Violence and Discipline Problems in U.S. Public Schools: 1996-97
NCES: 98030
March 1998


Executive Summary

"No matter where you are, parents want their students to be safe and secure… that might even precede a quality education…" With drugs, gangs, and guns on the rise in many communities the threat of violence "weighs heavily on most principals' minds these days…Anyone who thinks they are not vulnerable is really naïve." (Principal Michael Durso, Springbrook High School, as quoted in the Washingtonian Magazine, September 1997).


Recent events have again focused the nation's attention on violence in U.S. public schools, an issue that has generated public concern and directed research for more than two decades. 1 Despite long-standing attention to the problem, there is a growing perception that not all public schools are safe places of learning, and media reports highlight specific school-based violent acts. The seventh goal of the National Education Goals states that by the year 2000, "all schools in America will be free of drugs and violence and the unauthorized presence of firearms and alcohol, and offer a disciplined environment that is conducive to learning." In response to this goal, the Congress passed the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act of 1994, which provides for support of drug and violence prevention programs.

As part of this legislation, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is required to collect data to determine the "frequency, seriousness, and incidence of violence in elementary and secondary schools." NCES responded to this requirement by commissioning a survey, the Principal/School Disciplinarian Survey on School Violence, 1996-97, the results of which are detailed in this report.

The school violence survey was conducted with a nationally representative sample of 1,234 regular public elementary, middle, and secondary schools in the 50 states and the District of Columbia in the spring and summer of 1997. The survey requested information on four main topics:

  • The incidence of crime and violence that occurred in public schools during the 1996-97 academic year;

  • Principals' (or school disciplinarians') perceptions about the seriousness of a variety of discipline issues in their schools;

  • The types of disciplinary actions schools took against students for serious offenses; and

  • The kinds of security measures and violence prevention programs that were in place in public schools.

The types of criminal incidents that schools were asked to report included murder, suicide, rape or other type of sexual battery, assault or fight with a weapon, robbery, assault or fight without a weapon, theft/ larceny, and vandalism. Any effort to quantify the frequency and seriousness of these crimes and violent incidents occurring in public schools will be affected by the way in which the information is collected and reported. Three important aspects of the process that were used to gather the data reported in this publication were:

  • The survey questions asked, including how the questions were phrased, definitions applied, time span covered, and the context in which they were asked;

  • The choice of survey respondent; and

  • The survey sample size.

The reader should keep these aspects of the survey in mind when comparing results of this particular sample survey with other studies on school crime and violence. The data reported from this study may vary from data reported elsewhere because of differences in definitions, coverage, respondents, and sample. For example, the data reported in this survey describe the number of incidents of crime, not the number of individuals involved in such incidents. It should be noted that an incident could involve more than one individual perpetrator or individual victim. Similarly, an individual perpetrator or victim could be involved in multiple incidents.

Key Findings


More than half of U.S. public schools reported experiencing at least one crime incident in school year 1996-97, and 1 in 10 schools reported at least one serious violent crime during that school year (Table 7).

  • Fifty-seven percent of public elementary and secondary school principals reported that one or more incidents of crime/violence that were reported to the police or other law enforcement officials had occurred in their school during the 1996-97 school year.

  • Ten percent of all public schools experienced one or more serious violent crimes (defined as murder, rape or other type of sexual battery, suicide, physical attack or fight with a weapon, or robbery) that were reported to police or other law enforcement officials during the 1996-97 school year.

  • Physical attacks or fights without a weapon led the list of reported crimes in public schools with about 190,000 such incidents reported for 1996-97 (Figure 1). About 116,000 incidents of theft or larceny were reported along with 98,000 incidents of vandalism. These less serious or nonviolent crimes were more common than serious violent crimes, with schools reporting about 4,000 incidents of rape or other type of sexual battery, 7,000 robberies, and 11,000 incidents of physical attacks or fights in which weapons were used.

  • While 43 percent of public schools reported no incidents of crime in 1996-97, 37 percent reported from one to five crimes and about 20 percent reported six crimes or more (Figure 3).


Crime and violence were more of a problem in middle and high schools than in elementary schools. Middle schools and high schools were more likely to report that they had experienced one or more incidents of any crime and one or more incidents of serious violent crime than elementary schools (Table 7).

  • Forty-five percent of elementary schools reported one or more violent incidents compared with 74 percent of middle and 77 percent of high schools.

  • Four percent of elementary schools reported one or more serious violent crimes compared with 19 percent of middle and 21 percent of high schools.

  • Of the less serious or nonviolent crimes, the largest ratios of crimes per 100,000 students were found in middle and high schools compared with elementary schools. This was true for physical attacks or fights without a weapon, theft/larceny, and vandalism (Table 10).

  • In general, elementary schools reported proportionately fewer incidents of serious violent crime. They reported lower rates of physical attacks or fights with a weapon and rape or other type of sexual battery when compared with middle schools and high schools. However, while elementary schools reported lower ratios of robbery compared with high schools, they were not significantly different from middle schools.

Schools that reported serious discipline problems were more likely to have experienced one or more incidents of crime or violence, and were more likely to experience serious violent crime than those with less serious discipline problems (Table 7).

  • Sixteen percent of public school principals considered at least one serious discipline problem (out of 17 discipline issues that they were asked about) to be a serious problem in their schools in 1996-97 (Table 12). The remaining schools were about equally divided between those that had minor or no discipline problems on all 17 issues (43 percent) and those that reported a moderate (but no serious) problem on at least 1 of the issues (41 percent).

  • Principals in public high schools and middle schools were more likely than public elementary school principals to rate at least one discipline issue as a serious problem in their schools. Thirty-seven percent of high school principals reported at least one serious discipline problem in their schools compared with 18 percent of middle school principals and 8 percent of elementary school principals (Table 12).

  • In both 1990-91 and 1996-97, the three discipline issues most frequently rated as serious or moderate problems by principals were student tardiness, student absenteeism or class cutting, and physical conflicts among students (Table 13).


Most public schools reported having zero tolerance policies towards serious student offenses (Table 19).

  • Principals were asked about whether the school had "zero-tolerance" policies, defined as school or district policy mandating predetermined consequences for various student offenses. The proportion of schools that had such policies ranged from 79 to 94 percent on violence, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, weapons other than firearms, and firearms (Figure 8 and Table 19).

Most schools reported that they employed low levels of security measures to prevent violence (Figure 11).

  • To discover what types of security were employed, schools were asked whether visitors must sign in, if there was a closed campus policy for most students during lunch, if access to the school building was controlled, if access to school grounds was controlled, if there had been one or more drug sweeps, whether the school used random metal detector checks on students, or whether students must pass through metal detectors daily (Table 22). Schools were also asked about the presence of police or other law enforcement at the school (Table 23).

  • Two percent of public schools had stringent security, which was defined as a full-time guard and daily or random metal detector checks (Figure 11). Eleven percent of schools had instituted moderate security measures such as a full-time guard, or a part-time guard with restricted access to the school, or metal detectors with no guards, while 84 percent of public schools reported having a low level of security-restricted access to their schools but no guards or metal detectors. Another 3 percent reported that none of the security measures asked about in the survey were used.

Most schools reported having formal school violence prevention programs (Table 25).

  • Seventy-eight percent of schools reported having some type of formal violence-prevention or violence reduction program or effort.
  • Fifty percent of public schools with violence-prevention programs indicated that all or almost all of their students participated in these programs (Figure 12 and Table 30).

1U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, "Violent Schools - Safe Schools: The Safe School Study Report to the Congress," December 1977.