Due to visibility, excessive media coverage, and other factors, very often when we speak of school violence, we picture urban schools and urban violence. This is not a new perception. In 1973, William J. Chambliss published “The Saints and The Roughnecks,” a study that compared the delinquency and deviance of an upper-class group of boys and a lower-class group of boys. While the study did not deal with overt violence, it did deal with potentially violent acts of the upper-class boys (the “Saints”), including high-speed, reckless, and drunk driving; playing chicken with the car lights out; and removing barricades and lanterns from hazardous spots in the road. The Roughnecks’ lower-class violence involved mostly fighting. Chambliss felt that the Saints’ violence was worse than that of the Roughnecks, but the Saints were not thought of as delinquent by either the police, the townspeople, or the school. Chambliss attributes the difference in perception to three factors: visibility (the lower-class Roughnecks hung out on the corner, the upper-class Saints got in their cars and drove out of town, committing their deviance out of sight of their peer adults), demeanor (the Roughnecks expressed hostility and disdain when caught, whereas the Saints were apologetic and penitent when confronted), and bias (the lower-class boy drinking in the alley is perceived as more deviant than the upper-class boy who drinks in a club and then drives drunk). This study reflects the current attitudes of many toward urban and suburban school violence.
Since the advent of horrible school disasters such as the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, in the nice suburban town of Littleton, Colorado, society has had to rethink the relationship between suburban schools and the potential for violence. Not only was the Columbine massacre a school tragedy of huge magnitude, but, because of live media coverage, people across the United States were able to watch the event unfold in real time. This event put a vivid new suburban face on school violence, or at least on school shootings. During the mid-1970s, while urban school crime leveled off and began to decline, suburban school crime was on the rise, so perhaps instances of suburban school violence should not have caught Americans as much by surprise.
Generally speaking, schools are relatively safe places to be. Although many people believe that overall school violence is currently on the rise, in fact this is not so. In the last decade, types of school violence other than shootings have decreased by approximately 50%. Most students, particularly those in suburban areas, will not experience any type of violence at school, nor will most schools experience a shooting; among homicides where school-aged children are the victims, less than 1% occur at school or while traveling to or from school. School shootings are rare events. In any given year, there may be from 12 to 20 school shootings in the more than 100,000 U.S. schools. The intense fear of school shootings is the result of a “moral panic,” fueled by the media, politicians, public concern, special-interest groups, and “triggering events.” After the Columbine school shooting, for example, two-thirds of Americans surveyed in a Gallup poll felt that a similar incident was either very likely or somewhat likely to happen in their schools.
According to the U.S. Department of Education and Bureau of Justice Statistics, the percentage of suburban schools experiencing violent incidents is smaller than the percentage of urban or town schools experiencing such events, but larger than the percentage of rural schools subjected to this kind of violence. For example, more than 82% of urban schools experienced violent incidents, as compared to 74% of suburban schools, 80% of town schools, and almost 70% of rural schools (using 2007-2008 data). There is a larger gap in the urban/suburban/ rural rates of gang-related school crime, with urban rates close to 34%, suburban rates close to 19%, town rates nearly 17%, and rural rates less than 11%.
Urban schools reported 35.8 violent incidents per 1,000 students, while suburban schools experienced 22.8 incidents per 1,000 students, and town and rural schools each had 26.4 incidents per 1,000 students. Violent incidents include a broad range of behaviors, such as actual attacks or fights; threats of attacks or fights; robbery, with or without a weapon; and rape or other sexual battery. Serious violent incidents included all of these actions (except threats) that were committed with a weapon, plus robbery committed with or without a weapon. Without the threats category and non-weapon incidents, there is a greater difference between the urban and suburban school violence rates, with urban schools experiencing 1.9 incidents per 1,000 students, and suburban schools experiencing 0.9 incident per 1,000 students. (Town and rural schools rates were 1.2 and 0.8 incidents per 1,000 students, respectively.) Six percent of suburban teachers report that they were threatened with a physical injury by a student, as compared to 10% of urban teachers and 5% of rural teachers.
While urban schools have higher rates of violence, it is interesting to note that suburban schools have higher rates of disciplinary actions taken against students. For example, with regard to removal of students for the remainder of the school year for possession of an explosive device or a weapon other than a firearm, urban schools removed 3.9% of their students, while suburban schools removed 6.2%.
Suburban schools have a slight edge over urban schools when it comes to written plans for responding to certain violent incidents. For example, 84.9% of suburban schools have a plan for shootings, versus 83% of urban schools. Almost 97% of suburban schools, versus almost 95% of urban schools, have plans for bomb threats or incidents. Suburban schools also have a greater edge in regard to drilling students on the various crisis situation plans: 57.5% of suburban schools versus 50.9% of urban schools drilled students on plans for school shootings; 67.4% suburban schools drilled students on bomb threat plans, whereas only 58.3% of urban schools did the same.
With regard to certain safety precautions, 11.6% of urban schools, as compared to 2.5% of suburban schools, conducted random metal detector checks. However, with regard to the random use of drug-sniffing dogs, suburban schools outdid urban schools 16.2% to 11.7%, respectively. Suburban schools also outdid urban schools in the use of security cameras: 57.5% to 53.3%, respectively. It is difficult to speculate on the meaning of these numbers without further data. Do suburban schools have more cause to take action? Are they using more caution, reacting to less severe incidents (“widening the net”)? Do they simply have more resources? Or is there some other explanation for these differences?
