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Violence and Discipline Problems in U.S. Public Schools: 1996-97
March 18, 1998

Statement by Pascal D. Forgione, Jr., Ph.D
U.S. Commissioner of Education Statistics
National Center for Education Statistics
At the release of the report

BACKGROUND
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, 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 which collected information for the 1996-97 school year, the results of which are detailed in this report.

This is the first report of its kind reporting three types of information collected at the school level: 1) about the incidence of violence in public schools, 2) principals' perceptions of whether certain types of discipline issues are a problem in their schools, and 3) school policies on discipline and safety. The survey questionnaire that was used to collect data for this report asked questions about the incidence of violence "at the school," both during and after school hours. "At the school" included in school buildings, on school grounds, on school buses, and at places where school-sponsored events or activities are held that are not officially on school grounds.

The report contains data that allow us, for the first-time ever, to produce national school-level estimates about the incidence of various types of crime in public schools. Principals/school disciplinarians were asked to report incidents that they had reported to police or other law enforcement representatives. The report does not contain information about numbers of arrests for crimes or numbers of victimizations. Other data collections, primarily the National Crime Victimization Survey, have been able to provide estimates about numbers of arrests and victimization rates for the school-age population.

HOW SAFE ARE THE SCHOOLS?

  • In the nation's public schools, 57 percent reported one or more incidents of crime or violence that had been reported to police or other law authorities. Included in the measure were occurrences of vandalism, theft or larceny, physical attacks or fights with or without a weapon, robbery, rape or sexual battery, suicide and murder.
  • Serious violent crimes (murder, suicide, rape or sexual battery, physical attack or fight with a weapon, or robbery) were reported by 10 percent of public schools overall. In the sample of 1,234 public schools, murder was not reported by any of the schools and only 4 schools in the sample reported any incidents of suicide. Because of the rarity of the occurrence of these crimes at school we were unable to generate of reliable national estimates.
  • 47 percent of public schools reported no serious violent crimes, but did have one or more less serious incidents that were reported to police or other law authorities (such as incidents of vandalism, theft or larceny, physical attack or fight without a weapon).
  • Typically, elementary schools had the fewest incidents of crime, with 45 percent reporting one or more crimes or violent incidents and 4 percent reporting one or more serious violent incidents. In contrast, 74 percent of middle schools and 77 percent of high schools reported one or more crimes or violent incidents and 19 percent of middle schools and 21 percent of high schools reported one or more incidents of serious violent crime.

The number of incidents of crime or violence that occurred in U.S. public schools was also presented in this report:

  • During the 1996-97 school year, 43 percent of the nation's public schools had no incidents (of the type described above) that were reported to police or other law authorities;
  • 37 percent experienced 1 to 5 incidents;
  • 7 percent had 6 to 10 incidents; and
  • 12 percent had more than 10 such incidents.

The proportion of schools affected by specific types of crimes gives yet another perspective on safety in schools.

  • 38 percent of schools reported having one or more incidents of vandalism on school grounds or at a school-sponsored event.
  • 31 percent of schools reported having at least one theft or larceny on school grounds or at a school-sponsored event.
  • 28 percent of schools reported having at least one physical attack or fight without a weapon;
  • 6 percent of schools reported having one or more physical attacks or fights with a weapon;
  • 3 percent of schools reported having one or more robberies; and
  • 3 percent of schools reported having one or more incidents of rape or sexual battery.
 

WHAT DO THESE SCHOOL-LEVEL NUMBERS SAY ABOUT THE RELATIVE SAFETY OF OUR STUDENTS?
To understand what these data mean for the relative safety of our students it is useful to portray them as ratios of incidents per 1,000 public school students. The following discussion presents such statistics by reports of incidents of different types of crimes and violence:

  • There were 424,000 incidents of all types reported -- or 10 incidents per 1,000 public school students. Out of those 10 incidents, 9.5 incidents were of the type categorized as less serious or nonviolent (including theft/larceny, vandalism, and physical attacks or fights without a weapon). The remaining .5 incidents per 1,000 students were of the type categorized as serious and violent.
  • The most frequently reported crime that occurred in schools was physical attacks or fights without a weapon, with about 190,000 such incidents reported - or 4.4 per 1,000 public school students.
  • Approximately 116,000 incidents of theft or larceny were reported - or 2.7 per 1,000 public school students.
  • There were 98,000 incidents of vandalism - or 2.3 per 1,000 public school students.
  • There were 11,000 physical attacks or fights with a weapon - or 0.3 per 1,000 public school students.
  • There were 7,000 robberies - or 0.2 per 1,000 students.
  • There were 4,000 rapes or other incidents of sexual battery - or 0.1 incidents of rape sexual battery per 1,000 public school students. (Rape or sexual battery was defined as rape, fondling, indecent liberties, child molestation or sodomy.) In comparison, the National Crime Victimization Survey of 1995 (a survey of persons in households) found that, overall, cases of rape or other sexual assault occurred at the rate of 3.5 per 1000 persons 12 to 14 years old and about 6 per 1000 persons 15 to 17 years old.

PERCEPTIONS OF SCHOOL DISCIPLINE PROBLEMS HAVE NOT CHANGED MUCH
The report also compares current data to a set of questions that was asked previously six years ago, in 1991. This set of questions asked about the principal's perceptions of whether certain discipline problem existed in their school, including fights, robberies, vandalism, drugs.

  • Overall, there was not much change in the perceptions of whether these problems existed in the schools.
  • As in 1991, the three issues most frequently reported to be serious or moderate problems in schools in 1997 were student tardiness, student absenteeism or class cutting, and physical conflicts among students.
  • Principals in high schools were somewhat more likely to report tardiness, absenteeism/class cutting as serious or moderate problems in 1997 (67, 52, and 36 percent, respectively) than in 1991 (50, 39 and 20 percent, respectively).
  • Principals were more likely to perceive at least one discipline issue as a serious problem in high schools and in schools with enrollments of more than 1,000 students.
  • Principals' perceptions of discipline issues were related to reported crime in their schools.
  • Among principals perceiving only minor or no discipline issues, 40 percent reported any crime incidents, compared with 86 percent in schools where the principals perceived at least one serious discipline problem.

SCHOOL DISCIPLINE POLICIES
Principals were also asked to report on several school policies related to school discipline and safety.

  • In three percent of public schools principals reported that students were required to wear uniforms. About three-quarters of these schools had implemented this requirement in 1994 or later.
  • "Zero tolerance policy" was defined as a school or district policy that mandates predetermined consequences or punishments for specific offences.
  • About 90 percent of schools reported having zero tolerance policies for firearms and other weapons.
  • Eighty-seven and 88 percent had policies of zero tolerance for alcohol and drugs, respectively.
  • Seventy-nine percent had a zero tolerance policy for violence.

CONCLUSION
This report represents a baseline collection of school-level estimates of the incidence of crime and violence in U.S. public schools and school discipline policies. As part of the Department of Education, NCES is committed to continued collection of information and reporting about safety and discipline in our schools. An analysis of student reports of crime and victimization in their schools that was jointly written by NCES and the Bureau of Justice Statistics will soon be released. Other reports on school safety and discipline are also in development.

Link To:
Violence and Discipline Problems in U.S. Public Schools: 1996-97 (Report)
U.S. Department of Education Releases First in Series of School Safety Reports (Press Release)