A Calamitously Misplaced Emphasis in School Safety

Virginia, a General Assembly committee on school violence was told yesterday, is a national leader in school safety but it still could do more to prevent violence, bullying and harassment. Among the options explored were hiring more counselors and providing more training. Judging by the reporting of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, much of the discussion focused on how to prevent or respond to school shootings.

As best I recollect, no Virginia K-12 school has experienced a Columbine-scale mass shooting. Yet the threat of rare but spasmodic violence dominated the session. Remarkably, the matter of routine violence in schools didn’t animate any discussion — even though, according to state statistics, Virginia schools reported 2,897 assaults against students (no weapons), 48 assaults with firearms or other weapons, and 34 sexual batteries in the 2015-16 school year.

If I were a social justice warrior, I might criticize the contrasting attitudes — high anxiety about the remote threat of violence in the kind of affluent, white-dominated schools where mass shootings typically take place and indifference toward routine violence at predominantly black schools — as a classic example of institutional racism. I must confess to being mystified by the silence. One might be tempted to conclude — unfairly, I’m sure — that SJWs living in affluent, white-dominated school districts place greater importance on the safety of their own children.

We do know that SJWs are extremely concerned about the injustices — arrests, suspensions, other punishments — perpetrated upon school students committing the violent offenses, mainly on the grounds that the offenders are disproportionately African-American. I have blogged in the past that the victims of violent and disorderly behavior, also disproportionately African-American, don’t warrant much sympathy presumably because they don’t advance the Narrative of Institutional Oppression.

In perusing Virginia’s school safety data, I came across a remarkable finding that no one is touting. If we believe the official statistics, Virginia schools are much, much safer today than they were a decade ago. Physical and verbal intimidation is down 24% for students, 40% for teachers. Bullying is down almost 80%. Assaults on students are down 56% for students and 30% for teachers. Those are astonishing numbers. Surely this is one of the great public policy victories of our time. Surely this is cause for widespread celebration!

Or perhaps the numbers are worthless — another case of truth being sacrificed on the altar of political correctness and bureaucratic butt-covering.

What has changed in the past 10 years? The most obvious difference between now and then has been the crusade initiated by the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Department of Justice against school disciplinary policies that disproportionately impacted minority and disabled students. DOJ has compelled numerous Virginia school districts to revamp their disciplinary procedures with the explicit goal of reducing the racial disparity in punishments. Those school districts have adopted a less punitive, more therapeutic approach to dealing with student misbehavior.

Here’s the critical question: What is driving the decline in reported school infractions and violence: new-and-improved disciplinary policies that are changing student behavior for the better… or teachers and administrators giving the DOJ and ACLU the numbers they want to see?

I suspect the latter. Anecdotal information I hear about a school in eastern Henrico County suggests to me that teachers and administrators are losing control of the school. Teacher burn-out is ferocious, and more than the usual number of teachers submitted resignations this year. 

How might we get a better handle on the facts on the ground? We could survey teachers and ask them if they believe discipline has improved or worsened. Absent such a survey, we could measure teacher turnover. Teacher churn is an objective measure, the number is readily compiled and not easily gamed.

Meanwhile, in la-la land — er, I mean the General Assembly — people are talking about better training for crisis response, better coordination with emergency responders, increased mental health services, and more “social-emotional learning,” whatever that is. Virginia is well prepared to deal with crises that may never happen. How well is the Commonwealth doing in dealing with routine anarchy? We won’t know unless we gather the data to find out — but it doesn’t appear that anyone is interested in finding out.

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4 responses to “A Calamitously Misplaced Emphasis in School Safety

  1. Maybe it depends on who you talk to. My understanding is that kids use of social media has exploded and bullying of some kids who don’t “fit” is rampant and some of those kids bullied turn violent.

    Where I live – there have been lockdowns over things that have spread through social media.

    I suspect Bacons kids missed this but if you talk to parents today – there is real concern about the threats and bullying that occur on social media.

    Sure we can ignore it and call it “kid stuff” … until Virginia gets it’s very own mass shooting but I think in doing that, we’re just ignoring an ugly reality that is here and we do need to deal with it.

    • Trust me, I take bullying very seriously. My son was badly bullied and it made his life absolutely miserable for a good three years. We took the issue to school administrators but they said their hands were tied, it was my son’s word against the word of the kids who tormented him. Middle school is hell for a lot of kids.

      • Then you must KNOW – WHY the schools are being forced to up their game on this issue, right? I’m not sure about the contradictory data…. as other data shows that bullying and other intimidation via social media is a big problem and as you relate – the schools, to this point, do not have the staff, resources or authority to actually intervene.

        Probably in Henrico schools – like those in Spotsylvania – each one has a fully trained deputy with a misnomer of a name like “school resource officer”. They spend their time much more so on the badly-raised criminally-inclined kids who threaten other kids than trying to defend against a would-be stranger breaking into the school to shoot kids.

        Much of the violence these days comes from kids who manage to get their hands on guns and then intend to exact revenge against other kids they know that they believe have tormented them or done them wrong in some way or other.

        Yes, it’s going to cost more money. The question is – does the concern about spending more money motivate us to poo-poo the issue and do ostrich-like behaviors?

  2. Bullying is not given the consideration it needs. And bullying begets bullying. I don’t know what the answer is. We don’t want to suppress all negative communications nor do we want to punish kids who make bad judgments and who could have a teachable moment. But we need to stop bullying as best we can.

    As far as disparate impact is concern, I think the proper test is to examine incidents of similar behavior but with “antagonists” with clearly different attributes, e.g., race, ethnicity, disability. Then one needs to record the reaction of the schools. If black kids are suspended 40% more for disrupting a class by talking, yelling, refusing to take directions, etc., than are white kids for the very same behavior, we have a very serious problem. But if the behavior itself occurs more often among some groups than others and as a result more punishment occurs, we don’t really have a problem except among the radical left.

    By my example, I am not suggesting that we don’t have a problem unless and until a 40% disparity of treatment exists.

    And schools also need to ensure that all children have a classroom situation where they can learn. Serious class disruption or worse cannot be acceptable even if necessary to appease the radical left.

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