folk Devils and Moral Panics, 3d ed. New York: Routledge, 2005.
- “Complete Listing of Worries.” Washington Post (November 7, 1999).
- Cornell, D., Myths about Youth Violence and School Safety. Richmond: University of Virginia, 2003.
- Crews, G. A., and M. R. Counts, The Evolution of School Disturbance in America: Colonial Times to Modern Day. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997.
- Cullen, David, Columbine. New York: Twelve, 2009.
- Donohue, E. D., V. Schiraldi, and J. Ziedenberg, School House Hype: School Shootings and the Real Risks Kids Face in America. Washington, DC: Justice Policy Institute, 1998.
- Dwyer, K. P., D. Osher, and C. Warger, Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools. Washington, DC: Department of Education, 1998.
- Fallahi, C. R., et al., “A Survey of Perceptions of the Virginia Tech Tragedy.” Journal of School Violence 8, no. 2 (April 2009): 120–135.
- Gegax, T., J. Adler, and D. Pederson, “The Boys behind the Ambush.” Newsweek 131, no. 14 (1998): 20–25.
- Gerler, E. R. Jr., ed., Handbook of School Violence. Binghamton, NY: Haworth, 2004.
- Gillespie, M., School Violence Still a Worry for American Parents. Princeton, NJ: Gallup, 1999.
- Labi, N., “The Hunter and the Choirboy.” Time 151, no. 13 (1998): 28–37.
- Lebrun, Marcel, Books, Blackboards, and Bullets: School Shootings and Violence in America. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.
- Murray, Thomas R., Violence in America’s Schools: Understanding, Prevention, and Responses. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006.
- National Center for Education Statistics, Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2009. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, 2009. http://nces.ed.gov/programs/crimeindicators/crimeindicators2009/index.asp
- Olweus, D., Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do. London: Blackwell, 1993. Satcher, D., Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1999.
- Scarpa, S., District Administration 41, no. 2 (February 2005): 19.
- Schafer, W. E., and K. Polk, “Delinquency and the Schools.” Task Force Report: Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1967.
- Scheckner, S. S., et al., “School Violence in Children and Adolescents: A Meta-Analysis of the Effectiveness of Current Interventions.” In Handbook of School Violence, ed. E. R. Gerler Jr. Binghamton, NY: Haworth, 2004.
- USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll Results, April 21, 1999.
- U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Our Nation’s Schools—A Report Card: ‘A’ in School Violence in Vandalism. Preliminary Report of the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975.
- Williams, E., “As School Bus Sexual Assaults Rise, Danger Often Overlooked.” Washington Post ( June 14, 2005).