New school crime stats don't tell the whole story

According to new data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics, crime at U.S. schools increased slightly from 2010 to 2012 after nearly two decades of steady decline. The report, “Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2013,” found that the nonfatal crime victimization rate of students ages 12 to 18, essentially middle and high school students, at school was higher in 2012 (52 victimizations per 1,000 students) than in 2010 (35 per 1,000).

However, some of the data contained within the report seemed to run contrary to conventional wisdom. For example, in 2012 the report said that students in the aforementioned age group experienced a total of 1.4 million nonfatal victimizations at school, including more than 615,000 thefts and just fewer than 750,000 violent victimizations. Those numbers just don’t add up to Paul Timm, president of school security consulting firm RETA Security.

“I almost have to laugh when I read that. There is no way in the world there is more violent victimizations than thefts. I can’t imagine anyone who takes themselves seriously could rationalize that that could possibly be true,” said Timm. “So, we’re saying kids aren’t having calculators and smartphones stolen, but they’re being victimized by violent crimes.”

Timm, author of the upcoming book “School Security: How to Build and Strengthen a School Safety Program,” believes the data is skewed because of underreporting of crimes by schools, which he says has been going on for years. “Who wants to report something that’s going to make them look in any way like an unsafe place or a school that has crime in it for the surrounding community?” asked Timm

In addition, Timm said he was also leery about another piece of data from the report which said that in the 2009-2010 school year, 85 percent of public schools recorded that one or more crime incidents had taken place at school.

“Eighty-five percent, that’s 100 percent! I mean are you saying there wasn’t a theft at 15 percent of the schools?” said Timm. “The thing that is interesting about this is it is indicators of school crime and safety, and we’re talking about theft and violent crime and I think I might be able to believe that for violent crime, but there is no way I’m think that 15 percent of schools had not one criminal incident – no vandalism, no theft. That’s just crazy.”    

Timm said he was recently at an independent school with a “religious affiliation” where four smartphones were stolen during the last two weeks of school from one of the dorms on campus.

“You’ve only got 50 or 60 kids in a dorm, four smartphones are taken and what do we do? Well, we aren’t going to report that, people aren’t reporting that,” added Timm. “You think the school is going to call police and say, ‘come into our school and try to investigate.’ Those phones are long gone; the parents are buying the kids new phones and telling them not to leave them out anymore. This is what happens. We try to minimize crime as much as possible, we try to deal with it in-house as much as possible.”

While the report found no large disparity in the percentage of who students who reported being the victims of bullying from 2005 to 2011, Timm believes that this is another area which is being underreported and is a growing problem within the nation’s schools.

“I think that bullying has become more complicated and the whole social media space has caused it to be more complicated. I think far more people are being (bullied) and again, you have to know what the definition of bullying is, but many schools will define it as acts of intimidation but will also include social isolation,” explained Timm. “If we’re including social isolation, I think that bullying is regularly on the rise and social media has contributed to that. Again, as a dad, I continue to look at the stories and situations of girls who exclude other girls and boys who disrespect other boys and again, maybe someone says that’s not really bullying, well it depends on your definition and I believe it’s clearly on the rise.”  

Although he is glad that the government published these most recent school crime and safety statistics, Timm thinks that they still only “scratch the surface” of what’s really going on in today’s K-12 schools.  With that being said, Timm also feels that there is a misconception that today’s schools are not a safe place for people to send their children.  

“I think that schools are still a safe place. Are there exceptions to that? Sure, there are exceptions… but I still think schools are safe,” said Timm. “It is a misconception that we’re living in an epidemic time of active shooter risks. In a day of agendas, I think that there are people who capitalize on fear. Whereas I think it is a misconception that we ought to be afraid to send our kids to school. Now, should the barn door be left open in schools? No, schools should continue to do better with access control and communications. But should America being holding its breath; no way.”

If these statistics, which in all likelihood are not a true representation of today’s crime and safety climate in schools due to the aforementioned concerns about underreporting, Timm believes that stakeholders – parents, teachers, etc. – need to be carrying the banner for the need of “safe learning environments” if things are going to improve.

“If it is an actual priority and not just a kneejerk reaction, then I think that necessitates a collaborative and comprehensive process where we now have a group of people making decisions on how we continually improve,” he said. “Until (security) is built in, we’re going to continue to see people who do window dressing or follow fear and I don’t think fear should ever be the driver (for change).”