Although rates of school violence have decreased, the number of U.S. teenagers who skip school for fear of being hurt has steadily increased. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which surveyed 10,000 public and private high school students across the nation, 5.4% of high school students skipped at least one day of school in 2003 because of safety concerns. That proportion was up 1% from 1993. Yet the same survey found an almost 9%decrease in the number of students saying they had been in a fight the previous school year and an almost 6% reduction in the number of students who reported carrying a weapon on school grounds. Media attention to major shootings like the Columbine High School massacre of 1999 scared many students into believing this type of incident could happen anywhere at any time. The media often describe somewhat isolated or rare incidents as trends, which may result in people overestimating the likelihood that a similar event could occur again. Misplaced fear not only affects students’ attendance, but also shapes school policies that are intended to keep students safe. These policies, such as zero-tolerance programs, metal detector searches, and school police officers, may or may not help keep the school. Research is clear on one point, however: They are likely to increase students’ fear, as implementing these policies tells students that something horrible is likely to happen that necessitates such an extreme response.
In essence, school violence has become a moral panic. Stanley Cohen coined this term to describe the reaction of media, politicians, and agents of social control (such as police) to youth deviance may or may not help secure the school. His initial work examined the Mods and Rockers, two groups of deviant youth in England. Cohen found these groups were labeled as threats and consequently were treated as such. Jock Young’s 1971 book The Drugtakers drew additional attention to the media’s role in constructing deviant identities.
Cohen identified five stages of a moral panic. First, someone or something is defined as a threat to society’s values and interests. Second, the threat is depicted by media and repeated in easily identifiable ways. Third, public concern about the so-called problem builds, until fourth, there is some type of response from authorities or opinion makers. Fifth, the panic either results in social change or recedes.
It is easy to apply Cohen’s five stages to the case of school violence. The 1980s and 1990s were a time period in which adolescents were largely viewed as problems. Even criminologists had warned of the emergence of a dangerous generation of “superpredators,” who were far more violent than any group of juveniles to precede them. Despite the continued decline of actual youth violence in the 1990s, news reports continued to focus on these “ticking time bombs.” For instance, Ann Curry introduced a child psychologist on her Today show and asked about the “trend” of students shooting one another. Vincent Schiraldi, the director of the Justice Policy Institute, then reminded viewers that three times as many people were struck by lightning as were killed in school shootings that year. Other national figures such as Katie Couric emphasized that youth today were out of control, echoing the theme that schools were a site, and students the cause, of a major social problem. The official response was to implement a series of punitive and technological strategies aimed at reining in the supposedly out-of-control youth. Thus districts invested in surveillance cameras and metal detectors and hired school police officers. At the White House conference on School Safety, President Bill Clinton proposed spending $12 million for Project SERV (School Emergency Response to Violence), to be modeled after the FEMA response to violence. Clinton also set aside $65 million to hire 2,000 community and school police officers and $25 million for districts to develop safety plans. The Safe and Gun Free Schools Act was passed in 1994, before most of the high-profile shootings occurred. It requires districts receiving federal funds to establish specific penalties for students found with weapons on campus. By the later 1990s, districts had used this act to justify the implementation of zero-tolerance policies for numerous offenses, some going well beyond weapons. In most cases, students found violating a zero-tolerance provision face mandatory suspension or expulsion. Although this reaction might be appropriate in some of the most serious cases, zero-tolerance policies have been found to disproportionately affect students of color who have not perpetrated any act of violence.
College campuses have responded in similar ways, albeit a bit later and less punitively. Since 1990, five federal laws and many state laws have been created to increase security on university campuses. These measures include the Clery Act– legislation requiring the reporting of school crime. As in the case of secondary schools, the results of these laws have been mixed. The idea is that parents and students have a right to know whether a given campus is safe, but the increased focus on crime may unwittingly heighten students’ fear of victimization. Experts recommend that campus officials gauge students’ fear of crime and violence so they can develop appropriate security measures, then create awareness campaigns that address the most concerning offenses.
In both secondary schools and colleges, the moral panic about extreme forms of violence often leads people to fear the wrong thing. That is, while the chance of being shot in a school on a college campus is fairly low, the chance that someone’s property will be stolen or a person will become the victim of an abusive relationship is much greater. If media attention and school or campus policies focus exclusively on the worst-case scenario, they may be doing students a tremendous disservice. By far, the most common campus crime, year after year, is burglary. Almost all school or campus shooters were “insiders,” or persons who belonged on the grounds. Yet many school districts and some colleges responded to fear of intruders by investing in ID badges or other forms of identification for students and staff. This might not be a tremendously costly measure, but it also may not be useful. A more helpful response is for a school to develop an emergency management and communication plan and to host awareness events and trainings so that students and staff can identify real threats and be equipped to respond to them, if necessary.
- Bedenbaugh, C. (2003). Measuring fear of crime on campus: A study of an urban university. Thesis retrieved from http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-0704103-080530/unrestricted/Bedenbaugh_thesis.pdf
- Cohen, S. (1973). Folk devils and moral panics. St. Albins: Paladin.
- Cosgrove-Mather, B. (2004, July 29). Report: Teens fear school violence. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/07/29/national/main632972.shtml
- Fox, J., & Savage, J. (2009). Mass murder goes to college: An examination of changes on college campuses after Virginia Tech. American Behavioral Scientist, 52, 1465-1485.
- Hemphill, B., & LaBanc, B. (2010). Enough is enough: A student affairs perspective and response to a campus shooting. New York: Stylus.
- Killingbeck, D. (2001). The role of television news in the construction of school violence as a “moral panic.” Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 8(3).
- Lindle, J. (2008, January). School safety: Real or imagined fear? Educational Policy, 22(1), 28-44.
- Paludi, M. (2008). Understanding and preventing campus violence. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Young, J. (1971). The drugtakers: The social meaning ofdrug use. London: McGibben and Kee.