Monday, 02 April, 2001
The problem of school violence has come to the fore in recent years, with the Columbine shootings in 1999 and the recent incident in Santee, California bringing the issue to everybody's attention. And everybody has a pet theory as to why the violence is getting worse: broken homes, global warming, lack of parental involvement, violent computer games, the "bully factor," widespread availability of guns, fluoridated water, or alien abductions. Who knows the real reason? Everybody has a pet theory and some reasoning or evidence (real or manufactured) to back it up.
Except the problem isn't getting worse! According to this article, the Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center began tracking school shooting statistics in 1974. Since then, there have been something like 100 multiple-victim school shootings in the United States. Despite the prevailing perception, though, school violence (including gun violence) is decreasing. A Justice Department report (which I have been unable to find) released last fall shows that school violence has dropped 30 percent since 1992. Arrests for juvenile homicide have fallen by 56 percent since 1993. In 1999, the year of the Columbine shootings, violent deaths at school dropped 40 percent from the previous year.
The Justice Department's 1999 Annual Report on School Safety shows that school violence has been on a steady decline for at least a decade. Homicides at school remain extremely rare events, but the number of multiple victim homicide events has increased: 2 in 1992-93, 0 in 1993-94, 1 in 1994-95, 4 each in 1995-96 and in 1996-97, and 5 in 1997-98. Those 5 incidents claimed 14 lives. Page 4 of the report (page 12 in the PDF file) reports that "Students in school today are less likely to be victimized than in previous years."
The perception is very different than the reality. Yes, violence in school is a problem. One schoolyard homicide is too many, and we should take steps to prevent any type of crime (violent or non) being perpetrated by or on our children. But the problem is not nearly as acute as the media would have you believe. We only think it is because our reporting systems are so much better today than they were 30 years ago.