School Climate Predictors of School Disorder: Results From the National Study of Delinquency Prevention in Schools

Gary D. Gottfredson, Gottfredson Associates, Inc.
Denise C. Gottfredson, University of Maryland at College Park
Allison Ann Payne, The College of New Jersey

America experienced what has been described as an epidemic of youth violence in the decade between 1985 and 1994 (Cook and Laub, 1998). Although the rate of violent youth crime has been declining since then, it continues at a rate that is elevated compared to the years prior to the epidemic. Fortunately, serious violent crime in schools is now and has always been rare. Only 220 events of school-associated violent deaths occurred in the nation between 1994 and 1999 (Anderson et. al., 2001). Young people continue to be the victims of serious violent crime less often in school than away from school. In the 1999 National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), twenty-eight percent (28%) of all serious, violent crimes against 12-18 year-olds (e.g., those including rape, sexual assault, robbery, or aggravated assault) occurred during school or on the way to and from school. Violent victimizations (defined as those crimes included in serious violent victimization plus simple assault) are also somewhat more likely to occur out of school than in school. Nevertheless, public concern about school safety has increased, especially in the wake of several highly publicized school shootings that contributed to a significant increase in homicide rates for students killed in multiple-victim incidents on school grounds between 1992 and 1999 (Anderson et al., 2001). Gallup polls showed the percentage of parents fearing for their children's safety in school increased from 24% in 1977 to 53% in 1999 (Gallop Poll, 1999).

Less serious forms of crime have been relatively common in and around schools for at least the past thirty years. Considering all forms of crime measured in the NCVS, more crime victimization occurs in school than out of school. In all, 54% of crimes against students aged 12 to 18 occurred at school or on the way to and from school despite their spending only about 18% of their waking hours in school. The proportion is highest for theft (61%), but also substantial for violent crimes (46%). These findings mirror earlier findings from a 1976 national study of victimization in schools (Gottfredson and Gottfredson, 1985) that found that although serious victimization in schools was exceedingly rare, minor victimizations and indignities (such as swearing and obscene gestures) were common in schools. Clearly, although serious violent crimes are not common in schools, schools are by no means safe havens against crimes. In fact, youths are at elevated risk for criminal victimization when they are in school or on the way to and from school. Recent attempts to prevent serious violent victimization in schools have focused on the characteristics of the perpetrators of these offenses in an attempt to build screening tools that might successfully identify potential shooters before they act. These attempts have noted certain similarities among the perpetrators of the school shootings that occurred between 1992 and 1999. An investigation into targeted violence in schools (U.S. Secret Service, 2000), however, noted that no accurate profile of the school shooter exists. The age range of perpetrators is broad (11 to 21); they come from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds and family situations; their academic performance range from excellent to failing, and their prior behaviors range from having no observed behavioral problems to a clear history of violence and weapon use. Any attempt to identify these individuals before the fact would be futile because the extreme rarity of the events make them difficult to predict, and because the events are generally embedded in a social and transactional sequence of events that would not be captured by a static screening activity (Mulvey and Cauffman, 2001). This fact squares with a long tradition in Psychology showing the futility of predicting rare events.

It may, however, be possible to identify characteristics of schools that make them more susceptible to crime and violence. A number of characteristics of the way schools are managed have been shown to independently increase or decrease the level of crime experienced in the school. Not surprisingly, schools that establish and maintain rules, effectively communicate clear expectations for behavior, consistently enforce rules, and provide rewards for rule compliance and punishments for rule infractions experience lower levels of crime. Life in these schools is more predictable, and students can generally count on adults to maintain order. Schools experiencing less crime are also administered more effectively in general. General management functions such as coordination and resource allocation and communication are working well, and goals for the organization are in place. Finally, schools that experience lower levels of crime are also characterized by a sense of community in which an extended network of caring adults interact regularly with the students and share norms and expectations about their students. In these environments, students are more likely to trust adults and adults are more likely to be in tune with what is going on in the lives of the children. The general social climate in these schools is an important restraining influence that can be considered a protective factor against crime (Gottfredson, 2001). The research on school characteristics related to school crime (to be reviewed shortly) implies that while much of the serious violence experienced in schools has little to do with the school setting, some of the violence experienced in schools appears to be a function of the way schools are organized and managed. If this is true, interventions aimed at creating stronger schools are therefore likely to reduce school crime somewhat.

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Updated 05/20/2006