Poll: Students on School Violence

A third of high school students can think of a classmate who may be troubled enough to stage a violent attack in their school — yet fewer than half have ever had a special class or discussion group that told them how to report a threat of school violence

More than a third also say they've heard a classmate threaten to kill someone — but most of them didn't take it seriously or report it to an adult, according to a new ABCNEWS/Good Morning America poll.

One in eight say they personally know a student who's brought a gun to school, and one in 10 say they've heard of a plan by one or more students at their school to shoot or kill classmates.

At the same time, just a little more than half, 54 percent, say they've had a class, special program or group discussion on the subject of school violence. And just 46 percent have been taught in such a class what to do if they hear a threat or think another student is armed.

On the positive side, the poll found that most students feel safe, and that their concerns are no worse — and in some cases better — than they were after the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. At that time, for instance, 40 percent saw some likelihood of a violent attack at their own school; now it's 29 percent.

The Bullying Factor

Charles Andrew Williams, who is accused of killing two students and wounding 13 last week in Santee, Calif., reportedly had been a target of bullying at his school. And this poll finds that when students think of a potentially violent classmate, it's generally a boy who comes to mind, and one who's been bullied by others, rather than a bully himself.

Thirty-three percent say they can think of a fellow student "who may be troubled enough to try something like this." That's down a bit from 40 percent in 1999.

Seven in 10 say the potential attacker they can think of is a boy, and 29 percent think of both boys and girls; just 2 percent have only a girl in mind. Three-quarters say it's more likely to be a person who gets picked on than one who picks on others.

Relatively few students, 13 percent, say they personally are picked on at school.

Safety Concerns

Despite the Santee shooting and another two days later in Williamsport, Pa., students are taking the issue in stride. Now as in 1999, nine in 10 say they feel personally safe at their school, and more than three-quarters say violence is not a serious problem there.

There's evidence, moreover, of fewer guns in school, and less access to guns. While 13 percent of students personally know a student who's brought a gun to school, it was 20 percent two years ago. And while 44 percent say it would be easy for them personally to get a gun, that's down from 54 percent in 1999.

Risk, of course, never reaches zero. Among the vast majority of students who haven't seen a gun in school, nine in 10 say they'd report it if it happened. But a few — 7 percent —say they would not report it.

Similarly, just 5 percent call violence a "very serious" problem at their school (another 16 percent call it "somewhat serious") and just 7 percent feel personally unsafe at school. But while small percentages, these represent hundreds of thousands of students.

Most students say there are security measures in place at their schools, and nearly two-thirds think their schools are doing enough to try to prevent violence there. On one hand, that's up from 57 percent in 1999; on the other, it leaves a third of high schoolers who think their schools still aren't doing enough to protect them.

Counseling for troubled students is said to be the most prevalent line of deterrence; 87 percent say their school offers it. Sixty-seven percent say there are police officers or armed security guards at their school, and 63 percent say the school tries to identify troubled students who may be prone to violence. About half report random searches of lockers; four in 10, security cameras in the hallways; three in 10, random searches of students. Seven percent report metal detectors at school entrances.

Students at Smaller Schools Feel Safer

Two factors seem to influence students' perceptions of threat at their schools: The size of the school, and the age of the student. Older students, and those in smaller schools, are less apt to feel threatened.

Fifty-eight percent of teenagers attending small high schools feel "very safe" from violence, compared to 46 percent of those attending large schools. Similarly, in small schools just 12 percent call violence a serious problem; in larger schools it's 23 percent.

Interestingly, while students in larger schools are less apt to feel safe, these are the same schools that are more likely to have police or armed security guards on patrol. Among students in larger schools, 84 percent say they have guards; in small schools it's just 43 percent. Larger schools — and the presence of guards — are more prevalent in the West.

In rural schools, which tend to be smaller, 54 percent of students feel very safe, compared to 49 percent in suburban schools and 41 percent in city schools. While rural schools are less likely to have guards, they're more likely to conduct random searches of student lockers. Sixty-one percent in rural schools say this happens, compared to fewer than half in city or suburban schools.

Girls are more likely than boys to think their schools should be doing more to deter violence; 41 percent of girls think so, compared to 28 percent of boys. But in other gauges, including personal feelings of safety, there's no real difference between the sexes.

This ABCNEWS poll was conducted by telephone March 8-11 among a random national sample of 500 high school students. The results have a 4.5-point error margin. Field work was done by ICR- International Communications Research of Media, Pa.

Previous ABCNEWS polls can be found in our Poll Vault.