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

Incidents of Crime and Violence in Public Schools

Public school principals were presented with a list of crimes and asked to report the number of incidents of each type of crime that had occurred at their schools during the 1996-97 school year. The crimes about which schools were asked were murder, suicide, rape or other type of sexual battery, physical attack or fight with a weapon, robbery, physical attack or fight without a weapon, theft or larceny, and vandalism. Respondents were provided with definitions for each of these types of crime (those definitions appear in the glossary of this report on pages 32 through 35). Under the assumption that crimes or offenses reported to police would be more accurately recalled, schools were asked to report only those incidents for which the police or other law enforcement representatives had been contacted. It was also assumed that requiring a benchmark of law enforcement contact would minimize subjective judgment about which incidents to include. Only crimes occurring at the school, including those that took place in school buildings, on school grounds, on school buses, and at school-sponsored events or activities, but not officially on school grounds, were to be reported. While student victimization and teacher-reported data on crimes occurring at school have been collected and reported elsewhere, school principals were asked to report unduplicated incidents at the school level. 4

During 1996-97, about 4,000 incidents of rape or other types of sexual battery were reported in our nation's public schools (Figure 1 and Table 1). There were about 11,000 incidents of physical attacks or fights in which weapons were used and 7,000 robberies in schools that year. About 190,000 fights or physical attacks not involving weapons also occurred at schools in 1996-97, along with about 115,000 thefts and 98,000 incidents of vandalism (Tables 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6).

Because the sample size was not large enough to produce reliable estimates for very rare events, the survey was not able to estimate either the percentage of schools experiencing one or more incidents of murder or suicide or the total number of these crimes that occurred at public schools during 1996-97. For example, in the sample of 1,234 public schools, murder was not reported by any of the schools and, similarly, only 4 schools in the sample reported any incidents of suicide. The rarity of the occurrence of these crimes at school, given the sample size of the study, precluded the generation of reliable national estimates. In a descriptive case study of violent deaths in schools, Kachur, et al., estimated that there were 105 school-associated violent deaths including 85 murders occurring at schools during a 2-year period from 1992 to 1994. 5

Percent of Public Schools Reporting Crime and Violence

Schools were asked to report the number of incidents of various crimes. To understand the extent to which crimes affect our nation's public schools and public school students, the incidence of crime in terms of the proportion of schools experiencing crimes are examined below. Nationally, 43 percent of schools reported that none of the listed crimes had occurred there during the 1996-97 school year (Figure 2 and Table 7). Fifty-seven percent, however, reported that at least one of these crimes had occurred and had been reported to the police. One in 10 public schools reported at least one serious violent crime such as rape or sexual battery, suicide, physical attacks or fights with weapon, or robbery had occurred at the school. Almost half (47 percent) indicated that they had experienced no incidents of serious violent crime, but one or more less serious crimes such as a physical attack or fight without the use of a weapon, theft, or vandalism had occurred.

Vandalism was reported by 38 percent of public schools, theft/larceny by 31 percent of schools, and physical attacks or fights without a weapon by 28 percent (Table 8). These crimes were the most frequently occurring in terms of the percentages of schools affected. Smaller percentages of schools reported more serious crimes: 3 percent of public schools reported the occurrence of a rape or other type of sexual battery at the school; 3 percent, a robbery; and 6 percent, a physical attack or fight in which a weapon had been used.

With the exception of vandalism, roughly the same percentage of schools reporting various types of crime also reported incidents involving students as either victims or perpetrators and that crime occurred during school hours or at school-sponsored events.

A smaller percentage of elementary schools than middle schools or high schools reported that any crime at all occurred during the 1996-97 school year (Table 7). About half of all elementary schools (45 percent) reported at least one crime. In contrast, 74 percent of middle schools and 77 percent of high schools did so. Higher percentages of middle and high schools also reported at least one serious violent crime (i.e., robbery, rape or sexual battery, or assault or fight with a weapon), with about 20 percent indicating a serious violent crime had occurred at the school compared with 4 percent for elementary schools.

School crime was also more likely in larger schools. While 38 percent of small schools reported any incidents, 60 percent of medium-sized schools, and 89 percent of large schools reported criminal incidents. Serious violent crime was more likely to be reported by the largest schools. One-third of schools with enrollments of 1,000 or more reported at least one serious violent crime, compared with 4 to 9 percent in schools with fewer than 1,000 students.

Schools in cities were at least twice as likely to report serious violent crime as those in towns and in rural locations, although city schools were not significantly different from urban fringe schools. Seventeen percent of city schools reported at least one serious violent crime, while 8 percent of rural schools and 5 percent of schools located in towns reported any serious violent crime. Eleven percent of schools in urban fringe areas reported a serious violent crime, which was not significantly different from cities.

Schools with the highest proportion of minority students were more likely to report crimes than schools with the smallest proportion of minority enrollment. Sixty-eight percent of schools with minority enrollments of 50 percent or more reported some crime compared with 47 percent of those with less than 5 percent minority enrollment. Further, schools with 50 percent or more minority enrollment were more likely to report serious violent crime than with less than 5 percent minority enrollment (15 percent compared with 6 percent).

