School Violence Is Under-Reported

Published April 1, 2005

School violence, although generally decreasing in the United States, is under-reported in many schools, according to a new report from the Reason Foundation. School crime data are largely unavailable and incidences of violence often downplayed.

“As a parent you are far more likely to find crime data about your child’s school in the newspapers than you are on the district’s Web site,” stated Lisa Snell, author of the report, in a January 27 news release.

Snell is director of education at Reason. Her report, School Violence and No Child Left Behind: Best Practices to Keep Kids Safe, was released in January 2005.

Statistics Inconsistent, Dubious

Snell’s analysis points to inconsistencies in reporting and defining school violence.

“Forty-four states and the District of Columbia reported not a single unsafe school,” the report states. “Yet there were nearly 1.5 million crimes in America’s schools in 2002.”

A combination of factors, including negligent reporting and withheld data, help explain the discrepancy, noted Snell.

“Unless someone files a Freedom of Information Act request, there is no way the public will know the true number of incidents,” Snell said. “Even when the violence is reported, state definitions for what constitutes a dangerous school do not match the actual violence that occurs in schools.”

Statistics Required by Law

Under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), states are required to develop objective criteria, such as data on firearms and fights, to be used along with trend analysis in identifying “persistently dangerous schools.”

Only 52 of the nation’s 92,000 public schools were labeled “persistently dangerous” under NCLB in the 2003-04 school year. While Snell acknowledges most school violence is concentrated in a few schools, she said the “persistently dangerous” figure is misleading.

In the report, she gives the example of Los Angeles’ Locke High School: 14 sex offenses, 53 robberies, and 22 assaults from 2000 to 2002, yet not labeled “persistently dangerous.” Instead of expulsion, Snell noted, dangerous students are given “opportunity transfers,” and the schools’ records remain clean.

“Schools consistently underreport violence figures and then make it extremely difficult for parents to learn what criminal activity is taking place on campus,” Snell stated. “Districts are essentially lying to parents about the reality of school violence.”

In her analysis of 80 large school districts across the country, Snell concludes 75 percent of them have no school crime data available through district or state-level Web sites. Florida is a notable exception; every school in the state must provide parents with crime data. Even there, however, the data are self-reported by schools.

Decentralization, Choice Called For

Snell offers several recommendations for improving school safety and communicating more effectively with parents. School choice, she argues, is a critical component.

“The act of choosing and the related imperative for schools to make themselves ‘choice-worthy’ is the key to any serious anti-violence policy,” Snell writes. “Forced assignment to schools and the resulting mismatches and detachment beget boredom and violence and create schools that are unresponsive to parental demands for safer schools.”

Snell also proposes several reporting-specific improvements, among them creating uniform standards, making crime statistics part of school report cards, and reporting crime in a timely fashion.

“Our general conclusion was to encourage innovation and experimentation in schools through decentralization and deregulation. Incentives matter, so effectively addressing school violence must include some level of parental choice,” Snell said.

Kate McGreevy ([email protected]) is a freelance education writer from Indiana. She formerly worked with the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy in Washington, DC.

For more information …

School Violence and No Child Left Behind: Best Practices to Keep Kids Safe is available online at Reason Foundation’s Web site,