Most schools in the United States are relatively safe. Data on school crime points to a general decline in school violence in public schools in the past decade. The National Center for Education Statistics 2004 Indicators of School Crime and Safety provides the most recent data on school violence. This ongoing statistical survey has found that the crime victimization rate at school declined from 48 violent victimizations per 1,000 students in 1992 to 24 such victimizations in 2002.
While the general data show a decline in school violence, this is not true for every school. Reason Foundation recognizes the general decline in school violence, but we are most concerned with policies for those schools that still have a high rate of crime and incentives to underreport crime. It is critical that parents have information about which schools are safe and which schools have crime on campus.
Most school violence is concentrated in a few schools. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, during the 1999-2000 school year 2 percent of schools (1,600) accounted for approximately 50 percent of serious violent incidents and 7 percent of public schools (5,400) accounted for 75 percent of serious violent incidents.
In the 2003-2004 school year, only 52 of the nation's 92,000 public schools were labeled "persistently dangerous" under the No Child Left Behind Act, entitling students to move to a designated “safe” school. Based on the small number of schools that were labeled as dangerous, in September 2003 the Education Reform Subcommittee held a field hearing in Denver, Colorado to study how states are implementing No Child Left Behind’s persistently dangerous schools provision. The hearing suggested some states are significantly underreporting the number of unsafe schools to sidestep the law’s requirements. Testimony from a National Center for Education Statistics expert revealed that in 2001, 6 percent of students reported they had carried a weapon on school property, and the same percentage feared being attacked at school. A year earlier, in 2000, students were victims of about 700,000 nonfatal violent crimes while on school property. However, only 0.0006 percent of the nation’s schools have been designated as “unsafe” by their states.
If most violence is concentrated in a few schools, parents need to be aware of which schools are violent or safe in order to make the best decisions about where to enroll their children. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, students enrolled in a "persistently dangerous school" have the right to transfer to a safer school in the district. Yet, evidence suggests that schools have unreasonable definitions of “dangerous,” underreport school crime, and do not provide parents with accurate information about school crime.
In a content analysis of 80 large school district Web sites including the member districts of The Great City Schools (which consists of most large urban school districts) and the 50 largest school districts as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, 75 percent of large school districts have no school crime data at district- or state-level Web sites. However, a few school districts provide parents with detailed information at the school level on the specific incidents of school violence that would allow parents to evaluate the type of crime happening in their child’s school or potential school. Leading the way is Florida. Because of Florida’s state violent incident reporting system, parents can find information on school violence at every school in the state. Some districts provide aggregate school violence incidents for the entire district in annual reports or other documents, but most of the data are dated. Some districts like Sacramento, California and Albuquerque, New Mexico provide somewhat dated crime statistics at the school level for selected years though not in a database format. Only New York, Los Angeles, Florida and Pennsylvania provide searchable databases or spreadsheets with multiple years of school crime data and detailed reports by type of crime. The Florida and Pennsylvania state systems also provide data on charter schools.
Parents need more information on school violence and legislators should require school districts to provide parents with more information about the safety of their schools and more choices for smaller and safer schools. But beyond the mere reporting of violence is the curbing of it. In determining how to lessen school violence, we compared the effectiveness of various approaches suggested or practiced by schools or those who study schools. We offer several recommendations for improving the safety of public schools and providing parents with accurate information about school crime:
- Revise the state and federal law to loosen or eliminate restrictions on school choice. The act of choosing and the related imperative for schools to make themselves “choice-worthy” is the key to any serious anti-violence policy. Forced assignment to schools and the resulting mismatches and detachment beget boredom and violence and create schools that are unresponsive to parental demands for safer schools.
- Encourage smaller schools, competition, and new school capacity. Strong evidence points to the correlation between school size and school violence. Private and charter schools cater to parents’ demand for smaller schools. Legislation should require school districts to move away from school consolidation toward smaller schools.
- Encourage legislators to provide school administrators with incentives to focus resources on a “broken windows” approach to preventing school violence. Cleaning up school facilities and getting tougher on smaller crimes help prevent more serious crimes.
- Create uniform reporting standards. At the state level, and perhaps even the federal level, there should be consistent definitions for school violence incidents that make school crime data comparable across individual schools so parents can make informed decisions about the safety of their schools. Pennsylvania and Florida demonstrate the usefulness of consistent crime data across all schools in one state.
- Follow federal guidelines for defining “persistently dangerous” schools. The federal government should require states to use more accurate definitions for dangerous schools and include all types of violent incidents including rape and assault.
- Use school violence outcomes—not processes—as a measure of dangerous schools. Schools should use the actual incidents of crime and not the processes, such as expulsion or criminal prosecution, to judge the violence in a specific school. Measures of detentions, expulsions, or school transfers are not measures of school violence.
- Make crime statistics part of school report cards. Crime data should be required as part of a school’s report card alongside academic data and teacher experience.
- Report crime data in a timely fashion. Persistently dangerous schools should be labeled based on the previous school year’s data and that data should be reported to parents in a timely fashion.
- Include similar schools’ rankings. Crime data reporting should include rankings of similar schools to help parents compare the violence level between schools.
- Enforce the unsafe school choice option for student victims. Students who are the victims of school crime should immediately be allowed to transfer to a safer public school. If a safer public school is not available, the student should be provided with a school voucher to attend a private school.