Preventing School Violence: Are We Making the Grade?

By Kevin Hart

Eleven years ago today, high school students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered Columbine High School outside Denver and began a killing spree that reignited the national debate over school safety.

The lesson of Columbine, where twelve students and one teacher were killed and many others wounded, was that school violence can happen anywhere. From affluent suburban schools like Columbine to poor, urban schools surrounded by drugs and gang activity, school violence is a problem that knows no boundaries.

The 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, pictured above, accelerated the debate on school safety. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

The issue of school violence can be particularly troubling at lower-performing priority schools, which must address issues of student safety before learning and achievement gains can be made.

Statistics from a 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Education showed that school violence disproportionately affects urban schools and students of color. During the 2007-2008 school year, urban teachers were more likely than their rural or suburban counterparts to be threatened with injury or physically attacked.

Twenty percent of reporting schools claimed there was gang activity on campus during the 2007-2008 school year, which is often a precursor to violence. African American and Latino students were the most likely to report gang presences in their schools (38 percent and 36 percent, respectively), and African American and Latino students were also most likely to be threatened or injured by a weapon on school property.

Reducing violence, particularly at priority schools, was a recent topic of discussion on the Facebook page for NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign.

Zella Knight, a parent and community activist from Los Angeles, said she feared that the nation’s current economic downturn was creating greater opportunities for violence in schools and the neighborhoods that surround them. High unemployment has created stress, and budget cuts have reduced or eliminated programs that serve as social safety nets.

“It is not just the impact of safety, it is also the reduction to support services, reduction to before- and after-school programs, reductions that impact the community,” she said. “The economic situation has created war.”

Several participants talked about the importance of creating social and outreach programs both inside and outside of schools as a strategy for reducing violence. Within schools, gang diversion and anti-bullying programs can be critical to preventing violence.

Well-funded academic intervention programs also can play a role, as students who experience success in school may be less attracted to lifestyles driven by gangs, drugs and other dangerous activities.

“Many of those gang members are students that are or were failing in school,” said Charles Parker, a para-professional who works with elementary students in Las Vegas. “When we can deal with every child and leave none behind, we have the ability to take back our communities.”

Taking back communities and preventing violence also requires strong social programs designed to support the adults who care for students, particularly in impoverished communities. Parents and caregivers, more than any other group, serve as role models for students, and it is imperative that these adults steer clear of the same dangerous lifestyles that students are trying to avoid.

Engaging and supporting parents and caregivers will do more than prevent violence, said Lynn Stewart, a retired high school English teacher from Glendale, AZ – it also can result in achievement gains for students.  

“Schools can make sure each student succeeds through the support of a caring administration, caring teachers, and involved parents,” she said. “It’s a three-legged stool. Kids need all three to succeed.”