Prevalence of School Crime

August 2013

School shootings, such as the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, while devastating, are exceedingly rare.

The perception of schools as safe and secure environments is often transformed following a school shooting. The media attention these incidents garner further clouds this sentiment. In the aftermath of a school shooting, rigid school safety and security legislation is advocated, extra law enforcement officers are hired to patrol schools and news outlets continually discuss the shooting for an extended period of time.8 However, school shootings, such as the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, while devastating, are exceedingly rare. Blair and Martaindale (2013) found only 29 school shootings of this type from 2000-2010. That is, 29 school shootings out of all public schools in the United States. These 29 shootings resulted in 92 injured students out of the estimated 54,703,000 students enrolled in U.S. schools.

While these events are tragic, and must not be minimized, a focus toward prevention regarding more prevalent school-based crime should be considered. The purpose of the following analysis is to examine the prevalence of all crimes committed on school property while identifying the most common incidents.

Prior Literature

School crime has many negative implications for students, school personnel, and the community at large. Some of these consequences include low student academic achievement, increased dropout rates, teacher turnover, and spillover of juvenile crime into the community.5,7 The types of criminal activity juveniles engage in on school property can range from minor to more serious offenses. Although school crime has declined in recent years, despite conflicting media reports, 85% of public schools reported one or more crimes (e.g., theft, violent or serious violent offense) on school property during the 2009-2010 school year.11 In the 2009-2010 school year, 74% of public schools nationwide reported one or more violent incidents, while 16% reported one or more serious violent incidents on school property.11 An additional 44% of public schools nationwide reported one or more thefts on school premises. Violent crimes on school property were defined as simple assault, whereas serious violent crimes included rape, sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assault.6,11 Preventing these types of crime on school property is critical, as it is a public safety concern.

Student to teacher ratios in U.S. public schools, although declining from 17.6 to 15.8 students per teacher between 1990 and 2008, have the potential to hinder the ability for educators to combat school delinquency on their own.

The combination of youth propensity to commit crime coupled with lack of consistent guardianship in schools, allows educational settings to serve as target rich environments for delinquent behavior. Student to teacher ratios in U.S. public schools, although declining from 17.6 to 15.8 students per teacher between 1990 and 20082, have the potential to hinder the ability for educators to combat school delinquency on their own. Further, juveniles spend a substantial amount of their routine activities in school, providing opportunities to not only engage in criminal behavior in this environment, but to establish delinquent peer relationships.1,10,12

Current research is limited in its investigation of juvenile crime committed on school property. Specifically, the type of crimes committed and characteristics of juvenile offenders committing these crimes warrant further review.


In order to fully explicate the prevalence of school crimes, National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) data for 2009 and 2010 were analyzed. NIBRS is an incident-based reporting system for crimes known to law enforcement. The data are collected cross-sectionally by law enforcement agencies for each crime and consist of variables related to the nature and types of offenses committed, characteristics of the victim(s) and offender(s), information relating to the damage of property, and location of the incident. Therefore, NIBRS data were considered the most reliable data for the purpose of this descriptive analysis. Multiple years were utilized to ensure the data were normally distributed; therefore removing any potential outliers. It should be noted that only crimes known to law enforcement are reported. This may result in an underreporting of incident totals.

NIBRS presents all crimes reported in the U.S.; therefore, crimes not committed on school property were deleted from both databases. Additionally, the focus of the study is on crimes committed by students; therefore, the databases were further reduced to only incidents perpetuated by school-aged individuals (i.e., 6-18). The age of six was chosen to capture reported crimes for elementary aged children and draw attention to their prevalence. These techniques reduced the overall criminal incidents from 4,992,094 to 73,511 for 2009 and from 4,998,914 to 70,317 for 2010.

As this examination is only concerned with the prevalence of school crimes, inferential analysis and sampling techniques will not be employed. Additionally, the analyses performed consist of frequencies and cross tabulations to illustrate any distinguishing trends within the data and will not address causality or correlation.


The data presented have been standardized based on the student enrollment for each year. The base-rate was obtained from the 2012 Census Statistical Abstract (Census, 2012). In 2009, it was estimated that there were 54.77 million K-12 students. In 2010, it was estimated that there were 54.70 million K-12 students. These population estimates were utilized to create crime rates for crimes per 100,000 students.

Offender Characteristics

The age of offenders was negatively skewed for both 2009 and 2010 (See Figure 1 for an example of the distribution). Figure 1 illustrates the distribution of offender ages for 2010. The distribution for 2009 is nearly identical; therefore it is not shown. This distribution is expected when considering young students in the same population as older students. The increase in known offenses is readily apparent beginning around 12 years of age.

Table 1 illustrates the offender demographics for both 2009 and 2010. As presented, both 2009 and 2010 display identical data in regards to who is committing offenses on school property. The average age of offenders is approximately 14.75 years of age. Three-quarters of offenders are generally male. Nearly two-thirds of offenders are white (63%) while nearly one-third of offenders are black (32%). The similarity in demographics is expected for consecutive school years.

Offenses Committed

The frequencies in which crimes were committed are reported in Table 2 as both raw frequencies and rates per 100,000 students.

The most common school offenses for both years were simple assault followed by drug offenses (i.e., drug use and possession of paraphernalia).

The most common school offenses for both years was simple assault followed by drug offenses (i.e., drug use and possession of paraphernalia). In 2009, 50 in every 100,000 students were charged with simple assault (e.g., fighting). Simple assault was also the most prevalent offense in 2010 with a rate of 48.55 per 100,000 students. Approximately 10 students per 100,000 were charged for intimidation in both 2009 and 2010. The least committed offenses were sexual offenses (e.g., sexual assault, prostitution) for both 2009 and 2010. These offenses occurred at a rate of 3.3 and 3.4 per 100,000 students for 2009 and 2010.

