Crime of all types remains a significant concern of the public, as a volatile and threatening factor within any society. Crime in schools, however, tends to be even more disturbing, in that this is crime occurring in arenas supposedly protected. Then, equally unsettling is that such criminality both endangers and arises from populations perceived as removed from crime: children and adolescents. Unfortunately, there is no true distinction between the society and the school in this regard, and crime is as commanding an issue within the schools as it is in the adult, mainstream society. As the following illustrates, in fact, schools may be said to present a microcosm of how crime is practiced outside of them.
The nature of the school as a learning environment for young people inherently complicates any addressing of crime within it. More exactly, as children and adolescents are not legally perceived as responsible in an adult sense, and as the school is obligated by the community and the law to provide a safe environment, the criminality takes on new and problematic dimensions. Ironically, it also reflects the same complexities identified in adult, societal crime; there is, in plain terms, no specific “type” of school crime. It exists among all school ages, ranging from Kindergarten through college, and in both violent and non-violent forms; motivations are as varied as the crimes themselves, from mild bullying to gang assaults and murders; and social and governmental responses to the issue are as many and varied as those applied to crime anywhere. In recent years, more public attention appears to be drawn to two specific forms of school crime, bullying and mass shootings. While they seem to be at opposite ends of the school criminality spectrum, they actually reflect one another in terms of an increased and perceived “abandonment” of basic norms of conduct within the schools.
Even the most cursory examination of statistics reveals how widely varied, and often indicative of psychological disturbance or disorder, are crimes in schools. As the issue gained prominence in the late 20th century, extensive studies were conducted which reveal alarming trends. It is important to note as well that the statistics represent only those crimes reported, as it is presumed that many young victims keep silent out of fear of retribution. In terms of violent crime, and as determined from the ages of 12 through 19, an interesting fact emerges. Most types of violent crime remain at the same ratios from 1989 to 1995; for example, schools reporting drug availability in school stay at approximately 64 percent, male victims of violent crime hold at five percent through these years, and extreme property crime is at a stable 14.5 percent. Violent school gangs, however, rise from 15 to 28 percent by 1995. Moreover, the schools reporting this information to the Bureau of Justice Statistics affirm that these gangs have an overt presence in the school hallways and classrooms. The implication is clear; even if the gangs are not actively committing crime in these settings, the school environment must be altered in a way generating intimidation and fear among the student and administrative populations. Schools report as well that the gangs are more likely to be carrying weapons, including guns, and the possession as overtly known is a part of the gang presence. Consequently, teachers and staff are as endangered as the student peers.
More recent studies corroborate that most school crime ratios remain approximately the same, although this in no way diminished the impact of the incidents. In general, and between 2009 and 2010, about 40 out of every 1,000 students reported having been a victim of a crime, ranging from threats of harm and theft to actual assault. Interestingly, rates of violent abuse are higher for younger children than for teens. By 2011, however, a higher number of students between the ages of 12 and 18 was reporting that they felt unsafe while at school, and there was a slight increase in the number of teachers reporting having been physically attacked by students. Drug availability between the years of 2008 and 2011 seems to remain at around 24 percent in 85 percent of the schools, but reports of bullying have significantly risen. The definition of bullying as a crime is not determined, although it is generally accepted that it often takes the form of criminal harassment, and nearly 30 percent of students in 2011 claim to have been victims of threats, rumors, cyber attacks, and other forms of extreme intimidation. Other school crimes fluctuate, as the number of females reporting sexual assault is lessened, while the marginal number of student suicides has increased.4 The variations in numbers and types of crime, however, only emphasize the commonality of the problem as plainly in place in the vast majority of American schools. However it is caused, and while behavioral and social scientists seek to identify reasons specifically going to crime in school, the statistics irrefutably confirm it as an omnipresent issue.
Society is traditionally and appropriately concerned with any evidence of crime within schools, for the simple reason that these are environments established to provide safety and education. The danger, however, seems to lie with the students themselves, rather than any external agent. Students are the main victims of school crime, and they are the victims of other students. Moreover, school crime alarmingly reflect adult varieties in that its range is the same, with extreme violence occurring alongside minor theft and the more mild forms of bullying. Answers are by no means in place, but the imperative is clear, for what is established is that the rates of school crime, if not increasing, are consistent to the extent that more students today are fearful of the school.
Laura Finley (Ed.). Encyclopedia of School Crime and Violence (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2010). xxiv.
Mohammad Shafii and Sharon Lee Shafii. School Violence:Assessment, Management, Prevention. (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2008). 74.
National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). “School Crime.” 2013. http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=49