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A Study Finds School Violence Has Decreased Over the Last 18 Years. Better Support Services Could Be Part of the Reason

A boy wearing a blue sweatshirt and a girl in a green shirt study together in a high school library.
High school students participate in after-school tutoring.
(Allison Shelley
The Verbatim Agency for All4Ed/EDUImages)
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As reports of mass shootings dominate the headlines, it might be hard to imagine that there has been a decline in weapons possession and violence in California schools — but that’s what a longitudinal study published in the World Journal of Pediatrics found.

A dramatic change

Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social welfare at UCLA and a co-author of the study, joined LAist’s public affairs talk show AirTalk to dig into the numbers and possible causes of this trend. He and his team studied 18 years of data from the California Healthy Kids Survey, which asks students about their school environments, feeling of connectedness, and risk behaviors, among other factors.

“Our question was, ‘Has school violence gone up — the day-to-day kind of things that kids experience?’” Astor says. “And our surprising answer to that is, it's not just that it's been reduced. It's dramatically lower in almost every category, every behavior that we could look at.”

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Astor says these findings hold in over 95% of the middle schools and high schools in California. The impact is much stronger for African American and Latino kids, and much stronger for boys than for girls, he says.

“This kind of goes against our national narrative where we think everything has gotten much worse,” Astor says. “I think that's mainly influenced by what we see in the shootings, which is horrific. It's a national terror. But this has been happening in the shadow of all that.”

The interplay between increasing instances of shootings and decreasing reports of overall violence is a complicated one, he says, and one that is influenced by students’ mental health. He says it’s important to start separating these findings rather than lumping them all together, to truly understand the various strands of students’ experiences.

“Those two processes may be happening in different realms, not exactly at the same time,” Astor says. “Whereas kids could say, ‘My school is safe, my teachers are treating me well’ … And also be afraid at the same time of being shot at school in some random event.”

A changing approach

Art Garcia, a school psychologist at Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, says he also feels that the students he works with have a better relationship with their schools. He thinks it’s in large part because schools have better systems in place for guiding student behavior and encouraging positive coping skills.

“We have largely gravitated away from exclusionary discipline practices, such as suspension and expulsion,” Garcia says, “and really shifted more towards teaching students the appropriate skills necessary to be successful in the classrooms.”

These practices help prevent many difficult situations, Garcia says, but there are also policies in place to respond to safety issues when they do arise. There are teams that assess and manage threats to the school — 70% of which are transient situations coming from students’ momentary frustrations, according to Garcia. That’s where it becomes helpful to have a good ratio of school psychologists to students.

“There's a huge capacity increase,” Astor says. ”When you look at the number of school social workers, psychologists, counselors, that have been hired in these 18 years, it's dramatic.”

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The number of mental health workers at Los Angeles Unified School District was in the hundreds 20 years ago, but is now over 7,000, according to Astor. He says the states that have made the biggest leaps in increasing staffing capacity and implementing positive behavioral programs are also the states that are seeing the steepest drop in school safety issues.

“I think it would be too much of a coincidence to say that all that happened and it's not related to these reductions,” Astor says.

More work to be done

Garcia says the need for these services multiplied greatly during the pandemic. Many students he works with struggle to regulate their emotions and cope with anxiety, and there are some students he simply has not been able to reach. There are still significant shortages of mental health workers as many schools are far from the recommended ratio of one psychologist to every 500 students.

“Our question was, ‘Has school violence gone up — the day-to-day kind of things that kids experience?’ And our surprising answer to that is, it's not just that it's been reduced. It's dramatically lower in almost every category, every behavior that we could look at.”
— Ron Avi Astor, UCLA Professor of Social Welfare

Astor says schools are still figuring out how to deal with bullying, especially if it takes place online or on the basis of someone’s identity. He says it’s great that schools now treat cyber-bullying as a school issue even if it occurs outside of school property and hours, but that there is more progress left to be made.

Parents will play an important role in this progress, Garcia says.

“I think the commonality between educators and parents is that we both care about their children,” Garcia says. “Most parents are almost always willing to be active participants in whatever intervention is put in place to help their kids.”

Listen to the conversation

School Violence Survey 4.17.23
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