Violence in Public Schools: A Dirty Secret

Published June 1, 2005

In March, the public was startled by the news of a horrific shooting spree in Red Lake, Minnesota, where 16-year-old Jeff Wiese killed seven people and wounded at least 13 others at Red Lake High School before taking his own life–the deadliest school shooting since Columbine in 1999.

In mid-April, the sexual assault of a 16-year-old special education student by a group of boys at a high school in Columbus, Ohio, which school officials tried desperately to keep under wraps for more than a month, made headlines across the country. The principal was fired and three assistant principals suspended without pay for failing to report the incident to police; one of the girl’s assailants videotaped it.

Just a few weeks later, the parents of 19 Philadelphia elementary school students were shocked to learn their children had been stabbed by an eight-year-old classmate wielding a hypodermic needle and had to wait three hours before receiving medical attention. All had to be tested for HIV, and one student’s preliminary results were positive.

Failing to Report Problems

These stories give parents, students, and policymakers cause for concern, and they are just a few examples of a broader school violence problem. Overall violence in U.S. schools, and the government’s inability to stop it even when using new initiatives designed specifically for that purpose, is a big issue in school districts across the country.

According to the April 27 issue of Education Week, a February report by a Cleveland-based firm, National School Safety and Security Services, found 86 percent of the 758 school officers surveyed said crimes at their schools were under-reported. Seventy-eight percent said they had personally taken weapons from students in the past year.

From reading the news, it would appear violence and danger are constant companions for America’s schoolchildren. Though federal reports say school violence has been cut in half over the past decade, some analysts fear that could be because fewer administrators are willing to report the problem, not because violence is actually down.

“For the U.S. Department of Education to tell the American education community and public in general that school crime is declining is misleading,” the firm’s president, Kenneth S. Trump, told the magazine.

That assessment has been corroborated by several independent journalists around the country. For instance, in April the Denver Post examined massive under-reporting of violent incidents in Denver-area schools–under-reporting that occurred despite the presence of a state accountability system designed to identify dangerous schools. The problem in Colorado, and elsewhere, is that many schools simply do not report violent incidents.

Growing Consensus

“In reality, disclosures of school violence vary wildly from one district to another. Some schools report every punch thrown on the playground. Others did not include assaults that police classified as felonies,” Denver Post staff writer Doug Oplinger reported.

After comparing police reports with those filed by schools, Oplinger found serious discrepancies. Among the incidents that took place at metro-area schools reporting no violence or fights of any kind last year were a boy who needed staples to close head wounds; a girl who was hospitalized with bruised kidneys; a sexual assault; a knifing; and attacks with a flagpole and a baseball bat.

Between March and April, the Chicago Tribune reported on the failure of law enforcement officials in Illinois to consistently notify school districts when convicted juvenile sex offenders enroll in their schools. Many failed to notify principals in the mistaken belief they were not permitted to alert them, when in fact they were required to do so.

In one case reported in the Tribune, an East Peoria school wasn’t informed that a convicted 16-year-old sex offender had enrolled there until a seven-year-old victim’s teenage brother told his mother that the assailant was in his gym class, and the mother told the school.

Fearing the Results

“I’m just one person in Peoria,” the mother told the Tribune. “If [my son’s assailant] fell through, how many other kids are out there that these schools don’t know about?”

In School Violence and No Child Left Behind: Best Practices to Keep Kids Safe, a January 2005 report from the Reason Public Policy Institute (RPPI), education and child welfare director Lisa Snell examined school violence and the inadequacy of government systems to protect children. Her report focuses in particular on the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which includes provisions enabling students to transfer from “persistently dangerous” public schools to those designated as “safe.”

While in theory the idea is a good one, in practice it hasn’t worked as intended, according to Snell’s report. Few children have gotten the opportunity to leave dangerous schools because “evidence suggests that schools have unreasonable definitions of ‘dangerous,’ underreport school crime, and do not provide parents with accurate information about school crime,” Snell wrote.

Watering Down the Data

When asked how the U.S. Department of Education is working to strengthen the “persistently dangerous” schools provisions of NCLB, Bill Modzeleski, associate assistant deputy secretary of the department’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools Office, said one of the biggest hurdles NCLB faces is improving state and district data collection.

When the law was first passed in 2001, states often found some of their districts collected good data on school violence, while others did not. That, Modzeleski said, forced states to define “dangerous” using “lowest common denominator” data.

“Is that the best way of doing things? Probably not,” he said. But he added that was the best that could be done with the available data. The department is currently working with states “to boost data collection systems,” Modzeleski said.

In her report, Snell offered 10 recommendations for improving public school safety, including better data collection and reporting. Among those solutions, though, was one Modzeleski did not mention: eliminating state and federal restrictions on school choice.

What Works: School Choice

“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 explained.

Echoing Snell’s concerns, lack of responsiveness to parents’ concerns is fueling a newer school danger: parental violence, like that by the Canton, Texas parent who shot his son’s high school football coach this spring over the coach’s handling of his son and the team.

In discussing the problem, Annette Lareau, a Temple University sociology professor, said in a March 20 Philadelphia Inquirer article, “sometimes, parents are extremely frustrated by what they see as the school’s inability to protect their children and the school’s lack of attention to the parents’ concerns.”

Although making NCLB’s “persistently dangerous” provisions more rigorous might improve the situation, Snell said districts would still “be able to game it.” The only cure, she said, is to let parents choose the schools their children attend and walk away from those that are dangerous.

“I think the right of exit is the only solution,” she said.

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

For more information …

Lisa Snell’s report, School Violence and No Child Left Behind: Best Practices to Keep Kids Safe, is available online at