Metal detectors and surveillance cameras have sharply reduced weapons and crime at the nation's schools, but a government report says students are more afraid on school grounds than off because of a problem that hasn't changed: the school bully.
”Away from school, kids can stay away from their enemy. On campus they can't really escape,'' said Curt Lavarello, who works with school police officers.
Over the years, the percentage of assaults, theft and other crimes at schools has steadily gone down. Six percent of students ages 12 to 18 said they were victims of crimes last year, compared with 10 percent in 1995. The largest drop came for students in seventh, eighth and ninth grades.
In a 1993 survey, 12 percent of high school students said they carried a weapon at school in the past 30 days. That dropped to 6 percent in 2001, according to a joint report by the Education and Justice departments.
But while security measures have helped stop guns and knives from getting into schools, they can't do much about the bully.
Nine percent of the students said they had been threatened or injured with a weapon last year, up slightly from two years ago. There also was a 3 percent in increase in students who reported being bullied.
”Bullying was accepted as part of the tradition of the school. That has to change,'' said William Modzeleski, who heads the federal Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program. “We're starting to recognize that this is a serious issue and beginning to address it.''
Modzeleski said school administrators need to treat bullying the same way they treat other aggressive behavior.
”Bullying can lead to more assaultive behavior,'' Modzeleski said.
A survey last year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that 10,000 children stayed home from school at least once a month because they feared bullies, and half the children surveyed said they were bullied once a week.
Sandy Clifton-Bacon, an assistant superintendent at Redondo Beach Unified School District near Los Angeles, said teachers and other adults on campus are becoming better trained to deal with bullies.
”We have to. It's a serious problem. And lately, schools are becoming more liable for those things,'' she said.
Last month, for example, parents of a 13-year-old-boy filed a federal lawsuit against a rural school district in central Pennsylvania for allegedly ignoring the bullying of their son.
Also, a growing number of schools across the country have adopted bullying intervention programs.
The government report, compiled from police reports and interviews with students and principals, also found:
Lavarello said school officials have been doing a better job in recent years of balancing prevention programs and crime intervention. But he said the dropping crime statistics may not be entirely accurate.
A Sept. 25 survey by the National Association of School Resource Officers found that 89 percent of officers said crime on campus is underreported to police. Lavarello, the group's executive director, said principals are often pressured to minimize crime statistics at their school. As a result, he said, they often refer to thefts as missing property and assaults simply as fights.
”A kid may be a victim of assault and battery but they treat it as a horse-playing incident,'' Lavarello said.