from educational Horizons Winter 1994

Reflections on School Disorder
©1999 Gary K. Clabaugh


edited 9/2/11

The blow-dried, urgently smarmy "anchor persons" that read us the TV news have lately been wringing their hands over still another alleged failure of our schools. They are not only graduating illiterates, we are told, but are also overwhelmed by disorder and violence. Not just inner city schools, mind you, but historically safe suburban and rural schools are, according to the media, in dangerous disarray.

It is of interest to note that these lamentations are offered by the self-same electronic media that panders such dehumanizing gore that Congress is considering the Children's Protection from Violent Programming Act. But popular newsweeklies are also engaged in a "school violence" feeding frenzy. Newsweek and U.S. News, for example, feature lurid cover stories with superheated titles like, "Growing Up Scared" and "When Killers Come to Class.

I don't make daily visits to a wide selection of schools as I once did; so this media hype started me wondering. Had something terrible happened while I was snoozing in academe? Had school disorder metastasized.? Was the cancer of violence now present in the vital lymph nodes of every school?

Keep in mind, I am no stranger to school turmoil. I supervised student teachers for many years; and in some of the city schools I visited, disturbance was standard operating procedure. Daily incivility was punctuated by periodic knifings, an occasional riot and at least one shooting (of a teacher.) In the suburban schools I visited, however, boredom was the biggest threat. Indeed, the most memorable aspect of my many years of student teacher supervision was the striking transformation from disorder to order, chaos to calm that took place when I made the brief drive from city to suburb.

Now the media had me wondering if traditionally orderly schools were also now being overwhelmed by barbarism and predation? Mulling this while driving four suburban Philadelphia area youngsters to school, I asked them if their middle school was dangerous. (As a veteran teacher of early adolescents I reasoned that if school disorder had spread, most middle schools would be in chaos.) "Dangerous? Our school?" the kids sniggered rhetorically. Yes, there had been a fight the previous year; but all agreed it had been pathetically inept. Otherwise, they assured me, their school was perfectly safe ? and their expressions read, "perhaps to safe to be interesting."

Were these fans of Beavis and Butt-head just putting me on? I didn't think so. In fact, their assessment agreed with my own recent experience. During school visits, admittedly, mostly in the suburbs, I had seen little or none of the disorder depicted in the media. Still, I was not totally reassured. Perhaps the kids and I both had experienced some of the last survivors of a more civil age ? throwbacks of deceptive calm in a rapidly developing school world of goons with guns.

Ever the professor, I turned to the literature for answers. Given the media hype about epidemic school disorder and violence, I wanted to know what research had to say about: 1.) disorder and violent crime in America and 2.) disorder and violent crime in our schools.

So far as disorder in America is concerned, the FBI Uniform Crime Reports are instructive ? if that is, you care to credit the calculations of the same organization widely reported to have maintained secret dossiers for coercing politicians, systematically undermined the civil rights movement and even trying to 'persuade' Martin Luther King, Jr. to commit suicide. Anyway, according to FBI estimates, the trend in American violent crime looks like this:


Crime Index Rate, 1960-1992,
Law Enforcement Section of the Federal Bureau of Investigation,
Department of Justice FAX 1/11/94

Such a trend is hardly comforting; but note that in 1992 violent crime declined a little. Moreover, an FBI spokesperson told me over the phone that crimes involving violence had declined still further in 1993 ? a fact not depicted on the chart. Still, the graph looks like the fever chart of a terminal pneumonia victim.

However, there is another, much less sensationalistic, way of interpreting these statistics. It is that only .0015% of America's population was victimized by a violent crime in 1960 and that increased to a still very meager .0076% by 1992. Additionally, although you would never know it by watching television 'news,' a minuscule .000093% of American's were murdered in America that same year. (Note there are four zeros in that statistic.)

Viewed rationally, these statistics reveal an acceptable level of risk even for Mayberry's Deputy Barney Fife. And that is especially true when you stop to consider that a disproportionate share of the "victims" of violent crime are members of violent gangs, compete for street corner drug trade sleep with someone else's main squeeze, and so forth. Just avoid these type of activities and risk dramatically declines.

So much for the general "epidemic" of violence. Now to the matter of school disorder. We first have to remember that school disorder is nothing new. Consider frontier schools of about a hundred years ago. Teachers in those schools had to be quick with their fists as well as their wits to survive such teaching for more than a month or two. In America's Country Schools, for instance, frontier teacher Frank Grady recalls what it took to manage a one room school in Nebraska in the early 1900's.

"The first teacher in Raymond School was run out by the boys, who used stones as weapons of assault. The second met the same gang, but when he had soundly thrashed one boy and the youth's father coming to take up the battle shared the same fate, the reign of terror ended abruptly, and a new respect for the school was established.

...There were no high-falooting laws, and the teacher could whale the very devil out of you if would aid in bringing you to time.

[With another teacher the students] threw brimstone ? sulfur, I reckon it's called ? down the chimney and smoked him out, getting possession of the premises. ... Quite a percentage of the big fellows considered the teacher Public Enemy Number One." (Andrew Gulliford, America's Country Schools Washington, D.C.; The Preservation Press, 1984 p. 64)

For many kids today's teacher is still Public Enemy Number One, but he or she now does have to keep a lot of "high-falooting laws" in mind. Moreover, wimpy school administrators and gutless school district regulations now take much of the risk out of fomenting disorder. Still, even when teachers could "whale the very devil out of you" it was often necessary for them to literally fight the students and their parents for control of the school. So we should not allow our understanding of the present to be distorted by unjustified nostalgia for the past.

I next looked for current statistics on school disorder and violent crime. The only truly comprehensive investigation I could find dated back to 1978. That year the National Institute of Education published a massive report to Congress titled Violent Schools -- Safe Schools . It summarized an elaborate study in which 4,014 school principals, 23,895 teachers and 31,373 students filled out anonymous school order and safety questionnaires while more than six thousand students were also randomly selected for additional individual interviews.

Among those secondary school students interviewed, just 2% reported recent thefts worth $10 or more. Only 1.33% reported being assaulted over the course of a month and a mere .5% reported property or money taken from them by force. Victimization of teachers was even rarer. Thefts were uncommon and while a significant number of teachers reported empty threats ? fully 36% of inner-city junior high teachers and 24% of inner city high school teachers reported being threatened ? only a minute number reported actual assaults. Even in urban secondary schools, less than 2% of the teachers reported actual assaults by students within the past month. Despite the lack of actual assaults, however, a substantial minority of teachers said they were hesitant to confront misbehaving students out of fear for their own safety. (U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Violent Schools ? Safe Schools: The Safe Schools Report to the Congress. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1978.)

We see, then, that school disorder was far from rampant when Violent Schools ? Safe Schools was compiled, even though FBI data depicts violent crime as rapidly increasing in that era. (Yes, in the glow of nostalgia, several decades ago may seem much kinder than today. But it was in 1980, not 1993, that the US. set an as yet unsurpassed record for murders per 100,000 population.)

So, is violent crime and general school disorder spreading ominously from our festering inner-cites to suburban and small town America as the media Chicken Little's declare? A number of relatively recent studies of school disorder suggest disturbing trends. But these studies tend to be small scale, ill-conceived, or ideologically biased. What we need is a really comprehensive, contemporary study the equivalent of Violent Schools ? Safe Schools . Until then I intend to be sceptical of the media's preoccupation with school violence. It probably has more to do with ratings than reality.