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Fewer Fights and Increased Security: What New Data Say About School Safety

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Amid public concerns about school safety fueled by high-profile school shootings, new federal data show reports of student fights, bullying, and other forms of victimization have continued a decades-long trend of decline. At the same time, schools have ramped up security measures, like the use of cameras and restricted entrances.

The data come as a new, separate poll shows Americans think schools have gotten less safe since a mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., 20 years ago this month.

Indicators of School Crime and Safety, a report compiled by agencies within the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, includes the latest data derived from student, teacher, and principal surveys and other federal data sources. Here are some key findings.

Fear of Harm at School

Students ages 12-18 were slightly more likely to say they feared attack or harm at school than away from it, according to data collected in 2017, perhaps because they have more contact with peers in a school environment than away from it. Still, rates of students reporting such fears have declined since 2001.

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Student Victimization at School

Reports of victimization at school have also declined over time, the data show. Students ages 12-17 have reported lower rates of theft, assault, and violent offenses like rape and robbery.

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Student Discipline and Class Disruption

Schools' reports of common discipline problems—those that occurred at least once a week—were topped by bullying, reported by 11.9 percent of schools; and "student acts of disrespect for teachers other than verbal abuse," reported by 10.3 percent of schools. 

About 42.8 percent of teachers surveyed said student misbehavior interfered with their teaching and about 37.5 percent said class-cutting and tardiness interfered. The data also show changing perceptions in who enforces school rules over time.

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School Safety Measures

Since the 1999 attack at Columbine High School, which changed conversations about school safety and violence, schools around the country have ramped up various security measures tracked by the federal report.

Public schools reporting the use of security cameras increased from 19 percent in 1999-2000 to 81 percent in 2015-16, the report says. And the amount of public schools that said they controlled access to their buildings increased from 75 percent to 94 percent iin the same time period.

Another increase: The percentage of public schools with a "plan in place for procedures to be performed in the event of a shooting" increased from 79 percent in 2003-04 to 92 percent in 2015-16. The following chart shows common safety and security measures in use by public schools during the 2015-16 school year.

safety17.JPGParents See Schools as Less Safe, Poll Finds

The new federal data come as a poll conducted in March finds Americans see schools as less safe than they were 20 years ago. 

About 67 percent of respondents to the AP/ORC poll said schools have gotten less safe in the last two decades, 19 percent said they are about as safe as they were before, and 13 percent said they are more safe. 

Among parents responding to the poll, 30 percent said they were extremely or very confident in their school's ability to respond to an active shooter, 43 percent said they were moderately confident, and 27 percent said they were not very confident, the poll found. 

Respondents were more likely to blame issues like bullying and the availability of guns for school shootings than the schools themselves.

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As Education Week has written before, defining and tracking school shootings is difficult because people often have different ideas about what criteria should be used. Some imagine mass rampage shootings, and others would include more targeted events. Our school shooting tracker counts incidents where a gun was fired on school property or on a school bus by someone unauthorized to carry it, during school hours or at a school event, injuring at least one person. Education Week counted 24 such incidents in 2018. 

A school shooting database maintained by the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School uses broader criteria, counting every instance "a gun is brandished, is fired, or a bullet hits school property for any reason, regardless of the number of victims, time, day of the week, or reason (e.g., planned attack, accidental, domestic violence, gang-related)." Using that criteria, the database counted 97 incidents in 2018, the most in any single year since 1970, the earliest year for which data is available.


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