Federal funding for a program designed to help American schools pay for and implement strategies to prevent school violence has declined significantly over the past five years. President George W. Bush wants to eliminate the program altogether. According to his spokespeople, schools are basically safe.
But a research study published last year tells a different story: In 2002, the year the study was conducted, there were 17 murders and five suicides among school-age children at school.
In 2003, about 5 percent of students reported they skipped school because they were afraid. These numbers may not seem dramatic — not at first. But 22 children dying at school in one year is 22 children too many. And no child should have to choose between feeling safe and going to school. With crime going up around the country, it's safe to assume that some of that violent behavior will spill over onto school grounds. Without funding to run violence prevention programs, how can America keep its children safe?
In 2001, school violence prevention programs received more than $430 million; in 2007, the same program will receive much less; federal budget recommendations indicate only $310 million will be spent. Bush's people have often said the program was ineffective. It stands to reason that the lack of funds makes it difficult to develop effective programs and measure their impact.
Under the current funding system, more than half of the country's school districts receive $10,000 or less per year. That's much too little to make a difference. While school shootings are a rare occurrence, they do happen. Effective on-campus anger management and conflict resolution programs could reduce those numbers even more, saving precious young lives.
Hate crimes and gangs are a part of everyday life in many American schools. Close to 12 percent of students reported that someone used hate-related words against them at school and 21 percent of public and private students said street gangs had a presence at their schools. With proper prevention tactics and counseling programs, both perpetrators and victims will be able to move beyond these offenses and focus on their education.
Students aren't the only ones subject to violence on school grounds. Research shows that there are close to 65,000 violent offenses committed against teachers at school every year. Our nation's educators should be able to focus their energy on preparing our kids to succeed in a competitive society, not worrying about their personal safety.
According to the FBI, there were more than 1 million violent crimes reported in 2005, an increase from the previous year. America has the largest prison population in the industrialized world, so it makes sense this country would want to prevent crime among young people. Doing so would reduce the prison population, increase the college attendance rates and, ultimately, save the nation billions of dollars.
Instead, we continue to spend money on new prisons, and we continue to squander resources on a war that does not appear to have an end in sight. Congress has managed to keep the program going, despite the president's push to bury it. By maintaining the program and increasing funding, Congress can show the president that America's priorities should focus on in its future.
Judge Greg Mathis is a national board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.