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Amid Concerns About School Security, Federal Data Show Schools Have Actually Gotten Safer

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School-based police officers Danny Avalos, foreground, and Craig Davis, center, monitor a hallway at E.L. Furr High School in Houston in 2013.

U.S. schools have significantly increased security measures and preparation for events like school shootings in the last 20 years, the newest federal data show.

Meanwhile, rates of student victimization at school have continued to decline, fewer students have brought weapons to school, and fewer students report fear of harm in school, according to a report released Thursday.

Fewer students report having access to an unlocked gun in the most recent data, and, contrary to popular perception, rates of violent deaths at school have not trended significantly upward in recent years.

"Our nation's schools should be safe havens for teaching and learning free of crime and violence," says Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2017, an annual report released by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. "Any instance of crime or violence at school not only affects the individuals involved but also may disrupt the educational process and affect bystanders, the school itself, and the surrounding community." 

The newly released data take on particular relevance as local, state, and federal policymakers seek to improve school safety following the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in which 17 students and educators were killed. Since that shooting, newly passed state and federal bills have provided increased funding for violence prevention measures, like training teachers to idenitify threatening student behavior, and physical school security measures, like metal detectors.

Schools have increased security measures

Since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., a touchstone for school safety debates, schools have significantly stepped up security measures, the federal data show. The portion of schools that reported having a plan for school shooting response increased from 79 percent in 2003-04 to 92 percent in 2015-16.

More schools reported controlled access to buildings, the use of security cameras, and requiring staff to wear photo IDs.

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The presence (and role of) police in schools

More schools have designated police, as well. Schools reporting the presence of a law enforcement officer at least once a week increased from 36.3 percent in 2005-06 to 47.7 percent in 2015-16, the data show. The presence of police in elementary schools grew more significantly during that same time period, from 21 percent to 35.8 percent.

Interest in staffing schools with law enforcement tends to increase after school shootings. But, as Education Week has reported recently, civil rights groups are concerned that school-based officers can lead to more punitive discipline, especially for black and Latino students.

Groups like the National Association of School Resource Officers, which trains school police, say that officers should not be involved in routine, non-violent disciplinary concerns. But of schools that reported on-site law enforcement in 2015-16, 43.3 percent of primary schools and 63.3 percent of secondary schools said those officers' duties included maintaining school discipline.

NASRO also recommends that each school create a clear agreements with law enforcement agencies, called a memorandum of understanding, that outlines officers' roles in schools. Among schools with law enforcement, 51 percent of primary schools and 70 percent of secondary schools reported such agreements.

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Student behavior and safety concerns

During the 2015-16 school year, 43 percent of public school teachers agreed or strongly agreed that student misbehavior interfered with their teaching, and 38 percent agreed or strongly agreed that student tardiness and class-cutting interfered with their teaching, the data show.

But the data also show some areas of improvement in student safety and behavior.

The portion of students who reported being afraid of attack or harm at school decreased from 12 percent in 1995 to 3 percent in 2015. The percentage of students who reported being afraid of attack or harm outside of school also decreased during that time, from 6 percent to 2 percent. Reports of bullying by students and by their schools also decreased during that time period.

Rates of student victimization and violent victimization at school and away from school have also decreased since the early 1990s, the data show.

12victimization.JPGDeaths at school

While the fear of school shootings has increased over the past two decades, the data show that deaths in schools have not trended significantly upward over that time.

Between 1992-93 and 2014-15, youth homicides occurring at school remained at less than 3 percent of the total number of youth homicides, and youth suicides at school remained at less than 1 percent of the total number of youth suicides, the report finds.

So why the perception that deaths in schools are increasing? It may be because students, and their parents, are more aware of threats to their safety. In 2015-16, 95 percent of schools reported holding lockdown drills with students.

And, in a factor not tracked by the federal data, the increased use of social media has coincided with an increase in false threats to schools that lead to lockdowns and other precautionary measures.

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Photo: School-based police officers Danny Avalos, foreground, and Craig Davis, center, monitor a hallway at E.L. Furr High School in Houston in 2013. --Michael Stravato/The New York Times-File


Related reading on school safety:

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