Why school violence is declining

A national study cites a decade of progress.

In this small town just outside Chicago, several hundred restless Garfield Elementary students were summoned to the school auditorium last week for a lecture on gang violence. The assembly - spurred in part by Maywood's recent spate of homicides - is part of a wider effort, both in the district and nationwide, to combat violence at younger and younger ages.

Ever since Columbine, schools have been far more vigilant in responding, almost instantly, to violence. But it's their turn toward proactive, preventive approaches that may be paying off: A federal report released last week shows that non-fatal violence dropped dramatically between 1992 and 2002. While some data show an uptick since then, and a rise in school-related violent deaths for 2003-04, many laud schools' aggressive intervention on everything from bullying to bombs.

In Massachusetts, for instance, officials at Marshfield High School were able to discover and avert what appeared to be a Columbine-style style plot on the part of two students to attack their school this fall.

And in Boston, Fairbanks, Alaska, and Los Angeles, a nonprofit called Peace Games runs classes that combine civics, community service, and lessons on combatting hate-filled dialogue.

Maywood, for its part, has seen 20 homicides this year, and gangs are widespread in the town of 27,000. This fall, a young man was shot and killed in the parking lot of the local Proviso East High School while waiting to pick his brother up from school. Two other Proviso East students were killed in the past school year, and one student was stopped from bringing a loaded gun to school. As a result, the district is trying to reach students at younger and younger ages, starting programs on character development and anger management back in elementary school. "Here, violence is just petty things, like play fighting and name calling, but that's where it starts," says assistant principal Gwendolyn Wade after a school assembly held to address gang issues. [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized the scope of Ms. Wade's comments.]

Administrators around the country seem to agree - and not just in crime-infested areas. The 1999 Columbine massacre, and the spate of school shootings from Springfield, Ore., to Jonesboro, Ark., served as a wakeup call to many districts. Schools installed metal detectors and honed crisis response plans, but many have also increased preventive work, targeting bullying and drawing the community into the conversation.

Experts increasingly agree that those "soft" approaches are key to reducing violence, and focus on violence may be one reason for the drop in school-related crime: Between 1992 and 2002, violent crime in schools fell 50 percent, from 48 victimizations per 1,000 students in 1992 to 24 per 1,000 in 2002, according to the joint report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics. It's a striking decline - one that mirrors a national drop in crime overall. But some experts fear complacency bred by success, and call the numbers misleading.

"Nobody wants to be alarmist, but the federal government statistics grossly underestimate the extent of school violence, public perception tends to overestimate it, and the reality is somewhere in between," says Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm that helps schools with safety issues.

Mr. Trump objects to both the manner of the data collection - much of it from self-reports - and the fact that it only goes through 2002, and so does not take into account a recent rise in school-related violence, which included 49 deaths just last year.

But the survey itself isn't all good news: Even though crime in schools dropped between 1992 and 2002, it's still dangerous for many kids outside school.

Still, there has been progress. "Schools have put a much larger focus on safety," says William Lassiter of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence at the North Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice. "One of the big things is an emphasis on bullying prevention."

He says there's no one-size-fits-all approach, and that as much as possible, he tries to involve the students in solutions. In Baltimore, In Baltimore, where fires have been lit in trash cans, followed by school evacuations and then drive-by shootings into the crowd, "We ... asked why they're doing this," he says. "We found out they had a new principal who wasn't enforcing discipline, and some students were scared to be in classes with other students. In this case, the root cause was the fear of the students. There were racial and ethic tensions at one school. So we go back to see what kind of programs ... we can put into place."

In Maywood, too, Garfield principal Stefan Fisher sees progress. The school focuses on a different trait each week - respect, responsibility, creativity. And the district has a program of "positive behavior interaction," working with students from an early age on things like negativity and aggression. Within the school walls, students are safe, says Mr. Fisher, but he worries about dangers beyond.

"The biggest challenges are the obstacles they face that their parents are feeding them [and] what they see on the streets," he says.

Kianna Washington, a bubbly eighth-grader and aspiring beautician, says she worries about the violence she might encounter at Proviso East next year, but that the school programs have helped her to deal with incendiary encounters. "Sometimes people try to start stuff, but I just leave it alone."

Ideally, says Mr. Trump, schools take a two-pronged approach: creating an emergency plan while implementing softer programs aimed at prevention. After Columbine, he says, many schools devised good plans, but most of them are gathering dust.

Money is also in shorter supply, and he and others say No Child Left Behind demands have diverted attention from safety.

A few activists, meanwhile, say that many of the campaigns are nice, but consist largely of ineffective posters and rallies. "Schools can be hostile places," says Eric Dawson, president of Peace Games. "Part of the conversation needs to be not just what do we want less of, but what do we want more of. What do we want to create?"

Mr. Dawson hopes the Peace Games classes, with their goals of service and fighting hate, will not only give kids pride in what they can do, but change adults' often negative stereotypes about teens.

"We're trying to get the country to see young people as being part of solution, not just the problem," he says. "One of the great problems I see is we don't do enough prevention work. We tend to intervene when there's a crisis or do stuff when they're in 8th grade. You have to start ... when kids are young."

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