Understanding School Violence >

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What do we know about school violence?

Overall, youth violence in the United States has increased at an alarming rate in the last fifteen years. Homicide has become the second leading cause of death for persons aged 15 to 24, and the leading cause of death for African-Americans in this age group. Between 1985 and 1994, annual arrest rates for weapons carrying for youth under 18 years of age increased 104%1.

Yet little of the violence reported for children and youth occurs in school; nor does national data show that the problem is getting worse2. Less than one percent of homicides and suicides among schoolchildren in the period from 1992 to 1994 were school-associated. With a school homicide rate of less than one in a million, the chances of violent death among juveniles are almost 40 times as great out of school as in school. While shocking and senseless shootings give the impression of dramatic increases in school-related violence, national surveys consistently find that school violence has stayed essentially stable or even decreased slightly over time (see Resources for a listing of websites of some national reports on school violence).

Unfortunately, not all schools are equally safe. National level data suggests that middle and high schools, especially larger schools, are more at-risk for serious violence. Moreover, students in urban schools serving predominantly lower SES minority children remain twice as likely to be victims of violence as students in suburban, town, or rural areas. In addressing the tragic incidents that have occurred recently in suburban and rural schools, it is critical that the more ongoing and severe problems of lower SES urban schools and students not be forgotten or ignored.

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If school violence is not getting worse, why do teachers, administrators and parents perceive it as worsening?

These data on school violence data seem to fly in the face of teacher, student, and public opinion that school violence is extremely serious and getting worse. Media attention has highlighted tragic yet rare instances of deadly violence in schools. School staff and parents may be more concerned about less newsworthy, but equally troublesome issues of day-to-day violence.

Data on school violence highlights the importance of day-to-day discipline. In the recent National Center for Educational Statistics report, Violence and Discipline Problems in U.S. Public Schools: 1996-97 (Heaviside, Rowland, Williams, & Farris, 1998), a clear relationship emerged between low level school disruption and serious school violence3. Among schools reporting at least one serious discipline issue, 28% also reported at least one crime; in contrast, only 3% of schools with minor or no reported discipline problems reported the presence of crime. These less dramatic but more frequent school and classroom disruptions may also play a part in shaping perceptions about the safety of schools. In an examination of violence in rural school districts, Peterson, Beekley, Speaker, & Pietrzak (1996) reported that 52% of teachers and administrators in rural schools believed that violence was increasing at the middle/high school level. But the behaviors they perceived as escalating most dramatically were not the types of deadly violence that appear to concern us most-drugs, gang involvement, or weapons-carrying-but rather behaviors that indicate incivility, such as rumors, verbal intimidation and threats, pushing and shoving by students, and sexual harassment. Perhaps perceptions of school safety are shaped as much by serious violent episodes as by overall perceptions of school climate.

These findings have tremendously important implications, for they say that what we do in our schools on a day to day basis in terms of discipline may be related to serious crime and violence. By implementing comprehensive programs that improve overall school climate and reduce minor disruption, schools may be able to reduce the risk of more serious violent incidents.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control National Center for Injury Control and Prevention (1996). Ten leading causes of death, United States, 1996. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Centers for Disease Control. Federal Bureau of Investigation (1997). Uniform crime reports for the United States, 1996. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
  2. Reports of levels and trends in school violence may be found in a number of national reports, for example: Heaviside, S., Rowand, C., Williams, C., & Farris, E. (1998). Violence and discipline problems in U.S. Public Schools: 1996-97 (NCES 98-030). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics; see also Chandler, K. A., Chapman, C. D., Rand, M. R., & Taylor, B. M. (1998) Students' reports of school crime: 1989 and 1995 (NCES Report 98-241). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Departments of Education and Justice.
  3. Heaviside, S., Rowand, C., Williams, C., & Farris, E. (1998). Violence and discipline problems in U.S. Public Schools: 1996-97 (NCES 98-030). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.
  4. Peterson, G. J., Beekley, C. Z., Speaker, K. M., & Pietrzak, D. (1996). An examination of violence in three rural school districts. Rural Educator, 19(3), 25-32.
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Last updated: November 15, 2000
Comment: safeschl@indiana.edu
Copyright 2000, The Trustees of Indiana University