In general, the term “violent crime” refers to any criminal action wherein one or more offenders use either physical violence or the threat of physical violence against one or more victims, as in the case of aggravated assault or armed robbery. Government agencies that study violent crimes, such as the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, typically treat the following offenses as violent crimes: aggravated assault, simple assault, rape, robbery, homicide, and non-negligent manslaughter. However, a broader definition could include other forms of violence such as psychological violence as in the cases of bullying, harassment, and stalking.
As to the prevalence of violent school crimes, all of the available evidence indicates that schools are relatively safe places. For example, an analysis of National Incident-Based Reporting System dataonmorethan17millionoffensesthat occurred from 2000 to 2004 showed that fewer than 1 out of 20 crimes (3.3%) occurred at schools. In other words, more than 95% of crime occurs somewhere other than on school properties. Although highly violent school crimes that result in multiple fatalities–such as the 1997 shootings at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky; the 1998 shootings at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon; the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado; and the 2005 shootings at Red Lake High School in Red Lake, Minnesota– receive a great deal of attention from the media and the general public, such incidents are rare. The fact is that the chances of a youth being feloniously killed by a classmate while at school are less than one in 1 million. For instance, data from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice show that during the 2005-2006 school year, there were 14 homicides of youths between the ages of 5 and 18 on school properties. In other words, during the 2005-2006 school year there was one student homicide per every 3.8 million students. Research conducted by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice also shows that during the 2005-2006 school year, only 1% of students reported having been the victim of a violent crime and less than 0.5% of students reported being the victim of a serious violent crime at school such as aggravated assault, rape, or robbery.
Nonetheless, the potential for serious school violence is omnipresent. One problem that contributes to this risk is the presence of weapons in schools.
Research has consistently shown that many students bring weapons such as guns and knives to school. The most recent data available from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice show that during the 2005-2006 school year, roughly one out of every 10 males reported having carried a weapon to school.
Another factor that contributes to the widespread potential for serious violence in schools is gang activity. Research has shown that gang youths engage in more violent activity than youths not involved with gang activity and that youth gang activity at school increases the potential for school violence. As to the extent of gang activity in schools, the most recent figures available from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice show that 24% of students reported gangs were present in their school, with 17% of principals reporting problems with gang activity at school.
The good news is that violence in the schools has substantially decreased since the mid-1990s. For example, during the 1990s there were roughly 30 youth homicides per year at schools; by comparison, during the 2005-2006 school year, there were only 14 homicides of youths at school. That is a 50% decrease in school-associated homicides in less than a decade. The rates of nonfatal victimization dropped over this period as well. However, even though there are far fewer violent crimes than property crimes at school and even though the rates of violent crimes at school have substantially decreased since the 1990s, the majority of public schools still experience some type of violent crime.
Research conducted by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice shows that during the 2005-2006 school year, 78% of all public schools reported at least one incident of violence and that 17% of all public schools reported at least one serious violent offense such as rape or weapons-related assault. It is important to keep in mind that the aforementioned figures on school violence pertain to physical violence such as assaults. As previously discussed, some nonphysical behaviors such as verbal threats and bullying can be considered as forms of violence. The research on school violence suggests that these types of violence occur in schools on a daily basis. For example, a report from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice indicates that during the 2005-2006 school year, roughly one-third of students (28%) had been bullied; moreover, almost one-fourth of public schools (24%) reported that bullying among students was a daily or weekly occurrence. These figures probably underestimate the true extent of nonphysical aggression.
In a qualitative study of bullying among males, Phillips (2007) used the term “punking” to describe the practice of verbal and physical humiliation, shaming, and violence that males use (typically against one another) in an effort to demonstrate their masculinity. According to the boys interviewed by Phillips, “punking” is a common practice. To provide another example, in a study of female aggression based on interviews with adolescent and adult females, Simmons (2002) argues that females frequently use aggressive intimidation tactics against one another, not by means of threatening violence but through the use of gossip, networking, and social isolation. Simmons contends that school-aged girls are in constant competition with one another for social status and utilize a variety of forms of bullying to achieve and maintain social standing.
A review of the research on bullying and intimidation suggests that there are a few important gender differences between such forms of aggression. First, males tend to be more physical when bullying other males and the bullying may evolve from verbal threats to physical violence. Research conducted by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice shows that, among students who reported being the victim of bullying, males were almost twice as likely as females (31% versus 18%) to have been injured during incidents of bullying. Second, in contrast to aggression among males wherein the victim is typically an enemy of the perpetrator, Simmons’ research on female aggression indicates that females tend to target girls in their own circle of immediate friends. Finally, whereas male bullying tends to be overt, female bullying tends to be covert. For example, whereas the practice of male “punking” often occurs in public with the goal being the public humiliation and intimidation of the victim, female bullying is often subtle and conducted in private among a female clique wherein only the victim and those who are bullying her are aware of the incidents.
In summary, although the rates of school violence have decreased since the 1990s, violence remains a problem in schools. Fatalities stemming from violence are relatively rare occurrences in schools, and serious physical violence is far less common than other types of crime such as theft and vandalism. Nevertheless, owing to the presence of weapons and gangs in schools, there is always the possibility of serious physical violence. In addition, threats of physical violence and psychological violence such as bullying and intimidation are common occurrences in schools. Violence in schools is a problem not only because it can result in serious physical injury and death, but also because it negatively affects the quality of education afforded to the nation’s youth. Students who are attacked, bullied, or constantly fearful of being violently victimized may have difficulties concentrat-ingontheirstudiesandinsomecasesevenskipschoolduetofear.Likewise, teachers who are concerned about the physical safety of their students and themselves may be unable to provide effective instruction. For their part, administrators may devote excessive amounts of time and energy to dealing with violence and threats of violence, which in turn detracts from their abilities to focus on the quality of education afforded to the students. Concisely stated, school violence can have a negative impact on the entire school environment.
- Brown, B. (2004). Juveniles and weapons: Recent research, conceptual considerations, and programmatic interventions. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 2, 161-184.
- Dinkes, R., Cataldi, E. F., Lin-Kelly, W., & Snyder, T. D. (2007, December). Indicators of school crime and safety: 2007 (NCES 2008-021/NCJ 219553). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, & U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
- Esbensen, F. A. (2008). In-school victimization: Reflections of a researcher. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 24, 114-124.
- Howell, J. C., & Decker, S. H. (1999, January). The youth gangs, drugs, and violence connection (NCJ 171152). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
- Howell, J. C., & Lynch, J. P. (2000, August). Youth gangs in schools (NCJ 183015). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
- Noonan, J. H., & Vavra, M. C. (2007, October). Crime in schools and colleges: A study of offenders and arrestees reported via National Incident-Based Reporting System Data. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Justice Information Services Division.
- Phillips, D. A. (2007). Punking and bullying: Strategies in middle school, high school, and beyond. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 22(2), 158-178.
- Simmons, R. (2002). Odd girl out: The hidden culture of aggression in girls. New York: Harcourt.