The Columbine tragedy set off public debates on the effects on teenagers of violent movies and video games and heavy metal music, proper parental supervision of teenagers, the Goth culture, the decline of religion in public education, the availability of weapons and explosives, and the widespread use (many would say overuse) of pharmaceutical antidepressants by teens. Schools, including suburban schools, expressed concern over the issues of school security, emergency communication systems, and the proliferation of bullying in the schools (most, if not all, school shooters have been bullied). In fact, while other types of violence were actually on the decline in the schools, bullying was on the rise. Roughly 30% of students are involved in bullying, as the bully, the victim, or both. There is little variation in bullying rates among urban, suburban, and rural schools. Among urban schools, 27.5% report incidents of bullying; among suburban schools, this rate is 24.6%. In recent years, the number of anti-bullying programs has increased as schools try to counteract this problem.
In Littleton, Colorado, as well as in other suburban settings that have experienced school shootings, people wondered in the aftermath, “How could this happen here?”
Whereas some expect to see violence in the urban schools, the same violence in suburban schools is often described as being a “complete surprise.” In reality, school shooters are almost the polar opposite of the “typical” violent juvenile offender. School shooters often attend affluent suburban high schools, belong to the middle class, have not been violent or aggressive in the past, and are white. Recent research indicates that more than 26% of males and more than 8% of females in suburban areas carry weapons for protection or in anticipation of a possible fight. Males in the study who carried weapons appeared to be at risk for negative behaviors or outcomes such as suicide, depression, and stress. Almost half of the suburban students reported a problem with anger management.
It has long been a theory that urban school shootings occur mainly as a result of drug trafficking dynamics, racial segregation, and poverty, with shooters targeting specific individuals. Urban shooters may be in fear of their own lives. In contrast, shootings in suburban school settings, which are devoid of much of the poverty, racial bias, and violent dynamics of the drug trade, have been compared to “rampage shootings”–that is, incidents based on general rather than specific grievances. In the case of the Columbine massacre, for example, it has been hypothesized that the shootings were a deadly reaction to the constant bullying, humiliation, and violence meted out to the outcasts by the dominant elite, particularly athletes (“jocks”). In fact, there really is no consistent profile of the school shooter. Pointing to the moody, depressed, angry, isolated, weird kid with low self-esteem who is harassed, in emotional pain, does not fit in with his or her peers, and dresses funny is not helpful, because most–if not all–youths fit this description at some point during their teen years. School shooters come from all types of family backgrounds, have academic prowess that ranges from failing to honor roll, and may be loners or have many friends. Most have no disciplinary records. Most shooters would not have been identified on any profile. Indeed, with the use of profiling, we run the risk of “net widening”–that is, over-identification of those who stand out because of their behavior, dress, or tastes in music.
After the Columbine shooting and other tragedies, the concept of zero tolerance was further emphasized in the schools. Zero tolerance, an idea that sprang from the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act’s stipulation that any child caught with a firearm at school was to be expelled for a year, was expanded in many schools to include automatic expulsion for any violation of school safety rules.
Corporal punishment, such as spanking, is a behavior that many would regard as violence in the schools; it has been banned in the schools in more than half of the states, and in individual jurisdictions in other states. Nevertheless, this practice persists in many schools, even in states where it has been banned. Corporal punishment has been banned in New York, for example, yet a number of cases are reported each year. Currently, some jurisdictions are attempting to reinstate it. Corporal punishment is used disproportionately on minorities and students from the lower class; thus, by inference, it is probably used less often in more affluent suburban schools. Some suggest that corporal punishment rates are lower in both urban and suburban schools than in rural schools; this may be a reflection of the rural nature of the states that retain corporal punishment. Five states–Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas–account for 70% of the corporal punishment cases.
School violence may have a different face in the suburbs, but it is certainly present in these areas, and it is of great concern to parents, school personnel, and others across the country. As with other types of crime, the fear is worse than the reality, but the concerns still need to be addressed.
- Borum, R., Cornell, D., Modzeleski, W., & Jimerson, S. (2010). What can be done about school shootings? A review of the evidence.” Educational Researcher, 39 (1), 27-37.
- Chambliss, W. (1973). The Saints and the Roughnecks. Society, 11(1), 24-31.
- Dinkes, R., Kemp, J., Baum, K., & Snyder, T. (2009). Indicators of school crime and safety: 2009. Washington, DC: U. S. Department of Education, U. S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.
- Hawkins, S., Campanaro, A., Pits, T., & Steiner, H. (2002). Weapons in an affluent suburban school. Journal of School Violence, 1(1), 53-65.
- Larkin, R. (2007). Toward a theory oflegitimated adolescent violence. Conference paper, American Sociological Association Annual Meeting (AN34595204) SocINDEX with Full Text.
- Muschert, G. ( 2007). The Columbine victims and the myth of the juvenile super-predator. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 351-366. Retrieved from http://yvj.sagepub.com/content/5/4/351.abstract