News: CJ Exclusives

Opposing Trends in School Violence

National report shows declining crime in school, but NC schools post uptick

The U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Department of Education recently released a report that should hearten parents worried about the safety of their kids in school. “Crime in the nation’s schools fell sharply from 1992 to 2002, part of the broad decline in crime in the last decade,” according to the November 2004 Bureau of Justice Statistics report.

Despite the welcome national trend, school violence in North Carolina has increased over the past year. Recent events in Guilford County and many other communities around the state are creating concern about the safety of children in North Carolina schools.

N.C. School Violence Report

The 2003-04 annual School Violence Report issued by North Carolina Public Schools shows increases in the total number of reportable offenses in the state since 2002-03. Seventeen offenses must be reported to law enforcement officials and central office administrators. In 2003-04, 9,800 reportable offenses were tallied, up from 8,548 the previous year.

The school system measures reportable acts per thousand students, so enrollment changes can affect the statistic. In 2002-03 there were 6.581 acts of crime or violence per thousand students in North Carolina schools. In 2003-04, that number bumped up to 7.371 per thousand.

Before 2001, the State Board of Education required reports for 14 criminal acts, but added three to make it 17 in the 2001-02 reporting year. Bomb threats, possession of alcoholic beverages, and burning a school building were added to the list.

The SBE plans to use the 2002-03 numbers as a base year for calculating future trends, according to the state’s report, but some general trends remain consistent. Possession of a controlled substance is the most frequent offense, and the number of occurrences has been rising steadily over the last six years, reaching 3,848 in 2003-04. The second most common offense is possession of a weapon excluding firearm, also trending upward between 1998-99 and 2003-04. There were 3,402 reports of weapons in schools at all levels in 2003-04, an increase of 654 reports. Possession of an alcoholic beverage, the third most frequent offense, was up as well.

Incidents in local schools

Starting in late November, a “hit list” of students and teachers surfaced in a Raeford, N.C. middle school. The event created a buzz of media attention, and the school went into lockdown while law enforcement used metal detectors to search for weapons.

What followed began to look like an epidemic of death threats at middle and high schools all over the state. Lists appeared in Wayne, Guilford, Wake, Hoke, and other systems, and school administrators felt compelled to treat them as serious threats in the interest of student safety. Authorities were also tracking down the students who issued the lists, with the possibility of criminal prosecution or other serious consequences for the culprits.

Guilford County seemed particularly hard hit. Guilford schools have been the scene of numerous incidents of fighting and violence during the 2003-04 school year. By Dec. 1, according to reports in the Greensboro News & Record, 33 criminal charges had been filed as a result of assaults, threats, fighting, affray, resisting police, and disorderly conduct at Andrews High School. Police were called to Andrews repeatedly, and the fights resulted in injury to the school’s assistant principal.

At Southwest High School at least 21 criminal charges were filed in 2003-04. The total number of criminal offenses at Andrews and Southwest was two to three times larger in 2003-04 than in 2002-03. And at Northwest High School in Greensboro, and elsewhere around the district, schools began to lock down, search lockers, and bring in the police.

Over the initial protest from Terry Grier, Guilford superintendent of schools, police established a presence at some schools with parked squad cars in the front drive. High Point Police Chief Jim Fealy said that although “this is not the norm,” he intended to send “as many cars as we need to send” to try maintain order at the schools.

Officials believe that at least some of the “hit-list” activity represents a bid for attention, but can’t afford to take the situation lightly. A December panel on school discipline sponsored by the News & Record drew comments about students’ lack of respect, unwillingness to control their behavior, and disrespect for teachers. Parent involvement, respect for teachers, support for discipline from the school system as well as the student’s family, and better role modeling by parents were cited as elements of the problem that need improvement. In addition, officials will have to decide how sensitive policies such as suspension play into the overall picture.

National trend in school violence

The national Bureau of Justice Statistics looked at a number of key areas in its “Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2004” report. They include violent deaths at school, student reports of nonfatal attacks, school reports of crime and violence, and teacher reports.

The broad trend shows that among students, the percentage who claimed they were fearful of attacks at school, or in transit between home and school, dropped by half over the period from 1995 to 2001. About 12 percent voiced concerns in 1995, only 6 percent did so in 2001.

In every category surveyed, violence was greater at the high school level than at the middle or elementary level. It was also greater for middle schools than for elementary schools.

In general, older students were more likely to be victims of crime away from school, while elementary students were more likely to be victimized through bullying, threats, hate-related statements, fights, use of weapons or other nonfatal crimes while in school. Teachers in middle and high schools were more likely to be victims of assault or other crimes in school than were their elementary counterparts. An urban location increased that likelihood.

Overall, the Bureau of Justice Statistics report cites a decline in violent victimizations at school between 1992 and 2002. Some of these would not be reportable incidents under North Carolina law (some forms of hate speech, for example, or some types of bullying), so the national numbers differ significantly from the North Carolina measurements.

Between 1992 and 2002, the number of violent victimizations at school, including both teachers and students, declined from 48 per thousand to 24 per thousand, according to the BJS report.

What’s going on in schools?

Why are kids willing to brazenly create havoc in school? The recent spate of hit lists, said Ted Feinberg of the National Association of School Psychologists, may be “driven by a need for attention.”

Others agree. In her book Home Alone America, the Hoover Institution’s Mary Eberstadt describes a generation of institutional orphans — kids raised in day care, school, after-school care, and organized activities. Absent fathers, Eberstadt said, are the overarching theme in the lives of many children, who find that they relate to the lyrics of Eminem and performers that echo that theme. Extreme behaviors may get negative attention, but they get attention.

This phenomenon is a kind of parental “attention deficit.” How to cure it and get parents more involved with their children? Stop running “parent-free” homes, convince adults to be less self-involved and more self-sacrificing — of their time — when it comes to their children, Eberstadt said.

Palasek is an assistant editor at Carolina Journal.