Sticks and stones may break my bones but guns can definitely kill me

 

In Cleveland, last week we were reminded, horrifically--again--that schools can be very scary places. A 14-year-old gunman, also known as a student, opened fire in a downtown alternative high school, injuring two students and two adults, before shooting and killing himself (see here). The shooting occurred at SuccessTech Academy.

While they grab national headlines, as absolutely horrible as they are, school shootings are, at best, rare in the nation's 119,000 schools. Violent crime in schools dropped by half between 1994 and 2003, according to the University of Virginia (see here). Homicides, which peaked in the early 1990s at more than 40 a year in schools, dropped sharply by 2002.

Federal statistics indicate that, in a recent year, an estimated 6.5 percent of all students carried a weapon to school. A Columbus Public Schools official told The Gadfly that a dozen guns (six loaded) were taken from students in the last year, down from 27 (16 loaded) in the 2005-2006 school year. Statewide, 451 guns and more than 3,000 other weapons were taken from students in Ohio public schools last year, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

The real problem is fighting. The Ohio Department of Education reported 78,296 fights and other acts of violence in the last school year. Charter schools, however, are calmer and safer. According to a report issued earlier this year, charter schools experience far fewer discipline problems than district public schools (see here). Bullying (13,861 times in Ohio schools last year) also is now one of the most-reported school-violence problems. The Ohio General Assembly recognized the bullying problem earlier this year, when it authorized public schools to form bullying prevention task forces and extra training for teachers, parents, school volunteers, and others.

Constant bullying or an otherwise silly juvenile disagreement can spin out of control when fueled by fear, anger, and/or raging hormones. The Cleveland incident was apparently precipitated by a fight earlier in the week and this, as well as the disturbing national data on fights and bullying, ought to have school officials taking a new look at violence-prevention programs.

Unfortunately, federal money for violence-prevention programs has been dropping. In Ohio, the federal allocation for safe and drug-free schools has slipped from about $15 million in 2001, according to a state education department official, to $9.9 million this year. The decline comes as two new studies published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine say the programs work. Researchers report that after-school prevention programs result in a substantial reduction in violent behavior across the age and socioeconomic spectrum.

A survey of 53 studies of violence-prevention programs focusing on problem solving, conflict resolution, peer mediation, and other ideas found they resulted in a 15 percent reduction in violent behavior for an average of six months after the program was completed. The research, summarized in Science News, was reinforced by a second, larger study (see here) conducted by scientists at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. This analysis of 249 studies of school-violence-prevention programs found even greater drops in violence. The researchers also noted students going through the programs were AWOL from school less often. Combined with other ideas, violence-prevention programs could help produce even larger results and they might keep the lid on a disagreement that could spark a future school shooting spree.

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January 16, 2009
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