Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor de Blasio with school safety agents in 2014.

“Whether it’s the student in Brooklyn who brought a gun to school on the first day of the new school year or today’s tragedy in the Bronx, one thing is perfectly clear; students are not safe in NYC Public Schools and anyone who says they are is simply delusional.”
Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, Republican nominee for mayor, September 27, 2017
Nicole Malliotakis was among the first to pivot from this week’s news of a tragedy in a Bronx classroom to a critique of Mayor de Blasio’s handling of school safety—but it was far from the first time, and she was in no way the first person, to raise questions about violence in schools under the progressive mayor.

As City Hall has touted record-low school crime, opponents (especially those in the charter-school movement) have accused the mayor of ignoring statistics that show an uptick. Malliotakis’ charge actually goes a step further. She doesn’t just say schools are seeing more crime or more violence but that they “not safe.”

Is it safe? Is it safe?

Obviously, the two incidents to which Malliotakis refers above do not on their own prove either that schools are getting more dangerous or that they can be deemed “not safe.” The public school system is huge and statements about the state of or trends in safety cannot be based on individual episodes.

The mayor bases his statements about school safety on statistics about school crimes that are reported to the police. Reports of the seven major felony crimes (murder, rape, assault, robbery, burglary, larceny and auto theft) in schools have dropped each of the past five years, from 699 in fiscal year 2013 (the last full year of the Bloomberg era) to 504 in fiscal 2017, which ended this past June.

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Data from the Mayor’s Management Report
Fiscal Year Seven major felony crimes in schools
FY09 902
FY10 839
FY11 801
FY12 812
FY13 699
FY14 654
FY15 614
FY16 532
FY17 504
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According to the Mayor’s Management Report, incidents under “other criminal categories” have also dropped over that period, from 2,626 to 2,007. Stuff listed as “other incidents” dipped and then increased ago to be about where they were in FY13.

The Bloomberg administration also relied on police reports for its proclamations about crime in schools.

Of course, some crimes aren’t reported to the police. De Blasio’s opponents say the city should instead use a state system called VADIR (Violent and Disruptive Incident Reporting) that takes reports directly from schools.

If you compare the overall number of incidents reported to VADIR in the 2012-2013 school year with what was reported in the 2015-2016 school year, the most recent for which numbers are available, there is an 11 percent decrease in reports.

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Data from VADIR
  2008-09 2009-10 2010-11 2011-12 2012-13 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16
Enrollment 997,518 991,312 1,034,559 1,039,737 1,041,715 1,051,966 1,063,853 1,069,842
Homicide 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0
Forcible sex acts 10 13 13 21 17 10 19 20
Other Sex Offenses 2,113 1,875 2,015 2,436 2,105 2,151 2,239 2,317
Robbery with a weapon 8 6 3 10 6 3 5 5
Robbery without a weapon 149 154 194 229 182 111 116 70
Assault With Serious Physical Injury, weapon 15 21 37 43 36 39 66 77
Assault With Serious Physical Injury, no weapon 237 316 491 471 352 345 504 631
Arson 266 270 233 312 320 214 238 208
Kidnapping 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
Assault With Physical Injury, weapon 393 309 491 488 560 660 875 954
Assault With Physical Injury, no weapon 3,643 2,849 3,785 4,434 3,946 4,021 5,696 6,687
Reckless Endangerment, weapon 289 329 152 166 138 124 247 98
Reckless Endangerment, no weapon 1,228 1,184 710 1,020 904 951 1,133 1,547
Minor Altercations, weapon 601 795 1,292 1,268 1,097 1,079 1,375 978
Minor Altercations, no weapon 21,648 21,158 22,052 21,443 18,497 20,087 17,031 15,642
Intimidation, Harassment, Menacing, or Bullying (weapon) 662 676 688 864 823 862 835 576
Intimidation, Harassment, Menacing, or Bullying (no weapon) 5,907 6,132 6,924 7,100 6,086 5,986 4,374 4,877
Burglary 2 1 6 4 7 6 2 2
Criminal Mischief with a weapon 57 62 23 45 38 36 56 24
Criminal Mischief without a weapon 1,889 1,609 1,628 1,557 1,249 1,227 1,178 463
Larceny 1,467 1,366 1,410 1,495 1,324 1,218 1,145 826
Bomb Threat 93 76 95 27 111 98 112 148
False Alarm 337 242 345 307 377 425 373 439
Riot 3 2 1 1 1 11 2 4
Weapon Possession 3,247 3,285 2,775 2,735 2,416 2,371 2,530 2,656
Drug possession 728 917 1,065 1,230 1,219 1,207 1,333 1,422
Alcohol possession 441 536 670 583 334 361 317 333
Other disuptive 18,962 17,380 21,215 21,743 13,194 17,101 15,647 8,184
Total incidents 64,395 61,563 68,313 70,032 55,339 60,705 57,448 49,189
* * * *
That overall total masks big changes in particular categories, however. The number of “other disruptive” incidents fell 38 percent over that time, but the number of assaults resulting in serious injury rose 80 percent. Sexual offenses jumped 10 percent while robberies plummeted by 60 percent. As the New York Times has noted, experts have long questioned the validity of VADIR data.

