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


The disruption caused by violence in our nation's public elementary and secondary schools is a national concern. Crime in and around schools threatens the well-being of students, school staff, and communities. It also impedes learning and student achievement. 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." To accomplish this goal, the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act of 1994 provides for support of drug and violence prevention programs. The Act includes an impact evaluation component, which contains a provision requiring the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to collect data to determine the frequency, seriousness, and incidence of violence in elementary and secondary schools.

Responding to this legislation, NCES commissioned a survey (the Principal/School Disciplinarian Survey on School Violence) to obtain current data on school violence and other discipline issues in our nation's public elementary and secondary schools. The survey requested information about 1) the actual number of specific crimes that had occurred at school during the 1996-97 academic year; 2) principals' perceptions about the seriousness of a variety of discipline issues at their schools; 3) the types of disciplinary actions schools took against students for some serious violations; and 4) the kinds of security measures and violence prevention programs that were in place in public schools. Principals were asked to provide information about incidents of crime and violence that were serious enough for the police or other law enforcement representatives to have been contacted. They were also asked to report only on incidents occurring in school buildings, on school grounds, on school buses, and at school-sponsored events or activities held in places other than school grounds or school property. The data collected indicate both the incidence and frequency of many types of serious crimes that took place in public schools and the types of security and other violence-prevention measures in place in schools.

This report presents the findings from the survey, which was conducted for NCES by Westat, a research firm in Rockville, Maryland. The survey was conducted through the NCES Fast Response Survey System (FRSS) during the spring and summer of 1997. FRSS is a survey system designed to collect small amounts of issue-oriented data with minimal burden on respondents and within a relatively short time frame. Questionnaires were mailed to school principals, who were asked to complete the survey form or to have it completed by the person most knowledgeable about discipline issues at the school.

The survey was conducted with a nationally representative sample of regular public elementary, middle, and high schools in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Special education, alternative, and vocational schools, and schools that taught only pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, or adult education were not represented in the sample. Survey findings are presented separately for all regular public schools, and by the following school characteristics (defined in the glossary of terms on pages 32 through 35):

  • Instructional level: elementary, middle, high school.

  • Size of enrollment: less than 300 students (small schools), 300 to 999 students (medium-sized schools), 1,000 or more students (large schools).

  • Locale of school: city, urban fringe, town, rural.

  • Geographic region: Northeast, Southeast, Central, West.

  • Percent minority enrollment: less than 5 percent, 5 to 19 percent, 20 to 49 percent, 50 percent or more.

  • Percent of students eligible for the federally funded free or reduced-price lunch program used as a measure of poverty concentration: less than 20 percent, 20 to 34 percent, 35 to 49 percent, 50 to 74 percent, 75 percent or more. Some survey findings are also presented by school characteristics reported in the survey.

  • Principals' reports on discipline problems in their schools: no problems/ minor problems reported by principal, moderate problems, and serious problems.

  • Types of crime reported: no crime, any crime (including less serious or nonviolent crime only and/or some serious crimes reported), lesser crimes only, some serious crimes reported.

  • Zero tolerance policy for violence: schools reporting that they do have a zero tolerance policy for violence, schools reporting that they do not have a zero tolerance policy for violence.

  • Police/law enforcement presence: 30 hours or more per week; 10-29 hours per week; 1-9 hours per week; stationed as needed; none stationed at the school.

It is important to note that many of the school characteristics used for independent analyses may also be related to each other. The size of enrollment and instructional level of schools, for example, are known to be related with middle schools and high schools typically being larger than elementary schools. Similarly, locale may be related to poverty level and other relationships between analysis variables may exist. The sample size was not large enough to control for these types of relationships. Their existence, however, should be considered in the interpretation of the data presented in this report.

Among the data collected on school discipline and violence issues in public schools were incidents of specific crimes and on a variety of specific discipline issues. The types of crimes and discipline issues on which this survey focused do not represent an exhaustive list of possible school crime or discipline infractions. Also, the number of incidents of crime reported by schools is not the same as the number of individuals involved in such incidents and the reader should keep in mind the specifics of this study when comparing the findings reported here with other studies on school crime and violence. The data reported in this study may vary from data reported elsewhere because of differences in definitions, coverage, respondents, and sample. Among the issues to consider in interpreting the data presented in this report are:

The Choice of Survey Respondent

This survey relied on the responses of public school principals (or school disciplinarians) to report on all data items requested. This includes the reports on the incidence of specific crimes in their schools. There are other surveys in existence, most notably the annual National Crime Victimization Survey of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Department of Justice, that request information from actual crime victims. 2

It is likely that the incident reports provided by a third party, in this case school principals, may be an undercount of the incidents of crime and violence that might have occurred during the school year examined. This is particularly likely for lesser incidents, such as theft, that may not have been reported to the principal as they occurred. Thus, comparisons with reports by victims of crimes that occurred in public schools will not necessarily match those reports provided by school principals in this study.

The Survey Questions Asked

For reporting on specific incidents of crime, principals were asked to provide information only on those serious enough for the police or other law enforcement representatives to have been contacted. Additionally, the incidents reported were restricted to those that occurred in school buildings, on school grounds, on school buses, and at school-sponsored events or activities held in places other than school grounds or school property. These restrictions were necessary to improve recall and to ensure that the incidents that were reported were both of a serious nature and comparable across schools. These restrictions could result in a lower number of reported incidents when compared with the number reported by other studies that do not similarly restrict the questions asked.

The Survey Sample Size

The sample size for this survey, 1,234 public schools, was too small to ensure reliable estimates for very rare events. In the case of school-based violence, both murders and suicides are relatively rare events. In fact, no murders were reported by principals in this survey. Although a small number of suicides were reported and later verified, the number was too small to allow the calculation of reliable estimates and is therefore not reported in the results of this survey, except where combined with other types of violent events to present general statistics. This does not mean that no murders or suicides occurred in public schools during the 1996- 97 school year. Other studies have detailed both incidents of murder and suicide in public schools and discussed the methodology employed to make such estimates.3

Finally, the reader should be cautioned that any sample survey is subject to data collection errors and response bias. Further information on the technical specifications, response rates, calculation of standard errors and testing of comparisons presented in this text are provided in the section on survey methodology and sample selection at the end of the report.

Data have been weighted to national estimates of regular public schools and Table A provides the weighted and unweighted distribution of the sample by the analysis variables. All comparative statements made in this report have been tested for statistical significance through chi-square tests or t-tests adjusted for multiple comparisons using the Bonferroni adjustment and are significant at the 0.05 level or better. However, not all statistically significant comparisons have been presented. Data are presented in figures appearing in the text and in reference tables that appear in the Table of Estimates and Standard Errors. The survey questionnaire is reproduced in appendix A.

2For victim-reported student crime data see L. Bastian and B. Taylon, School Crime, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1991 (NCJ-121645).

3S. P. Kachur, et al., "School Associated Violent Deaths in the United States, 1992 to 1994, "Journal of the American Mediical Association, June 12, 1996, 275 (22): 1729-1733.