School safety report shows rise in shootings and rise in cyberbullying

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School shootings in 2020-21 have reached the highest number in two decades, according to a new federal report that examines crime and safety in schools across the United States.

The 31-page report, released Tuesday by the National Center for Education Statistics, also pointed to an increase in cyberbullying and verbal abuse or disrespect towards teachers in the decade that ended with the start of the pandemic in the spring of 2020.

The spike in school shootings has been brutal: there were 93 incidents involving casualties in public and private schools in 2020-21, up from 23 in the 2000-01 school year. The record year included 43 incidents with fatalities and 50 with injuries alone.

The report uses a broad definition of shootings, including instances where firearms were fired or brandished on school property, or where a bullet struck school grounds for any reason and regardless of whether or not students are present.

Ron Avi Astor, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, welcomed the broader definition, saying the report painted a fuller picture, at a time when the 19 children and two teachers killed by a Robb-style gunman Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex., remains close in mind. “If someone brings a gun to school and shoots it, it’s really traumatic,” Astor said. “It’s obviously more traumatic if someone dies or is injured, but the fear it causes to all the children in the school and all the teachers goes far beyond the people who have been affected.”

More than 311,000 students have been victims of gun violence at school since Columbine

At a time, some pointed out that schools are by far one of the safest places for young people, who are more likely to be shot outside of school than inside.

“The increase in school shootings is likely a consequence of an increase in gun violence overall and not specific to schools,” said Dewey Cornell, a professor of education at the University of Virginia. “However, most schools will never have a shooting, and their main problems will be fighting and bullying.”

According to the NCES report, students aged 12 to 18 did not express great fear about their own schools.

Less than 5% were afraid of being hurt or attacked during the school year, according to 2019 data highlighted by the report. And the rate of non-fatal crimes — including robbery, robbery, rape and various types of assault — has fallen from 51 victimizations per 1,000 students in 2009 to 30 per 1,000 in 2019.

It was difficult to reconcile the positive trends with the increase in shootings, said Annette Anderson, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools. “It’s a good start, but I certainly would have liked to have had a deeper dive on some of these topics,” she said.

School violence is so bad in this neighborhood that even teachers are targets

Teacher difficulties with students have increased over the past decade. Schools reporting verbal abuse of teachers at least once a week rose to around 10% in the 2019-20 school year, from around 5% a decade earlier. Similarly, the number of schools reporting acts of disrespect towards teachers rose to 15% in 2019-20, from 9% in 2009-10.

The percentage of public schools reporting cyberbullying at least once a week doubled in 2019-20 to 16%, from 8% in the 2009-10 school year, according to the report.

Amanda Nickerson, professor of school psychology at the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education, did not attribute the rise in cyberbullying to the pandemic. “Part of it has to do with technology,” she said. “Kids are spending so much more time on computers, on cell phones.”

Twenty-seven percent of gay, lesbian, or bisexual students in grades 9-12 said they had been the target of electronic bullying in the previous 12 months, compared to 19% of students who were unsure of their gender identity and 14% of heterosexual students, according to 2019 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. Students were not asked if they identified as transgender.

Particularly noteworthy as the pandemic continues: only 55% of public schools offered mental health assessments in 2019-20 and only 42% offered treatment. Stephanie Fredrick, an assistant professor who also teaches at the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education, attributes this primarily to “inadequate funding or access to licensed professionals.”

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