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October 1, 1997

The Evolution of Violence in Schools

Teachers rank violence, vandalism, and verbal abuse of themselves as serious problems. But in suburban and urban areas, weapons are gaining.
According to a recently released FBI report, violent crime in the United States has been dropping steadily since 1991 (CNN Plus 1997). Because of the carryover effect of the violence in the society at large, however, school violence has been on the rise. Many schools that once were safe havens from the violence that has plagued homes and communities are now themselves experiencing significantly more violent episodes.
Before we can devise strategies to prevent and combat violence in schools, we need to identify the nature and severity of the problem and the trends over the past few years—for both elementary and secondary schools, and for schools in rural, suburban, and urban communities.
  • physical conflicts among students
  • robbery or theft
  • vandalism of school property
  • student use of alcohol
  • student drug abuse
  • student possession of weapons
  • verbal abuse of teachers
Figure 1 shows the percentage of teachers in each of the three school years who perceived various problems as serious or moderately serious in their schools.

Figure 1. School Problems Over the Past Decade

Problems apparently have changed. In 1987-88, more than 25 percent of the teachers considered verbal abuse of teachers and student drug and alcohol abuse as serious or moderately serious. In 1993-94, 34 percent of those queried considered both verbal abuse of teachers and physical conflict among students as serious or moderately serious problems—two problems that threaten teachers' safety because teachers usually intervene to break up fights.
Another disturbing trend is that between the 1987-88 and 1993-94 school years the percentage of teachers who viewed student possession of weapons as serious or moderately serious problems in their schools nearly doubled, rising from 6.4 to as high as 11.5. Although that figure was still relatively low in comparison to the others, we cannot ignore the serious nature of the problem.

Elementary Versus Secondary School: Problems Grow

When considering these problems, secondary school teachers rated all of them as being more severe in their schools than did their counterparts in elementary school. Secondary schools, in other words, are much more violent.
Not surprisingly, elementary and secondary teachers also identified different problems as being more serious among their students. In all three academic years, about half the secondary teachers saw drug and alcohol abuse as serious or moderately serious, whereas only 7 percent of elementary teachers felt that way. Instead, elementary school teachers identified verbal abuse of teachers, vandalism, and physical conflicts as the most serious problems they face.
Another major difference was student possession of weapons. In 1993-94, 20.3 percent of secondary teachers saw this as a serious or moderately serious problem in their schools, while only 3.4 percent of elementary school teachers did.
When comparing elementary and secondary schools, we see two patterns. First, teachers at each level have been almost equally concerned about students' physical conflicts. Second, the trend of school problems between 1987-88 and 1993-94 was the same. For example, the severity of student drug and alcohol use took a U-shaped turn in both elementary and secondary schools, being very high in 1987-88, dropping slightly in 1990-91, but rising again in 1993-94. The rest of the school problems—from physical conflicts to verbal abuse of teachers—became more severe during that seven-year period. In short, both elementary and secondary school students have become increasingly violent.

Rural, Suburban, Urban Schools: None Are Immune

In the survey questionnaires, rural was defined as a farming area or a small town with a population of less than 50,000; suburban as a large town and on the fringe of a large or mid-sized city; and urban as a large or mid-sized central city.
Generally speaking, the severity of nearly every type of problem decreased steadily from urban to suburban and from suburban to rural schools. The exceptions were drug and alcohol abuse—two problems that are usually associated with urban schools. Student use of alcohol actually increased from urban to suburban to rural schools. And teachers in all three community types rated drug and alcohol problems as equally serious.
For all three academic years, rural teachers identified student use of alcohol as the most serious problem. Urban teachers, by contrast, consistently said physical conflicts among students was most serious. For suburban schools, the relative severity of problems changed from 1987-88 to 1990-91. Early on, the teachers identified students' use of alcohol as the most serious problem they confronted, but by 1990-91, verbal abuse of teachers took over as most serious. By 1993-94, the most serious problem facing suburban schools was the same one facing urban schools: student physical conflicts. It seems urban problems have spread to the suburbs.

Imperatives for Adults and Kids

The survey results confirm that our public schools have been becoming less and less safe in the last decade. Drug and alcohol abuse has continued to be a serious problem in both elementary and secondary schools and in urban, suburban, and rural schools alike. Other problems, such as physical conflicts, robbery, weapons possession, vandalism, and verbal abuse of teachers, are becoming more severe. As yet, no group of teachers has identified student possession of weapons as their most serious problem, but they will do so soon if the problem continues on its current trajectory.
In promoting school safety, we should develop programs with different emphases for elementary and secondary schools and for schools in different communities. We should also look for ways to make teachers safer. When we discuss school violence, students are usually the center of concern. But given the increasing severity of verbal abuse of teachers, educators also deserve our attention.
There has been a continuum of discourse about the violence in public schools. At one extreme, conservatives depict these schools as sites of total anarchy. At the other extreme, liberals chide those concerned about school violence by unearthing examples of how bad public schools were at the beginning of this century (Devine 1996). On one point, however, nearly everyone can agree: With the generally declining role of churches and families in educating children and youth, schools are playing an increasingly important role, especially for disadvantaged students (Goodlad 1984, 1994). Thus it is more imperative than ever that our schools be safe havens—places that are conducive to learning and preparing for the future. For some students, schools are the only safe havens in their lives.

CNN Plus: CNN Interactive Custom News online. (June 1, 1997). "U.S. Violent Crime Rate Takes Sharp Drop." (

Devine, J. (1996). Maximum Security: The Culture of Violence in Inner-City Schools. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Goodlad, J.I. (1984). A Place Called School. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Goodlad, J.I. (1994). What Schools Are For. Bloomington, Ind.: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.

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