When comparing the crime rate per 100,000 from 2009 to 2010, each offense listed—with the exception of drug and sexual offenses—decreased. These findings follow the nationwide trend toward decreased crime rates.

Cross tabulations

Cross tabulations are a valuable tool in data analysis to help understand observed patterns. A cross tabulation allows the reader to understand what percentage of one variable (e.g., assault) can be attributed to a categorical variable (e.g., male/female). The results are illustrated in Table 3 below. With the crime rates nearly identical, cross tabulations were only created for crimes reported in 2010. This allows for the most recent data to be further examined.

As shown in Table 1, males disproportionally committed crimes in all categories through an attribution of nearly 75%. This pattern is even more readily apparent in Table 3. Recall, the demographic breakdown of sex for 2010 was 74.6% male and 25.1% female. Therefore, an increase in any value represents an overrepresentation and a decrease represents an underrepresentation from what one would expect in the population. This means, if there were no differences between males and females the expected percentages of crimes committed would be roughly equal to the observed population's demographics. Males are overrepresented in aggravated assaults, sexual offenses, destruction of property, weapon violations, and drug offenses. Females are overrepresented in simple assaults and intimidation. Both theft variables are roughly equal to the population demographics.

Table 4 illustrates the observed percentages of crimes committed by race. The variables Asian and American Indian were aggregated to form the Other category due to their small representation in the population. The demographic breakdown of race in 2010 was 63.4% white, 32% black, and 2.1% other. It should be noted that the category White includes Hispanic students. Hispanic is considered an ethnicity and, therefore, aggregated within the race category. As with sex, any value over the expected percentages represents an overrepresentation and any value under the expected percentages represent an underrepresentation. The observed race variable is more closely related to the expected race values than sex. This may suggest that race does not play as large of a role in crimes committed compared to sex. While the expected and observed values are similar in most crimes white offenders were clearly overrepresented in drug offenses and destructions of property. Black offenders were overrepresented in simple assaults. The other observed variables were close to their expected values.


The purpose of this analysis was to address the prevalence of crimes committed in schools. As the findings suggest, students are victimized by other forms of school crime at a much higher rate than mass school shooting type events. For example, drug offenses occur at a rate of 26.42 per 100,000 students. The lowest rate offense presented was sexual offenses at a rate of 3.41 per 100,000 students. To help put this in context, there were six active shooter events at high schools and colleges in 2010 and two in 2009. That equals 0.01 and .0003 per 100,000 students for both years, respectively. These results, however, are typically discounted by the media and the general population.

The school crime illustrated in this analysis represent the more serious incidents reported to NIBRS. Additionally, two years of data were analyzed to illustrate the steady nature and reliability of the data. The demographic variables presented in Table 1 show that males committed three times the amount of crimes as females. White offenders committed twice as many crimes as black offenders. According to the 2012 Census Statistical Abstract, approximately 13% of students in the U.S. are black.4 The data, however, suggest that 32% of school offenders are black, illustrating an overrepresentation of minorities in the criminal justice system.

The decline in school crime is further solidified in Table 2. Every category of school crime rate decreased with the exception of drug and sexual offenses. The variables Simple Assault and Theft – All Other showed large declines of approximately 1.5 offenses per 100,000 students from 2009 to 2010. While Intimidation did show a decline of 0.35, it is still an alarming 9.86 per 100,000 students. The observed slight decline in Intimidation may be attributable to anti-bullying programs in schools. Interestingly, females were charged with intimidation at a higher rate than expected in comparison to males.

The cross tabulation results show that observed crimes are close to the expected rates based on the NIBRS data. The only stark difference is a 15.1% increase in observed drug offenses and a 13.5% increase in observed destruction of property offenses in comparison to what was expected for white offenders. However, as previously discussed, black student offenders are overrepresented in all crimes in comparison to the percentage of black students in the population. In fact, black male students are overrepresented in the criminal justice system by almost 250% in relation to the actual percentage of black students in the U.S. Efforts should continually be made to ensure students are fairly reprimanded regardless of sex or race. Fair punishment has the potential to foster a stronger, more positive school climate.

Additionally, sexual offenses increased slightly (0.11 per 100,000 students) and drug offenses increased at a higher rate (0.93 per 100,000 students). Educators may want to augment awareness through the implementation of effective sexual assault and drug prevention education programs. While it is important to educate all students, males far outnumber females in regards to drug and sexual offenses. As such, an increased effort should be directed at male students.

Bullying is a major concern for educators and students. Although the rate of intimidation offenses has dropped slightly, it is still one of the more commonly committed offenses. It should, however be noted that these are only the reported offenses of intimidation. Continued education and resources should be provided toward reducing intimidating behavior for both male and female students.

The academic success of students is dependent on the establishment and maintenance of a safe and secure educational setting.

A focus toward prevention regarding more prevalent school-based crime should be considered. Educators are responsible for the well-being of students who attend their campuses and should therefore foster a culture of prevention and preparedness. The academic success of students is dependent on the establishment and maintenance of a safe and secure educational setting. The first step in this process is to not only prepare for the absolute worst case scenario, but to address the most common incidents that result in the victimization of our students on a daily basis.


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7Hart, C., & Mueller, C. (2013). School delinquency and social bond factors: Exploring gendered differences among a national sample of 10th graders. Psychology in the Schools, 50(2), 116-133.

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9National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS):

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12Weisburd, D., Morris, N., Groff, E. (2009). Hot spots of juvenile crime: A longitudinal study of arrest incidents at street segments in Seattle, Washington. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 25, 443-467.