Commentary | Education

Lessons—Of Schools and Crimes, and Gross Exaggeration

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[ THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON FEBRUARY 7, 2001 ]

Of Schools and Crimes, and Gross Exaggeration

By  Richard Rothstein

When President Bush introduced his education program two weeks ago, he included proposals on school safety. Children in dangerous schools should transfer to safe ones, he said. States should get federal money for enforcing tough disciplinary rules. And there should be funds for character education.

“We must face up to the plague of school violence, with an average of three million crimes committed against students and teachers inside public schools every year,” the president said. “That’s unacceptable in our country. We need real reform.”

But the plague is more myth than reality. Despite what many are prone to believe — partly because of statements by national leaders — schools are among the safest places for children to be.

In fact, of the 2,000 killings of children a year, only about 10 occur in or near schools. To enhance child safety, we would do better to control drunken driving on weekends than to turn schools into lock-down facilities with metal detectors.

The president’s reference to “three million crimes” comes from rounding up results of a Census Bureau survey in which teenagers said they were victims of 2.7 million school crimes in 1998. But fewer than one-tenth of these were categorized by the survey as serious. The others mostly involved loss of property (valuable or not) by theft or presumed theft. Also included were fistfights, threats and unwanted grabbing or fondling. Interviewers got a total of 2.7 million by urging teenage respondents to mention an incident “even if you are not certain it was a crime.”

Certainly adolescents should not fight. Verbal threats do constitute simple assault. And while there are no hard data that show bullying on the increase, schools need to devise better ways to address it. But when only one percent of teenagers report a serious school crime, there is no “plague of school violence.”

Even gun violence is not a significant school problem, despite some highly publicized, horrifying instances. For every teenager killed by a gun in school, more than 300 are killed by guns elsewhere.

Teenage violence outside the school setting is a serious problem, greater here than in other industrialized nations. But since 1993, there has been a decline in it and in major categories like murder and rape.

An exception has been aggravated assault, where the incidence has remained steady. Yet data here may reflect only new “get tough” policies: prosecutors now allege “aggravated” assault in response to teenage behavior that a decade ago was deemed “simple.”

Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University, says that with serious school violence so rare, identifying probable offenders in advance is “like trying to find a needle in a haystack.”

The real challenge, Dr. Steinberg says, is to reduce the number of violence-prone teenagers without knowing which of them might be the rare case who will actually become violent in school. These are usually youths from homes where parents are hostile, aloof or uninvolved.

From a national survey, summarized in “Beyond the Classroom” (Simon & Schuster, 1996), Dr. Steinberg concluded that nearly one-third of parents never discussed schoolwork or course choices with teenage children, did not know how they spent spare time and never undertook recreational activities in family groups.

These predictors of violence in school — and, mostly, out of it — can’t be corrected with metal detectors and tough expulsion rules. An important cause of these problems is poverty and economic stress. Another is lack of mental health centers and programs.

“If we could do a better job of identifying and treating adults with serious mental health and substance abuse problems,” Dr. Steinberg said, “we would see a decline in antisocial behavior among young people.”

And then, of course, there is youths’ easy access to guns. President Bush wants to strengthen prosecution of existing gun laws and make child safety locks available to gun owners, while protecting “law- abiding citizens’ constitutional Second Amendment rights.” If these plans don’t work, the president will need a new approach to the plague of gun violence outside schools.

Perhaps because adolescents, even benign ones, often seem threatening to their elders, exaggeration of school violence is not new. A 1955 movie, “Blackboard Jungle,” starring Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier, depicted urban schools as places where students ran amok; its screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award. A 1958 Life magazine cover story asserted that American students “terrorize teachers” and that “it often takes physical courage to teach.”

It is puzzling that President Bush used the occasion of introducing his education program, focused mostly on testing and accountability, to revive this specter of school violence. If his academic goals are to be met, he can’t afford so carelessly to undermine respect for public education.

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