Fighting, Guns Down, but More Students Feel Unsafe at School

More than three-quarters of K-12 school shootings since Sandy Hook have happened in high schools.

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Fewer students are carrying weapons and getting in physical fights at school, but more say they don't feel safe.

About 1 in 20 high school students say they've carried a weapon – such as a gun, knife or club – on school property, which is a noticeable and steady decline since the early 1990s. But an increasing number are staying home from school because they said they felt unsafe there or on their way to or from school. 

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey – released last week – showed that while many risky behaviors are taking a dive – such as fighting at school, being threatened with a weapon on school property, drinking and smoking – students still appear to feel unsafe at school. 

Although about 5 percent of students nationwide said they had carried a weapon on campus at least one day in the 30 leading up to the survey, the percentage varied greatly from state to state. In some – such as Delaware, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, South Carolina and Wisconsin – it was below 4 percent. But in others – Arkansas, Montana, Vermont and Wyoming – it was above 9 percent. 

Still, those numbers are well below the nationwide averages in past years. In 1993, for example, nearly 12 percent of high school students said they had carried a weapon at school in the past month. 

The percentage of students who bring weapons to school has been cut in half since 1993.
The percentage of students who bring weapons to school has been cut in half since 1993.

Ron Astor, a social work and education professor at the University of Southern California, says there were actually many more incidents of violence throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, they were on the rise throughout the country until the early 1990s, Astor says, before a decline began. 

"Nobody knows quite why that happened," Astor says. "It happened across the country, in every major city, and really there's been no research that's done a great piece of work to try to figure out why that is." 

"There must have been a cultural change of some sort," he says. 

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But media reports still make claims that schools are unsafe and that outbursts of extreme violence – such as mass shootings and stabbings – make it look like school shootings and other violent incidents are on the rise. 

Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun safety advocate group, recently published a list of gun-related incidents that have taken place in schools and colleges since the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012. Of the 74 they listed – including the shooting that took place at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Oregon, last week – more than half occurred in elementary and secondary schools. And of those 39, more than three-quarters took place at high schools. 

The map below plots the 74 shootings Everytown tracked. The blue markers indicate a high school and the yellow markers indicate an elementary or middle school.

The change, Astor says, could come in part from a rising consciousness about school violence. While incidents of school violence were nearly double what they are now in the 1970s and 1980s, there was almost no reporting by the media during that time, Astor says. But that changed when the U.S. hit its turning point: the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. 

That type of event is not unique to the U.S., Astor says. Many other countries face a "heinous event" of the sort that changes the rhetoric around school violence. For Norway, it was in 1983 when three adolescent boys committed suicide after being bullied. For Japan, it was in 1997 when one student beheaded another and left the boy's head at the school gate before students arrived for the day. 

"Columbine impacted the whole world, not just the United States. … It kind of woke the media up," Astor says. "Now we're at a point where we don't want any of the serious stuff. People do judge how afraid they are in part by what they see on the news, and when you see shooting after shooting and events like this, I'm sure that raises concern." 

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Other elements of school violence that aren't being tracked as well as they should – and could contribute to why more students say they don't feel safe at school – are the percentage of students who say they have seen or heard about a weapon on school property and how many incidents are actually reported, Astor says. 

For the past decade, between one-quarter and one-third of students in California reported having seen someone with a weapon on school property, according to the California Healthy Kids Survey. 

"If I heard there was a gun on campus or there was someone threatening someone, I may not want to go to school that day," Astor says. "Now people are aware of it and that impacts whether you're afraid or not."