School violence less than thought; Report says fears in shootings' wake are overblown


A "cloud of fear" has swept the land in the year since the shootings at Columbine High School, obscuring an important fact: Schools -- nationally and in Maryland -- suffer less violence than ever, and harsh security measures taken by educators have done more harm than good.

These are conclusions reached in a national report -- with a focus on Maryland and Massachusetts -- released yesterday by a Washington-based policy group.

The report from the Justice Policy Institute contrasts two statistics: A child's chances of being killed at school are one in 2 million. Yet nearly three-quarters of Americans in a recent poll believe that a shooting could happen in their neighborhood school.

Meanwhile, minority and disabled students are bearing the brunt of harsher discipline, though the school shootings that have raised anxiety levels are linked to "America's white suburban or rural communities," the report says.

In Maryland, for example, the report says blacks accounted for 36.6 percent of the student body last year but 54 percent of suspensions. Students in special education made up 13 percent of total enrollment but had a suspension rate of 23.1 percent.

"There's been tremendous overreaction," says Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland schools superintendent, "and minorities are bearing the brunt of it. Violence won't be stopped by practicing harsh discipline. The kids doing the shootings aren't the ones we're cracking down on."

Jason Ziedenberg, one of the report's authors, says, "We're seeing more and more suspensions for stupid reasons. ... We're doing it so much now that some of those excluded are getting lawyers."

Michele Murphy, director of Schoolhouse Legal Services in Maryland, a children's legal advocacy group, says a student was suspended for having a toy miniature gun in school, another for threatening to shoot a fellow student with a paper clip. "People are overreacting," Murphy says.

"There's been huge and unnecessary hype," says Grasmick. "Thanks to Columbine, a whole industry has grown up to provide security in schools, and political futures are thriving on this."

Student shootings in Jonesboro, Ark.; Littleton, Colo.; and Mount Morris Township, Mich., came against a backdrop of a long-term and continuing decrease in school crime, according to the report, titled "School House Hype." In 1998, before the April 20 Columbine tragedy, in which 12 students and a teacher were killed, violent deaths in schools declined 40 percent nationally.

In the 1990s, school crimes in general declined nationally, serious violent crimes declined 34 percent and school thefts declined 29 percent. In Maryland, the number of incidents of violence reported in the schools decreased, while crimes such as false alarms and bomb threats increased considerably.

The report cites a University of Maryland research finding that severe measures such as metal detectors, lockdowns, surveillance systems and personal searches make students feel less safe in school.

An irony, says the report, is that harsh security measures are often taken by authorities fearing legal liability in the event of an incident, but lawsuits are increasingly being filed by students claiming to have been illegally suspended or expelled. "The calls we're getting are not from the parents of kids who took guns to school," says Murphy. "They're from parents of kids who have been suspended for minor infractions."

At Bohemia Manor Middle School in Cecil County, Principal Stephen Asplen and his staff are wearing picture identification badges this year. The school has enhanced its exterior lighting but has not held regular locker or personal searches.

"We had a countywide safe schools committee," Asplen said, "and every school did an inventory. You have to prepare for every exigency," without turning a school into an armed camp, he added.

According to the report, two of Maryland's most populous jurisdictions, Baltimore City and Baltimore County, had lower suspension rates last year than rural Somerset and Dorchester counties, while in four rural or suburban districts -- Allegany, Charles, Frederick and Garrett counties -- disabled students accounted for more than a third of suspensions.

The report makes three recommendations:

The media, it says, "need to add more context to the coverage of school shootings and youth violence in general."

Educators need to come up with alternatives to the "secure school" approach, using counseling and classroom discussion to "keep students safe without alienating them from adults."

The nation needs to "stop focusing exclusively on kids bringing guns to school and address the more fundamental question of how kids got those guns in the first place."

The proliferation of handguns in America has created a "toxic environment in which young people are 12 times more likely to be killed by gunfire than young people in 25 other industrialized societies," the report says.

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