$10 Billion Later – How Much Safer Are Our Schools?

Though the shootings at Columbine High School in April of 1999 were actually the 25th incident of targeted school violence to occur in the United States since 1990, they sent shock waves through the American psyche and evoked far-reaching changes in school safety policies and practices. Federal and state legislators immediately drafted bills about school violence and allocated additional funds to address safety and security issues. Federal, state, and local educational and law enforcement agencies issued mandates, wrote additional rules, revised policies, and instituted new programs… all with a single goal: ensure that no one would ever be able to enter a school building with weapons and kill others.

Since 1999 more than $10 billion has been invested in the safety and security of US schools. Schools have employed a variety of strategies:

  • writing disaster response plans and training staff to implement them
  • purchasing security equipment and hiring security personnel
  • developing more strict policies and rules, including “zero tolerance”
  • establishing phone numbers and boxes to receive “tips” about safety issues
  • purchasing curricula and training staff
  • conducting assemblies and special events
  • involving students through a variety of programs.

All this can generally be characterized as an “outside-in” approach, one that is focused on security, driven by adults and based on rules and policies.

Some contend that schools are safer, citing the reduction of the crime victimization rate (nonfatal violent crimes and theft) of students, ages 12-18, which the National Crime Victimization Survey shows did decline between 1992 and 2005. 

Yet, trends from a majority of national surveys and studies tell a much different story. 

  • There was an increase in the percentage of students who did not go to school because of safety concerns between 1999 -2007 (Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 2007).
  • The National School Safety Center’s Report on School Associated Violent Deaths (2009) shows no clear trend up or down from 1999 -2008.
  • The percentage of students threatened or injured with a weapon has fluctuated between 7% - 9% between 1993 and 2005, also with no clear trend toward improvement (Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 2007).
  • The percentage of schools that reported at least one violent incident to the police was not measurably different in 2005-2006 than in 1999-2000 (The Condition of Education, 2008).
  • The percentage of students who had been in a physical fight on school property between 2001 and 2006 did not change significantly (Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 2007).
  • From 2000 to 2005, there was a 50% increase in the percentage of youth who were victims of online harassment (Ferndon & Hertz, 2007).

It has also had a very negligible effect on the less visible forms of mistreatment – the exclusion, put-downs, and bullying that students see but adults typically don’t. Metal detectors allow security officers to check the guns at the door, but the students pass right through and bring with them their attitudes, prejudices, and grudges. Despite rules to the contrary, students create social norms that say “it’s cool to be cruel.”

Consequently, these less visible incidents of mistreatment keep the social climate of the school simmering with unease until it boils over in a more visible incident that breaks a school’s rules. This eruption triggers the school’s “react and discipline” strategy: catch those who break the rules and discipline them with detentions, suspensions, or expulsions. Since these responses don’t address the underlying causes of the eruptions, it is only a matter of time before more eruptions occur and the cycle continues.

Breaking this cycle requires a new approach to solving the problem of mistreatment, a complementary “inside-out” approach that is focused on relationships (not security), driven by students (not adults) and based on norms (rather than rules).

Read the Executive Summary

Read the Full Report