It sounds like a presidential election: Several groups are counting guns in schools, but no one can agree on the real numbers. Recent government reports express optimism about school violence, crime and firearm possession, but critics claim under-reporting on all three.
Start with the U.S. Department of Education's (DoE) "Report on State Implementation," based on a reporting requirement included in the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994. Released in October, the report shows a decrease in expulsions from about 5,700 in 1996-97 to about 3,500 in 1998-99. Although Education Secretary Richard Riley said in a prepared statement that "the trend is moving in the right direction," the report's authors wrote that the declines are due in part to changes in data collection and reporting. "Caution should be used when interpreting these data," they say.
The DoE's optimistic numbers so enraged Paul Kingery, director of the Hamilton Fish National Institute on School and Community Violence at George Washington University, that last month he re-released the Institute's "School-based Surveillance of Violence, Injury, and Disciplinary Actions," which had originally come out in September. It says, "The safety of America's schools has become a major issue, yet the magnitude of the problem cannot be accurately assessed in all its dimensions because some of the data come from incident reporting systems that are seriously flawed."
One of the flaws in the DoE's State Implementation study, the Institute says, is that it gives only the number of expulsions for firearm possession. The Institute says the real number of firearms in schools may be as high as 350,000.
Where do those numbers come from? The Fish Institute uses data from the University of Michigan's "Monitoring the Future" study and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health). Monitoring the Future shows 350,000 students (eighth through 12th grade) carrying guns to school within the four weeks before being interviewed for the study in 1998. That's a decline from 370,000 in 1997. Add Health shows 312,000 students (seventh through 12th grade) carrying guns to school within the previous 30 days in 1995.
But even these figures, say Kingery and his coauthor, Aaron Alford, may be underestimates because of methodological flaws. The Monitoring the Future study excludes Alaska, Hawaii and Washington, D.C., while the Add Health study looks only at frequent gun carriers.
By contrast, Bill Modzeleski, director of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program and author of the GFSA report, thinks that, if anything, all of the reports, including his own, are overcounts, and calls the Hamilton Fish report "ludicrous." His explanation for the significant gap in findings is that "kids often get confused" about the difference between guns and other weapons.
Coming in between the Fish Institute and the DoE's State Implementation report is the "2000 Annual Report on School Safety," released in late October by the Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Education. President Clinton declared that the report "shows that crime and violence in our nation's schools continue to decline."
This report uses 1993-99 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to show a steady decrease in weapon carrying on school property by ninth through 12th graders, from 12 percent to 7 percent. It also cites the Monitoring the Future study in reporting a decrease in weapon-related injuries at school by 12th graders since 1992.
Kingery at the Fish Institute criticizes this study, too, saying that while it shows a decrease from the early to the late 1990s, the recent figures would still be above those of the 1970s - a more valid comparison, says the former college professor. Yet a fourth report, Indicators of School Crime and Safety, by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), makes that kind of comparison.
The Hamilton Fish Institute is funded by the DoE and the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. "I'm not going to bite the hand that feeds me," says Kingery - but he has, and isn't paying for it, at least monetarily. According to Kingery, Congress granted the Institute a $1.1 million increase for Fiscal Year 2001, to $3.6 million.
For more information on the Fish and DoE reports, see Report Roundup (page 30). Contact: Paul Kingery (703) 371-7232; Bill Modzeleski (202) 401-0113.
- Amy Bracken