Defining school violence down

This past November, school violence again made headlines. The latest federal data was released in Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2005, which tallied and analyzed the incidence of theft, violent crime, and teacher victimization in 2003. Brimming with demographic stats, the Indicators highlighted a nontrivial decline in school violence over the previous decade. In particular, it noted that the incidence of victimization among 12-18 year-old students fell by almost 50 percent between 1992 and 2003.

Surely, not a bad thing. But hold the applause. In fact, the violence rate in U.S. schools held steady from 1999 to 2003 at an average of 70 incidents per 1,000 students among 12-18 year olds. Violent incidents include theft, bullying, teacher victimization, rape, sexual assault, aggravated assault, and murder. This means that about 1 in 13 secondary students experiences some sort of victimization at school during the year.

How alarmed should we be? Set aside for now the serious matter of whether such data are accurate. (Experts in the field say these federal reports understate the true incidence of school violence because the Education and Justice departments base their information on surveys and "academic studies," not actual episodes reported to police and other law enforcement agencies.)

Try also to set aside one's horrified outrage at the rare but recurrent high-profile shootings on school campuses, such as Columbine in 1999 and the past year's grim episodes in Minnesota and Tennessee. We are properly shocked and appalled by these events, but the truth is that few students or teachers are actually killed in school, which is, on the whole, a safer place than the streets outside.

The larger questions are whether high-quality learning is apt to occur in settings where kids (or teachers) have to worry about their safety - and whether the United States is becoming inured to an unacceptably high level of school violence.

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan penned a celebrated 1993 article in The American Scholar entitled "Defining Deviancy Down," which picked up Emile Durkheim's assertion that "crime is normal," asked how much crime and other "deviance" a free society should expect to tolerate, and argued that the U.S. had begun to take far too high a level of misbehavior for granted. "It appears to me," Moynihan wrote, that "over the past generation ... the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can 'afford to recognize' and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the 'normal' level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard."

Have we been doing that with school violence? What's an acceptable level? For reference and comparison, it's useful to gaze across the Pacific and ask how Japan, a famously law-abiding land and one with student achievement levels that routinely surpass ours, views such things.

This past September, Japan's Education Ministry (MEXT) published its annual report on school violence, containing 2004 data. The Japanese newspapers reported widespread shock and outrage ("particularly alarming," said one) at the revelation that violence was on the rise in elementary schools, where such incidents had escalated from 1,253 incidents to 1,890 incidents across the country over the previous two years, even as middle and high school violence rates held steady.

How does Japan compare with the U.S.? Our national statistics do not include elementary school violence. But a rough comparison can be made at the secondary level, using MEXT statistics for "middle and high schools" alongside U.S. data for 12-18 year-old students.

The Japanese education ministry defines a violent act as an act against students, teachers, or property. Over the past three years, the Land of the Rising Sun has averaged 23,591 such incidents in middle school and 5,080 in the high schools. That translates to 6.4 and 1.3 violent incidents per thousand pupils per year, respectively. Recall that the U.S. figure is 70 per 1,000 students. In other words, the incidence of violence among teenagers in American schools is substantially more than 10 times the rate in Japanese secondary schools.

Japan's statistics apparently aren't perfect, either. An official in the Osaka prefecture noted that Tokyo's elementary schools were reported to suffer only 43 incidents compared to Osaka's 320. Considering that Tokyo is a much larger city, he surmised that its educators were under-reporting the problem - and the MEXT statistics incorporated the faulty data. It's hard to imagine, though, that their statistics are less reliable than ours, and harder still to suppose that data problems and definitional differences could account for more than a tiny portion of the huge difference between violent incidents in Japanese and American schools.

The facts are that (despite their own occasional horrific incidents) Japan's schools are vastly less violent than ours, and Japanese society is accustomed to them being peaceful, studious places. By contrast, we're accustomed to lots of misbehavior in school. We have defined down this form of deviancy from the norms we ought to expect. And it's a near-certainty that in the process we have also come to accept a school environment in which it's much harder to focus on academic achievement. In anybody's hierarchy of human needs, physical safety takes precedence over intellectual activity. In short, our kids' performance is not likely to rival Japan's until we demand - and produce - a school environment that is more conducive to teaching and learning.

How might this be achieved? In an earlier seminal article, published in The Atlantic in 1982, James Q. Wilson (the distinguished political scientist and, it happens, a close friend of Moynihan's) and George Kelling promulgated the theory that, if communities attend to their "broken windows," they will have far less serious crime. In effect, they defined deviancy up, establishing new norms for behavior and law enforcement. In the few cities that operationalized this approach, most notably New York, it has had a powerful positive impact.

The "broken windows" reasoning sometimes gets misapplied by schools in the form of mindless "zero tolerance" policies that fail to distinguish between youthful pranks and serious violence. But that reasoning, properly applied, contains the best hope for boosting the behavioral norms in K-12 education. Our most successful district, charter, and private schools expect a lot from their students, behaviorally as well as academically, and they surround youngsters with a culture that is as admiring of performance on both those fronts as it is intolerant of sloth, disruption, and violence. That's why really good schools are never "out of control" and rarely have much serious misbehavior. Their norms don't permit it. They repair cracks in the windows before they even break. If we had a lot more such schools, we'd have a lot less school violence.


Michael O'Keefe was Fordham's fall research intern.

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