A recent study by the Washington, D.C.-based Hamilton Fish Institute—a federally-funded research group affiliated with George Washington University—asserts that thousands more students are bringing guns to school than U.S. Department of Education statistics show.

Under the Gun Free Schools Act of 1994, principals are required to report to their districts or states the number of firearms confiscated in their schools each year. Researchers compared those figures with data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and other anonymous student surveys and concluded that the actual number of students who bring guns to school may be 50 to 100 times higher than principals are reporting.

The underreporting of guns in schools has serious policy implications, the study’s authors say, because fewer resources are earmarked to address school crime if the problem is minimized.

The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health polled a nationally representative sample of teens in grades 7 through 12 in 1995. The study asked how often students had carried a weapon to school during the 30 days preceding the interview. Respondents were interviewed in their homes and entered responses to the most sensitive questions directly into a laptop computer.

The Gun Free Schools Act report from 1995 shows that 2,317 high school students were considered for expulsion for carrying a firearm to school that year. Extrapolating from the 1995 adolescent-health survey, the researchers estimate that between 132,000 and 205,000 students in grades 9 through 12 actually had carried a gun to school within a 30-day period during the same year (see chart).

Disputed figures

The study’s authors acknowledge that the self-reported student data they used to draw their conclusions may include some amount of error. For example, some students probably were inclined to report carrying a gun to school even if they had not actually done so. “This type of false reporting might serve to harmonize the student’s responses with a deviant self-image or with the norms of a deviant peer group,” the report says.

On the other hand, the authors suggest, some students who actually carried a gun to school during the time period specified by the question might have refrained from reporting their behavior, believing there was a chance they could be associated with their response.

To support their conclusions, the authors point to another survey that asks students to self-report their weapon-carrying behavior: the Monitoring the Future study, a nationally representative survey of students in grades 8, 10, and 12 conducted annually by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan and funded by the federal government.

Extrapolating from the 1997 and 1998 results of the Monitoring the Future study, researchers estimate that 370,000 and 350,000 students, respectively, carried guns to school in grades 8, 10, and 12 alone during the four weeks preceeding the survey.

These figures contrast markedly with data from the Gun Free Schools Act reports of the same years, in which 6,091 and 3,927 students were expelled for firearms possession at school throughout grades K-12.

William Modzeleski, director of the Education Department’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools office, called the institute’s report “foolhardy” and said its authors were “confused.” “Not one person believes that schools are teeming with guns,” he told Education Week. “I reject this [study] out of hand.”

But Joanne McDaniel, interim director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in North Carolina, said the report brings to light some important issues.

“New approaches to data collection have increased validity, but there may still be some underreporting,” she said. “That is the nature of all criminal reporting; it tends to be underreported.”

Reasons for the discrepancy

One reason for the dramatic disparity in the numbers is that many students who carried guns weren’t detected.

“It is not reasonable to expect school administrators to ‘catch’ every student who carries a gun to school. The best that can be expected is that they will catch most of them and respond judiciously,” the report states. It also recommends that students be encouraged to report the presence of firearms among their peers through anonymous means, such as web-based tools like http://www.report-it.com.

Another reason for the discrepancy is the lack of clarity and consistency about what should be reported under the law. A third is the “incomplete and unsophisticated” nature of the procedures most schools use to track disciplinary infractions and punishments.

“If these data collection procedures could be improved, school administrators would have more accurate measures of the nature and scope of the disciplinary problems they face,” the report contends.

But the report’s most troubling allegation is that many school principals are underreporting the problem deliberately because they are afraid to tarnish their schools’ reputations.

“Preliminary evidence suggests that school officials know of a relatively small percentage of incidents that occur in schools and that they seriously underreport incidents that do come to their attention,” the report states.

To back its claims, the study refers to a confidential survey of state education personnel responsible for collecting such data from school districts. One staffer cited an example in which the largest school district in her state reported no expulsions for the year, which was false. Another said school administrators fear that full and accurate reporting will result in penalties: “Districts ‘hate’ this report because the media use it to make cross-district comparisons, the staffer said. He called the data ‘nuclear waste,’ saying that no one wants to touch it.”

Some staff members questioned whether they were expending effort in a useless enterprise, the report adds: “Many stated that there is little or no accountability for accuracy and that no records are kept for accuracy checks. Respondents in two states complained that schools have no incentives for reporting accurately or fully and no penalties for not doing so … Only one state reported having a financial penalty for sites where underreporting is documented, but it was little-used.”

The report recognizes that administrators face an uphill battle in accurately reporting the number of incidents in their schools; an administrator who streamlines record-keeping and encourages reporting by students and staff soon would face politically-charged questions about the sharp rise in incidents, it says.

“Collectively, school administrators face a kind of Prisoner’s Dilemma,” the report states. “The optimal outcome would be for all schools to enhance their reporting systems simultaneously, but the second-best, and most likely, outcome is that none of them will change their systems so that all of them can maintain the confidence of the communities they serve.”

To remedy the situation, the report suggests that schools should be permitted to submit incident data that have been stripped of school identifiers. “Such data could still be used for monitoring school violence incidents in aggregate units, such as states or even some counties that contain many schools,” the report says.

The Hamilton Fish Institute report “makes valid points about making sure a reporting process is in place, and it does a good job emphasizing the need for staff development,” McDaniel said. One of the lessons we’ve gained from Columbine, she added, is that “schools need to have a realistic view of what’s taking place.”

Links:

Hamilton Fish Institute, 2121 K Street NW, # 200, Washington, DC 20037-1830; phone (202) 496-2200, fax (202) 496-6244, web http://www.hamfish.org.