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It's open sesame on crime statistics;Hot data;Briefing;Document of the month

Mass shootings in schools are rare - even in the United States. The recent killings at Columbine high, near Denver, however, pose the question of whether violence against teachers and pupils is increasing.

Statistics about violent deaths and injuries at school in England are not easy to find, but an American survey shows that 76 young people were murdered or committed suicide at school in the USA in 1992-93 and 1993-94.

These figures, although horrifying, are tiny compared with the total number of Americans aged 5-19 who were murdered (7,357) or committed suicide (4,366) during the same period.

Teachers and pupils both here and in the USA, are much more likely to be a victim of what American statisticians call non-fatal violent crime.

Again, UKfigures are not easy to obtain, but in 1992-96 violent crimes against teachers in the US averaged four incidents per 1,000 teachers. Surprisingly, the overall rate was similar for both elementary and secondary teachers.

I suspect that, although rates in England are probably lower, the pattern of greater violence in urban schools is probably the same. In the mid-1990s, about 18,000 serious violent crimes per year were committed against US teachers.

Teachers in middle and junior high schools were most at risk. Male teachers were more likely to be victims of violent crime, although large number of women who teach in the 'relatively' safe elementary schools might have distorted this figure.

There is also the question of threatened violence which even when it does not materialise can make teaching stressful.

In 1993-94, 12 per cent of all US elementary and secondary teachers were apparently threatened by their own pupils. Others were threatened or attacked, either by parents or intruders on school premises.

For the past two years, councils in England have received grants to improve school security. It would now be helpful to know if crime is declining - particularly as the rising level of pupil exclusions leads one to fear otherwise.

Fortunately, tragic events like Denver and Dunblane are rare enough to make headlines around the world. Most classrooms are safe places in which to learn and work.

John Howson is a fellow of Oxford Brookes University and runs an educational research company. E-mail: The US National centre for education statistics: indicators of school crime and safety 1998 is on nces.govpubs98.safetyviolent.html

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