Edited 1/7/16

An earlier version was published in educational Horizons, Winter 1994


Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

edited 1/9/17 

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

I don’t make regular 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 fatal 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 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 being overwhelmed by barbarism and predation? Mulling this while driving four suburban Philadelphia area youngsters to school, I asked them if they thought their middle school was dangerous. (As a veteran teacher of early adolescents I reasoned that if school disorder had spread, middle schools would be the place to look for it.) “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 too safe to be interesting.”

Were these adolescents 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 no 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 Report for 2015 is 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. In 2015 there were an estimated 1,197,704 violent crimes committed around the nation. While that represents a slight increase from 2014 figures, the 2015 violent crime total was 0.7 percent lower than the 2011 level and 16.5 percent below the 2006 level. Only .02% of America’s population was victimized by a violent crime in 2015. Additionally, although you would never know it by watching television ‘news,’ a minuscule .000049% of American’s were non-negligent homicide victims in America that same year. (Note there are four zeros in that statistic.)The National Center for Education Statistics reports that only 3% of students aged 12 to 18 experienced any kind of nonfatal victimization whatsoever. And the number of school homicides nationally numbered just 31.  (https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/iscs15.pdf)

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” were members of violent gangs, competing for street corner drug trade, sleeping 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 has to keep a lot of “high-falooting laws” in mind. Moreover, wimpy school administrators and gutless school district regulations have taken 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.