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

Principals' Perceptions of Discipline Issues in Their Schools

Principals were asked to report the extent to which specific discipline issues were a problem in their schools during the 1996-97 school year so that the relationship between discipline and crime could be examined. Additionally, data were available on this topic from a 1991 survey which could be used for comparisons.

Principals were asked to rate each of the following discipline issues as a serious problem, moderate problem, minor problem, or not a problem at the school

  • Student tardiness


  • Student absenteeism


  • Physical conflicts among students


  • Robbery or theft of items worth over $10


  • Vandalism of school property


  • Student alcohol use


  • Student drug use


  • Sale of drugs on school grounds


  • Student tobacco use


  • Student possession of weapons


  • Trespassing


  • Verbal abuse of teachers


  • Physical abuse of teachers


  • Teacher absenteeism


  • Teacher alcohol or drug use


  • Racial tensions and


  • Gangs

Overall, principals generally perceived these discipline issues in their schools as no more than minor problems (43 percent) or moderate problems (41 percent; Figure 4). Sixteen percent of public school principals, however, perceived at least one discipline issue as a serious problem. During the 1996-97 school year, student tardiness (40 percent), student absenteeism or class cutting (25 percent), and physical conflicts among students (21 percent) were the three discipline issues most often cited by public school principals as serious or moderate problems in their schools (derived from Table 11). Public school principals were much less likely (0 to 2 percent) to indicate that teacher alcohol or drug use, physical abuse of teachers, the sale of drugs on school grounds, and student possession of weapons were serious or moderate problems at their school than the three most prevalent problems.

Types of Schools With Discipline Problems

Principals were more likely to perceive at least one discipline issue as a serious problem in high schools and schools with enrollments of more than 1,000 students (Table 12). Comparatively, the lowest percent of schools with principals reporting serious discipline problems were elementary schools (8 percent), followed by middle schools (18 percent). Twice as many principals in high schools reported some serious discipline problems (37 percent). Thirty-eight percent of principals in large schools reported some serious discipline problems compared with 15 percent of principals in medium-sized schools and 10 percent of principals in small schools.

The discipline issues most frequently reported as moderate or serious problems by principals differed by instructional level, school size, location of school, minority enrollment, and the percentage of students eligible for the federally funded free or reduced-price lunch program (Tables 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17). For elementary and high schools, student tardiness and student absenteeism or class cutting were among the three most often cited serious or moderate discipline problems (32 and 67 percent, respectively, for student tardiness, and 17 and 52 percent, respectively, for student absenteeism/class cutting; Figure 5 and Table 13). Principals of elementary and middle schools also reported physical conflicts among students as one of their top three serious or moderate discipline problems (18 percent and 35 percent, respectively), whereas in high schools, student tobacco, drug, and alcohol use were more often reported as serious or moderate problems than physical conflicts among students (48, 36, and 27 percent compared with 17 percent, respectively).

Principals in large schools were more likely to report student tardiness was a serious or moderate problem than those in medium-sized and small schools (64 percent compared with 42 percent and 29 percent, respectively; Table 14). Student absenteeism/class cutting was also more of an issue in large schools, with 53 percent of these schools compared with 24 percent of medium schools and 19 percent of small schools considering it a serious or moderate problem. Tobacco use was also more frequently regarded as a serious or moderate problem in large schools (40 percent of large schools, compared with 11 percent of medium and 13 percent of small schools).

Physical conflicts among students were more frequently reported to be serious or moderate discipline problems in city schools than in rural schools (25 percent versus 14 percent; Table 15). Student tardiness was more frequently reported as a serious or moderate problem by principals in schools with a minority enrollment of more than 50 percent (56 percent) compared with 25 to 42 percent in schools with less than 20 percent minority enrollment (Table 16). This pattern was also found in schools with the highest percentage of students eligible for the federally funded free or reduced-price lunch program compared to the lowest (Table 17). Twenty-nine percent of schools with 75 percent or more students eligible for the school lunch program reported physical conflicts as a serious or moderate problem, compared with 13 percent in schools that have fewer than 20 percent of students eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch.

Relationship Between Safety and Principals' Perceptions of Discipline Issues

Principals' perceptions of discipline issues were related to reported crime in their schools. Among principals in schools with no reported crime, 59 percent reported that discipline issues were either not a problem or that there were only minor problems compared with 31 percent in schools with at least one crime (Figure 6). Conversely, 24 percent of principals in schools with any crime at their schools perceived at least one discipline issue as a serious problem while 5 percent of principals in schools with no crime perceived that their schools had one or more serious discipline problems.

Comparisons of Principals' Perceptions in 1991 and 1997

Identical information on principals' perceptions of discipline problems, with the exception of an item about gangs, was collected in another FRSS survey conducted in 1991. A few comparisons of the principal-reported data over time are noteworthy, and Tables 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17 provide data for both years.

Although student tardiness, student absenteeism/class cutting, and physical conflicts were the three most often mentioned serious or moderate discipline problems in 1991 and 1997, principals in high schools were more likely to report tardiness, absenteeism/class cutting, and student drug use as serious or moderate problems in 1997 (67, 52, and 36 percent, respectively) than in 1991 (50, 39, and 20 percent, respectively; Table 13).

Among those schools with 75 percent or more students eligible for the federally funded free or reduced-price lunch program, teacher absenteeism was less likely to be rated as a serious or moderate problems in 1997 by principals (Table 17). In 1991 teacher absenteeism was reported to be a serious or moderate problem by 33 percent of principals compared to 15 percent of principals in 1997.

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