Last Updated: March 27, 2013
This article appeared in the RPM Special Edition on School Violence.
Editor's note: Links are free and current at time of posting, but may require registration or expire over time.
Special Edition on School Violence
The Rural Trust report represents a large number of media accounts of violent school incidents. While it is not a statistical analysis, nor a record of all events (we know, for example, that events in which one person died are under-counted due to difficulty in locating accurate information), it offers a detailed look at patterns in the incidents.
These patterns suggest that common ideas about school violence may not fully reflect realities. For example, media attention tends to focus on mass violence events like those in Newtown and Columbine. However, we found that 75% of deaths in our report occurred not in mass violence events, but in single events in which an assailant targeted one person, not random victims.
Further, we found that most incidents of violence are committed from within the school by students. The only exceptions to this overall pattern were incidents of mass violence in elementary schools. We found 15 such incidents, which, with one exception, were committed by adults who either intruded into the building or fired onto school grounds from an off-campus location. The one non-adult was a teenage girl who fired from across the street.
One pattern in our report does not come as a surprise to many people: Guns are the weapon by which most deaths occur. Nearly three-quarters of all deaths and 96% of deaths in mass violence incidents were the result of gunshot wounds. Further, the accounts of specific incidents indicated that most assailants had no trouble finding their weapons. Many simply brought them from home.
The preponderance of guns as the weapon of choice in school deaths suggests that efforts to reduce easy access of teens and children to guns would help reduce violent deaths in schools.
The most promising approach, however, to reducing overall violence in schools, and thus deaths from any type of weapon, is to improve school climate. This approach runs somewhat counter to prevailing education policy of the past several decades.
Beginning in the late 1980s, state and federal education policies began emphasizing test-based “accountability” systems that mete out rewards and punishments based on student test scores. Initially, these carrots and sticks were directed toward schools, and they have increasingly been applied to teacher evaluations and even some types of school funding.
The movement toward “standards” brought more standardization to school curricula, which along with the threat of score-related punishments reduced the ability of many schools to develop teaching approaches and assessments tailored to their students and communities.
Competition has been forced as a motivator for improvement in the form of charters, vouchers, teacher compensation, and student and school rating programs.
Harsh discipline programs, including zero tolerance, rely heavily on intimidation and address “problems” by getting rid of them through high rates of expulsion and suspension.
The forced closure of schools in both urban and rural places made many schools larger and more removed from families and communities. It has guaranteed that many students cannot participate in school activities and has forced long and/or dangerous school travel requirements on many students.
There is no doubt some of these policies have led to positive outcomes for select students and schools. But overall they spell a policy environment that severely restricts personalization and flexibility — core features of schools with positive climates. Further, their underpinnings of conformity, shaming, competitive ranking, and addressing problems by eliminating them are the essence of bullying, ostracizing, despair, and backlash.
The Rural Trust joins the call for more and better research on violence, guns and other weaponry, and the behavioral and psychological contexts and consequences of violent behavior and victimization.
It also calls for attention to the research we already have, research that indicates the surest path to safer schools is also the path to better schools. Those safer better schools are built on a foundation of trust and belonging. They are committed to knowing and valuing each student. They are structured through collaboration, connected to the places they serve, and shaped by high expectations that everyone contributes. They have the resources to support students to meet those expectations. They don’t punish failure, but they do treat it as a learning opportunity.
Better school environments won’t end all internal violence and won’t stop intruders. But they will ameliorate some of the current conditions that drive students to commit violent acts that too often end the lives of their classmates and teachers.
Read more from the RPM Special Edition on School Violence.