It’s worth noting that in some of the categories that showed significant changes over time, the number of incidents is relatively small. That means a few incidents here or there generate big percentage changes.

It also means that, thankfully, a very small number of students are victims in those categories. As horrible as it is that any student might suffer a “forcible sex act,” the fact that there were 20 reports of such acts in a system of more than a million students suggests the risks are relatively low.

Feelings matter

Whether it’s regarding schools or the city in general, talking about safety often means discussing perceptions of safety as much as the actual probability of coming to harm. Perceptions can be irrational and self-reinforcing, for sure, but they aren’t uniformly inaccurate, and on some level perceptions are always relevant because they can affect daily life.

The Department of Education surveys parents, students and teachers each year on a range of topics, including safety. Overall, in the 2017 survey done last spring, 91 percent of students said they felt safe in classrooms and 84 percent said they felt safe in hallways and other parts of school. Both measures were on par with what was reported the previous two years.

However, 5 percent of parent respondents did identify school safety as their top concern. That ranked eighth in terms of issues identified as parents, well behind the desires for more enrichment and smaller class size. But it indicates that while safety is not broadly a concern within the DOE community, it is for some families.

A look at survey results for individual schools suggests a similar story. Students were asked about safety across four areas of the school experience. An average of 80 percent or more of respondents said they agreed or strongly agreed that those areas were safe at 836 of the 1100 schools for which responses were reported. When it comes to teachers, 1153 of the 1876 schools listed had more than 80 percent of respondents agreeing that “discipline and order” are maintained at the school. Only at around 10 percent of school did fewer than half of teachers say that was the case.

Signs of trouble

Those same teacher-survey numbers do lead to some questions about the Bronx school, Urban Assembly for Wildlife Conservation, where this week’s tragedy occurred. Sixty-seven percent of teachers there strongly disagreed with the notion that order and discipline were maintained there. Only 19 percent agreed with the statement. Of the roughly 1900 schools surveyed, only three showed higher levels of teacher concern about discipline.

Asked about whether the DOE had seen those numbers and taken any action based on them before this week’s killing, the school department’s press office provided this statement from Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña: “I have instructed my team to conduct a thorough investigation on all issues, and this is underway. We have additional safety measures and grief counselors in place and will continue to support the school community.”

Taken together, the available evidence offers a mixed picture of whether violence is rising or falling in schools, although the most reliable figures indicate it is decreasing. It does not indicate that there is a system-wide problem of violence. It does suggest, however, that there safety is a worry at a minority of schools.

Beyond the facts is the question of policy response. Some commentators have called for metal detectors and tougher disciplinary policies in the wake of the stabbing, but last night one Bronx organization, the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, made a different call:

While many are calling for increased police presence and metal detectors in the school in response to this tragedy, the New Settlement Parent Action Committee maintains that these measures are merely temporary and superficial solutions to a deep and complex problem. … We must invest in social workers and counselors, not police and metal detectors. … Metal detectors will not prevent violent fights in our schools; we know that anything can be made into a weapon if a student is feeling trapped and desperate, but if our schools are safe, affirming, and supportive environments for young people, we can eliminate violence in our schools altogether.

While the use of suspensions has fallen during the de Blasio years, some of his critics contend more reform is needed because stark racial disparities persist.