As school bells across the country peal for the last time this academic year, another sound has been mercifully absent from most classrooms and hallways: the crackle of gunfire.
This year, for the first time in seven years, no fatal mass shootings took place in US schools. Though individual tragedies did occur, even the number of singular incidents was down - a testament, experts say, to growing vigilance about safety in schools.
"It's very encouraging," says Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. "The numbers demonstrate how school safety has been placed on the educational agenda in more and more schools across the country. That's a major shift in the strategic educational climate."
So far, there have been nine shooting fatalities on schoolyards in the 1999-2000 academic year. That's down from 23 the year before, the year of Columbine, and 35 in 1997-98. Forty-three were recorded in 1992-93.
While experts caution against reading too much into the numbers for the narrow category of schoolyard homicides, they coincide with an overall drop in violence - particularly in many urban districts.
Federal figures show that the total number of reported school crimes declined by almost one-third - from 3.8 million to 2.7 million - between 1993 and 1997. While more recent comprehensive statistics aren't available, anecdotal evidence suggests assaults, weapons confiscations, and other indicators of crime continue to drop in many districts. For instance:
*Violence in Miami-Dade County, Fla., schools declined this year for the fifth year in a row. Crimes, including gun-related incidents, are down 23 percent since 1995.
*In Portland, Ore., gun confiscations and the number of students expelled for carrying weapons has been down substantially from a year ago.
*In Alabama, fewer students have been calling a statewide hotline to report problems that might lead to school violence.
To be sure, none of this is to suggest that the nation's schools are complete safe havens. In December, a 13-year-old boy opened fire on his classmates in Muskogee, Okla., wounding five of them. Bomb scares and threatening graffiti have become commonplace across the country in the year since Columbine.
What progress has been made on violence, experts say, is attributable to growing awareness of the problem among parents, administrators, and teachers. They also cite an arsenal of security measures - metal detectors, student ID badges, surveillance cameras, hall security monitors - as well as broader societal trends, including a booming economy that is generally associated with a lower adult crime rate.
"I believe the decrease is related to the fact that we're starting to pay more attention to kids' frustrations and anxieties, and developing more programs like conflict resolution and increasing the number of counselors and social workers and school-within-a-school programs," says Kevin Dwyer, president of the National Association of School Psychologists. "All those things are beginning to have some effect, and not just in violence but in the decrease in teen pregnancies and truancy and the number of weapons being brought to school."
Some critics claim the decline in school violence has come at a cost. The policy of zero tolerance - expelling a student for almost any breach of the civil order - has led to some excesses.
In New Jersey, a child was suspended for using his finger as a gun during schoolyard play. A Chicago high school junior was expelled when a rubber band-launched paper clip intended for a classmate hit a cafeteria worker instead.
Indeed, suspensions and expulsions have nearly doubled, from 1.7 million in 1974 to 3.1 million in 1997. This is prompting some critics of the new get-tough policy to ask: What about the futures of those children who get expelled?
Even the increasingly ubiquitous presence of metal detectors, surveillance cameras, police officers, and emergency drills has left some educators feeling uneasy.
A study by two University of Maryland researchers found that the greater the physical security measures taken at a school, the greater the number of fights and thefts and the less safe kids reported feeling.
"The metal detectors have not necessarily had as great an impact as people would like to think," says Mr. Dwyer. "There's no research data that show those things have been effective. When I do focus groups with teenagers, they tell me how they get around those things anyway."
Still, others believe that drills and security measures do make a difference. "People criticize things like lockdowns and say they're an overreaction and it communicates to the kids the potential for violence," says Kenneth Trump, president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services, a leading consulting firm. "Should we stop having fire drills, too? We need to use some common sense."
Others see an unhealthy alliance developing between schools and the criminal-justice system, in which behavior that was previously viewed as prankish is now criminalized. They say generally well-behaved kids are being packed off to juvenile court and saddled with criminal records.
The FBI will even provide profiling software that attempts to identify potential school shooters using specific traits or past experiences: parental problems, failed romances, or a taste for music with violent lyrics.
"Teachers used to be able to intervene in an altercation," says Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Justice Policy Institute. "Now when they intervene and the police officer who is located in the school comes along, they're done. They're no longer in control."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society