School violence by the numbers

School gangs, dangerous weapons, brutal murders. Headline-making news has parents believing they’re on the rise, but how common is violence in our children's schools?

By Manuel Rapada

Murders and suicides at school

1.1 — Percent of homicides of children ages 5 to 18 at school during the 2008-2009 school year

December 14, 2012: A man entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, killing 20 first-grade students and six school staff members. The Newtown tragedy is one of the most violent school days in American history, even worse than the Columbine High School massacre in April, 1999.

These events are unspeakably sad and terrifying and when they happen, they reverberate through society. Still, such crimes are rarities and school remains one of the safest places for children. Most indicators of school violence — including gang activity, weapons brought on campus, and theft — are all significantly down from highs as far back as the 1990s. Others, such as the percentage of homicides occurring on school grounds, have remained fairly flat.

Of the millions of students who attend public schools every year, 17 were killed during the 2009-2010 school year. The proportion of youth homicides occurring at school has held steady at around 1 to 2 percent since the 1992-1993 school year, with peaks in 1998-1999 (when the Columbine shooting occurred) and most recently in 2006-2007 (the year of an Amish school shooting in Pennsylvania that killed five girls), according to CDC and FBI data.

Less than one percent of youth suicides have also occurred at schools since 1992-1993.

Wielding weapons at high school

7.4 — Percent of high school students that reported being threatened or injured with a weapon at school at least once in the last year, as of 2011

Only 7.4 percent? That may not seem like much until you realize that’s one in 13 kids. The report rate for high school injuries and threats involving weapons has
hovered around 8 percent since 1993, according to the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The figure peaked in 2003 at 9.2 percent. In the same time period, however, a lower percentage of students reported bringing weapons to school. In 2011, 5.4 percent of students said they carried a weapon on school property, down from 11.8 percent in 1993.

Woe to Georgia and Arizona, which had the highest proportions of high school students reporting weapon-related incidents in 2011. Arkansas high schools, however, are becoming safer. In 2009, the Natural State’s high schools had the highest weapon incident report rate in the nation. Two years later, Arkansas was well below the national average at 6.3 percent.

And how are public schools discovering these weapons? Despite what you may hear, metal detectors remain a rarity. A 2009-2010 NCES survey found that only 5 percent of schools randomly check students with metal detectors – and less than 2 percent of schools overall require students to pass through one every day.

Gang busters

16.4 — Percent of public schools reporting gang activity during the 2009-2010 school year

Do your children always wear clothes of a certain color? Wonder why they can’t explain their physical injuries or why they come back home so late? These are just some of the FBI’s warning signs your child may be involved with a gang.

But there’s encouraging news: gang activity is declining in public schools, down from nearly 20 percent during the 2007-2008 school year. However, the National Gang Intelligence Center said some law enforcement agencies are reporting increased juvenile gang violence because of “aggressive recruitment” and older gang members heading to jail.

If you're anxious to keep your child out of a gang, think rural and small. Gang activity is three times more likely in an urban school. Big public schools also have more gang activity than small schools. Nearly half of schools with 1,000 students or more reported gang activity, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Not surprisingly, gang activity is most common in high school, less so in middle school, and occurs at only 7.5 percent of primary schools.

Blacks and Hispanic students were more than twice as likely to report gangs present at their school than white students. For instance, two in five African American students and nearly as many Hispanic students attending urban schools reported gangs, compared to only one in five white students in such schools.

Duking it out

12 — Percent of high school students who reported being in a physical fight on school property at least once in the last 12 months, as of 2011

Parents, get your head out of the newspapers and turn off the TV. Though fight rates have barely gone up between 2009 and 2011, student-on-student violence, overall, has gone down since 1993. That year, 16.2 percent of students said they were in a school fight, according to the CDC.

Surprisingly, freshmen are more likely to get into fisticuffs than older high schoolers – this has remained consistent since the CDC started gathering fight stats in 1993. And the older high schoolers get, the more civilized they become: 16.2 percent of ninth graders reported being in a fight, compared to 8.8 percent of twelfth graders.

Another steady stat: the percentage of high school students getting injured in a fight to the point they needed medical assistance from a doctor or a nurse, which has hovered around 4 percent since the 1990s.

Pickpocketing lunch money, latest gadgets

2.8 — Percent of students ages 12 to 18 reporting that they were victims of theft in 2008-2009 school year (2009 School Crime Supplement)

So many expensive electronics lurk in backpacks and school lockers: 77 percent of children ages 12 to 17 own a cell phone and 79 percent own an MP3 player, the Pew Research Center found. Though schools warn students to leave the gizmos at home, phones, music players, and other gadgetry still make it on campus – and some do not make it back home.

More than 450,000 thefts at schools in 2010 may seem like a lot, but the Department of Justice puts the figure into perspective: only 18 thefts for every 1,000 students, down a whopping 82 percent from 1992. The DOJ discovered another 15 thefts for every 1,000 students occur away from school.

But that doesn’t mean you can expect a security presence to deter criminal teens. More than four in five theft victims said their schools had security guards or police officers. Two in three non-theft victims said their schools had such security, according to the 2009 School Crime Supplement.

And tell your kids to keep an extra eye on valuables during the first three years of high school: theft reporting rates during the 2008-2009 school year were highest among ninth through eleventh grade students, ranging from 3.3 to nearly 5 percent, according to the 2009 SCS.

Threatening the teacher

8.1 — Percent of public teachers who reported a student threatened to injure them during the 2007-2008 school year

In return for preparing students for a bright, bold future, about one in 12 public school teachers are threatened — that’s 276,700 teachers who must endure threats of bodily harm, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Secondary teachers are more likely to report threats, though their elementary counterparts are 2.5 times more likely to report being physically attacked by a student. Regardless, the attack stats are low: 5.7 percent for elementary and 2.2 percent for secondary teachers. And although a larger proportion of male teachers reported threats, a higher percentage of female teachers reported attacks.

Nationwide, Washington, DC lawmakers need to look no further than surrounding schools to spot this trend. One in six DC public school teachers said they were threatened, double the national average for 2007-2008. And Maryland teachers are most likely to be attacked. At 8.4 percent, these teachers are nearly twice as likely to report attacks than the national average of 4.3 percent, the NCES reported.

National trends aside, it's well worth asking the principal about your school’s violence statistics (if administrators keep track). And definitely ask about safety procedures when you start visiting schools.

Manuel Rapada is an education journalist who divides his time between Chicago and San Francisco.