THURSDAY, Aug. 9, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Student killings, though rare in this country, are more likely to occur right after a school semester starts, says a new study by government researchers.
The study also found that student suicides seem to follow a seasonal pattern, with a spike between December and January that stays high before tailing off in May.
But, the researchers add, America's schools aren't dangerous, despite a recent string of high-profile student shootings, including Colorado's Columbine High School massacre in April 1999 in which 15 people, including the two young killers, died.
"These events were very rare, and schools are very safe places to go," says Dr. Mark Anderson, a medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a co-author of the study. "But I think parents should be aware that [the return to school] is a time of stress and change for students and help them adjust to the changes that they're experiencing."
Anderson and his colleagues looked at media reports of 209 murders and suicides between 1992 and 1999 involving middle, junior high and high school students who died at school, on their way to school, at academic events, or on their way to the events.
Murders were much more common than suicides, occurring at a rate of one every seven school days, the researchers found. The killing rate started off higher than average in September, fell through the term to a low in December but bounced steeply back up in January before dropping again after February.
One explanation for the trend, Anderson says, is that the start of a new term follows stretches of relatively unsupervised vacation time, time in which children may pick fights and start feuds that get settled on the return to school grounds.
"It could represent a carryover of community violence. Or it could be that the start of a new semester is a time of change or stress for students," he says. The trend is less obvious for children in middle schools, which don't have such clearly defined term systems, Anderson adds.
The study also showed that suicides occurred every 31 school days during the seven-year period, but students were more likely to take their own life in the winter and spring months.
The findings point out that teachers and school administrators should pay special attention to students during the high-risk periods, and should time their anti-violence and suicide prevention programs to have the most impact at the beginning and end of a semester, Anderson says.
Counseling, classes and some other interventions do reduce student aggression, Anderson says, although no one knows if they also cut down on fatal and non-fatal injuries. The Surgeon General recommends that schools train teachers to recognize warning signs in students at risk of suicide, and refer them to mental health workers for counseling.
Dan Flannery, a Kent State University psychologist familiar with the latest study, agrees that the results have important implications for education policy.
"The beginning of a school year's a tough time, especially for kids with mental health issues, behavior issues or academic issues. But the school staff don't know the children that well; there are startup kinds of things going on, and most schools have a sense of disorganization" early on in the year.
Of course, by the end of the first term, September's confusion should have melted. So why the uptick in violence come January?
Flannery, who runs the Institute for the Study and Prevention of Violence at Kent State -- where in 1970 National Guardsmen shot and killed four students at an anti-war protest -- says several factors may explain the rise.
New students often transfer between terms, offering fresh sources of turf battles; simmering conflicts on hold from the end of the semester erupt; and the stress of the holidays spills onto campus, he says.
The study appears in the latest issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
What To Do
For more information on violence prevention, try the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.