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By the Numbers: Lynn Addington on Crime, Schools, and Stats

Beyond the issue of whodunit are a number of other questions about crime, the answers to which can often be found in numbers. Just ask Lynn Addington, one of the nation’s foremost experts in crime measurement. Her expertise applies to the nature of violent crime, its impact on victims, the fear of victimization, and the timely topic of school violence. She is the coeditor of a volume of original research, Understanding Crime Statistics:  Revisiting the Divergence of the NCVS and UCR (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and a recipient of numerous grants. Her research has also been funded by Susan Spagna SPA Faculty Research Award and other AU awards. Before her life of scholarship, Lynn Addington practiced law both as a clerk for a federal district court judge and as a civil litigator. Finally, the veteran of many marathons embraced her true calling by focusing on what crimes—as numbers—mean and how they affect policy and ultimately people.

 

Q It seems that violence in schools and on campuses is suddenly a part of our lives. Why in recent years are schools and campuses so charged?

 

Actually school crime and violence are not recent trends. Similar concerns about an “epidemic” of school violence and juvenile delinquency in the 1970s prompted the first comprehensive national study of school violence in the United States. Our current perceptions of school violence are strongly influenced by media coverage of isolated incidents of extreme school violence such as occurred at Columbine High School in 1999 or Virginia Tech in 2007. Access to round-the-clock news through cable television and the Internet exacerbates this distortion of the situation. If anything, studies show that school crime in general (both violent and property crime) has been decreasing since the early 1990s. Moreover, while violence against children is rare overall, children are at greater danger for violence, especially lethal violence, away from school than at school.

Q What lessons can individuals, especially parents, glean from your work?

Parents should understand what is going on at their schools and with their children and not be swayed by media generalizations. Because of this misconception that school violence is on the rise, one response has been to demand greater security at school. Some schools might warrant such a response, but most do not. Increased security comes with some costs, and these costs should be weighed in making decisions about school security. One cost is financial to pay for personnel (such as security guards) and technology (such as security cameras and metal detectors). Adding security means removing something else or increasing the budget. A second cost comes to students in a loss of their civil liberties and privacy for policies such as removal of backpacks and lockers or requiring clear bookbags. Such policies teach students that their civil liberties can be readily traded for perceived security, and I would argue that is not a lesson we want to teach the future leaders of our country. A final cost is increased fear among students. Students are pretty good judges of the security and safety at their schools. In my study of students’ reactions to Columbine, I found that very few students were more fearful at school after the incident as compared to before the shootings occurred. That being said, overzealous use of security does lead students to be more fearful. They view increased security as an indicator that their school is not safe and that they should be concerned.

 

If parents are focused on what is occurring at their local schools, they also will be able to advocate for targeting resources at the problems at issue there. Problems that are more common than school violence are property crimes (like thefts) and bullying or peer harassment. These problems cannot be addressed by merely increasing security measures.

 

 Q What direction is your research on school violence going now?

 Currently I’m expanding my work to examine school violence and issues of school security in a comparative context. I’m working with colleagues in Israel to compare the experiences of  U.S. students with students who attend Israeli-Jewish and Israeli-Arab schools. Israel runs separate school systems for its Jewish and Arab citizens. Both Israel and the United States have compulsory education for children, and both countries have had to deal with concerns about school security, both externally and internally.

 

Q Your other area of expertise is crime data. Statistics can help answer really critical questions and shape policy. What should the lay person be wary of in the crime statistics that make headlines?

 

I don’t think people should be wary, but they should know the sources of the data being reported and appreciate the limits of those data. For example, the two main sources of crime data for the United States are the Uniform Crime Reports (or UCR), which come from the police, and the National Crime Victimization Survey (or NCVS), which comes from interviews of victims and non-victims of crime. If victims are reluctant to report date rape, for example, the UCR might undercount this crime because it only includes those crimes reported to the police.

 

People should also be critical consumers of the news. The crime stories reported typically concern “rare” crimes. Because they are unusual, they are newsworthy. Unfortunately, this coverage creates a distorted perception of the amount of crime that is occurring. Studies find that adults in the United States frequently overestimate the number of murders that occur because these crimes get reported the most often (as well as being overrepresented by the entertainment media). For example in 2006, about 17,000 murders occurred as compared to 860,000 aggravated assaults and more than 6 million thefts.

 

People tend to focus more on fairly rare crimes such as murder or stranger rape and less on the crimes for which they are at comparatively higher risk (but still a low risk overall), such as property offenses or crimes committed by someone they know.

 

 

Q Your work is a diversion from the earlier part of your career as a litigator. What drew you and keeps you in this area?

 

I loved law school and studying the law, but I found the practice of law to be rather dull and tedious. A former colleague of mine left the law to study criminal justice, and one day over lunch we spoke about the classes he was taking and the research he was conducting. These criminal law and criminal justice issues were the ones that I enjoyed studying as a law student and judicial law clerk. Soon after that conversation, I left my law practice and started graduate school. Studying criminal justice is very exciting because it is a relatively new academic field; there are so many unanswered questions, and the answers to these questions have practical and policy implications. I find it rewarding to work with colleagues in the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice and to know that my work will help further our understanding of school violence or obtain more accurate measures of crime.

 

I also enjoy working at AU where I am able to continue to utilize my training as a lawyer. My favorite class to teach is Justice, Law, and the Constitution where students read Supreme Court cases to gain an understanding about issues pertaining to civil liberties and civil rights. I feel that I still engage those topics that initially drew me to the law. It’s the best of both worlds – law and social science research.