Private secondary schools are schools that receive no government funding and educate some combination of students between grades 6 and 12. More than 2.5 million students attend private secondary schools in the United States; approximately 80% of those students attend private secondary schools operated by, or affiliated with, a religious organization. Although vast differences exist among private secondary schools, on average these schools tend to have smaller student bodies and lower teacher-to-student ratios than public (government-funded) secondary schools.
Much of the research that has been done on crime and violence in schools has focused on public schools; however, scholars are increasingly studying issues of crime and violence in private schools as well. The 2009 Indicators of School Crime and Safety report, compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, contains data from many different sources about levels of school crime and violence in the United States. These sources include surveys of students and teachers in both public and private secondary schools.
How prevalent are crime and violence in private secondary schools? How do rates of crime and violence in private secondary schools compare with rates in public secondary schools? The School Crime Supplement to the 2007 National Crime Victimization Survey, which is described in the Indicators report, found that just 1%of private school students between the ages of 12 and 18 said that they had been victims of a crime at school, while 5% of such students at public schools reported this kind of victimization. Similarly, a lower proportion of private school students (2%) than public school students (6%) in this age group said that they were afraid of being attacked or harmed at school. (In this survey, “at school” meant both within school buildings and grounds, as well as on the way to or from school.)
One of the most pronounced differences between public and private secondary schools that this survey uncovered concerned gangs. While only 5% of the students aged 12 to 18 in private schools reported that gangs were active at school, 25% of the students in public schools reported gang activity there. Regarding hate crimes, 6% of private secondary students said that they had been called a hate-based name or word, while 10% of public secondary students made such a report. Approximately 19% of the students surveyed in private schools said they had encountered hate-based graffiti at school, compared to 36% of the students surveyed in public schools. Finally, a separate survey included in the Indicators of School Crime and Safety report asked teachers at all school levels (elementary and secondary) about whether they had been victims of crimes at school during the 2007-2008 academic year. Only 3% of private school teachers said that they had been threatened with injury, compared to 8% of public school teachers.
These statistics indicate that, on average, many measures of violence and crime are lower in private secondary schools than in public secondary schools. Has this always been the case? How have rates of crime and violence in public and private secondary schools changed over the past 20 years? The results of the more recent surveys can be put into historical perspective by examining a 1991 report that assessed the results of the 1989 National Crime Victimization Survey. This survey also asked students about their experiences of crime and violence at school. According to the survey, in 1989, 7% of private secondary students said that they hadbeenavictimofapropertyorviolent crime while at school, while 9% of public secondary students reported the same thing. In addition, 13% of private secondary students reported that they feared being attacked at school, while 22% of public secondary students said this. Although differences in methodology make it difficult to directly compare these figures to the current statistics, it seems evident that differences between private and public secondary schools also existed more than 20 years ago.
A few researchers have moved beyond these general statistics and sought to more deeply analyze crime and violence in private secondary schools. Mijanovich and Weitzman (2003), for example, examined data collected in 1998-1999 in the form of interviews with students between the ages of 10 and 18. During these interviews, students were asked whether they had felt unsafe in school yesterday. While 11% of students enrolled in urban public schools said they had felt unsafe, only 7% of students enrolled in urban private schools said this. Interestingly, no statistically significant difference was found between the responses of suburban private and public school students in regard to this question. The results of this study indicate that there are always many nuances to consider when making broad comparisons.
Why do some private secondary schools have lower rates of crime and violence than some public secondary schools? Observers and researchers have proposed a number of different answers to this question. One such answer focuses on school size. Given that research indicates that overcrowding is associated with higher levels of crime in schools, some private schools may have lower rates of crime because private schools are often smaller than public schools. Another potential explanation is that some private schools are selective–meaning that students must apply for admission, often by taking admissions tests, submitting previous school transcripts, and attending interviews. This process may allow private schools to exclude some students with a history of delinquent behavior. Public secondary schools, in contrast, are not selective. These are just two of the many theories that have been posited to explain differences in some reported crime and violence rates.
Ultimately, although evidence suggests that rates of crime and violence tend to be lower in private secondary schools, the data presented here demonstrate that these issues are present in many private secondary schools as well. More research into the specific features of crime and violence–and ways to prevent crime and violence–in private secondary schools is certainly needed.
- Bastian, L.D., & Taylor, B.M. (1991). School crime: A National Crime Victimization Survey report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/search/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=ED339133&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=ED339133
- Broughman, S. P., Swaim, N. L., & Keaton, P. W. (2009). Characteristics of private schools in the United States: Results from the 2007–08 Private School Universe Survey. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2009/2009313.pdf
- Dinkes, R., Kemp, J., Baum, K., & Snyder, T. D. (2009). Indicators ofschool crime and safety. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2010/2010012.pdf
- Mijanovich, T., & Weitzman, B. C. (2003). Which broken window matter? School, neighborhood and family characteristics associated with youths’ feelings of unsafety. Journal ofUrban Health: Bulletin ofthe New York Academy of Medicine, 80(3), 400-415.
- National Center for Education Statistics (2002). Fast facts: Public and private school comparison. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=55