Schools indicating that they have a policy to report crimes to the public were less likely to report having experienced any crime than those without this policy, but both types of schools were about as likely to report at least one serious crime. Greater police or law enforcement presence, however, was associated with the incidence of serious crime. Schools with police or other law enforcement stationed at the school for 30 or more hours per week were more likely to report having experienced a serious violent crime (38 percent) compared with schools in which police were not stationed or stationed only as needed (6 to 14 percent, respectively).

Schools in which principals perceived that general discipline issues were not a serious problem were more likely to report that they had no crime incidents. Sixty percent of public schools in which principals reported no discipline problems or only minor discipline problems reported no crime for the 1996-97 school year. Thirty-eight percent of those in which school principals reported some moderate discipline problems reported having no crime, and 14 percent of schools with at least one discipline problem considered serious by their principal had no reported crime. Among schools with at least one discipline problem considered serious, 28 percent reported serious crime compared with 3 percent of schools with no discipline problems or minor problems, and 10 percent of those with moderate problems.

Frequency of Crime and Violence

Most public schools experienced a relatively small number of crimes in 1996-97. While 43 percent reported none of the crimes for which the survey collected data, 37 percent reported 1 to 5 incidents of crime at the school (Figure 3). Seven percent of public schools reported having between 6 and 10 separate incidents during the 1996-97 school year, and 12 percent reported more than 10 incidents for that period. The number of incidents is a factor of the size of schools. Therefore, another measure, the ratio of incidents of crimes, was used to determine the frequency of crime in schools. 6

Overall, about 1,000 crimes per 100,000 students were reported in our nation's public schools (Table 9). This included about 950 crimes per 100,000 that were not serious or violent crimes (theft, vandalism, fights or assaults without a weapon) and about 50 serious violent crimes per 100,000 students (rape or sexual battery, robbery, fight with a weapon, suicide). The overall rate of crime differed by school characteristics. Elementary schools reported about 350 crimes per 100,000 students, compared with about 1,625 in middle schools and about 1,800 in high schools. The ratio of serious violent crime was lowest in elementary schools, with 13 violent crimes reported per 100,000 students compared with 93 per 100,000 students in middle schools and 103 per 100,000 students in high schools.

While a lower percentage of small schools reported any serious violent crime compared with medium and large schools, the ratio of serious violent crimes per 100,000 students was lower in medium-sized schools than in large schools. Medium-sized schools reported 38 serious violent crimes per 100,000 students, compared with the 90 serious violent crimes per 100,000 students reported by large schools. Small schools reported 61 serious violent crimes per 100,000 students.

City schools reported 95 incidents of serious violence per 100,000 students, compared with 28 serious violent incidents per 100,000 students in towns. City schools, however, were not significantly different from rural or urban fringe schools in this regard.

The ratio of serious violent crime was associated with percent minority enrollment. While the ratio of serious violent crime per 100,000 students was 19 in schools with less than 5 percent minority enrollment, it was 51 per 100,000 students in those schools with 20 to 49 percent minority students, and 96 per 100,000 in schools with 50 percent or more minority enrollment.

Frequency of Specific Crimes

For every 100,000 public school students, 26 attacks or fights with a weapon, 17 robberies, and 10 rapes occurred at school (Table 10). These represented the serious violent crimes for which the survey collected data. More frequently reported were the less serious or nonviolent crimes including 444 attacks or fights without a weapon, 274 incidents of theft or larceny, and 234 incidents of vandalism per 100,000 students in public schools.

Elementary schools, which reported proportionately fewer incidents of serious violent crime in general, reported lower rates of both physical attacks or fights in which weapons were used and rape or other type of sexual battery than middle and high schools. Differences between elementary schools and high schools were also found in the rate at which robbery was reported, although no difference was found between elementary and middle schools for this crime. Physical attacks or fights in which weapons were used were almost 7 times more frequent in middle and high schools than in elementary schools. While there were 7 physical attacks or fights with a weapon per 100,000 students in elementary schools, the rate was 49 per 100,00 middle school students and 46 per 100,000 high school students.

Rapes or other types of sexual battery were reported in middle and high schools at about the same rate, with 17 per 100,000 students in middle schools and 18 per 100,000 in high schools, as compared to the 3 rapes or other type of sexual battery per 100,000 students reported in elementary schools.

Of the less serious or nonviolent crimes (vandalism, physical attacks or fights without a weapon, and theft or larceny), the ratio at which all three crimes occurred was more frequent in middle and high schools than in elementary schools. Physical attacks or fights without a weapon were the number one crime in both middle schools and high schools, followed by theft and vandalism.



4 See W. Mansfield, D. Alexander, and E. Farris, Teacher Survey on Safe, Disciplined, and Drug-Free Schools, Fast Response Survey System, FRSS 42, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1991 (NCES 91-091) for teacher-reported data. For student-reported crime data see L. Bastian and B. Taylor, School Crime, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1991 (NCJ-131645), and M.J. Nolan, E. Daily, and K. Chandler, Student Victimization at School, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1995 (NCES 95-204).

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

6 It should be noted that the ratio of incidents of crimes was calculated from the number of incidents reported by public schools per 100,000 public school students and does not represent student-reported victimization rates.

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