MIAMI — Violent crime at the nation's schools is declining, and students and schools are reporting less bullying and gang activity.
But new government data reports an increase in cyber bullying and youth suicides.
"Cyber bullying issue has really moved to center stage and that's probably the next major challenge that school officials and others will have to address," said Ron Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
He said the higher number of suicides wasn't surprising.
"I think that's a number we'll see increasing based on what's happening with all the cyber bullying," Stephens said.
The number of violent deaths declined to 33 in the 2009-10 school year, the lowest number on record since the agencies began collecting data in 1992, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice on Wednesday. In the previous school year, there were 38 such deaths.
Thefts and nonfatal violent crimes declined from 1.2 million in 2008 to 828,000 in 2010.
"Students perceive schools as being safer than they were," said Tom Snyder, a project director of the National Center for Education Statistics
While the data show a consistent decline across several indicators, there were increases in a few areas, including cyber bullying and suicides among youth age 5 - 18 outside of school. Some school safety advocates question whether the numbers are accurate at all, noting the data is collected through surveys and not incident based reporting.
"The federal reports grossly underestimate the extent of school violence," said Ken Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm.
Veronica Joyner, president of Parents United for Better Schools in Philadelphia, said the numbers did not ring true to her.
"It's underreported," Joyner said. "Many of the administrators will not report serious incidents because it looks like they're not doing their job at the school and that is part of their evaluation."
Snyder said the report is based on seven surveys.
"We were showing fairly consistent patterns of decreases," he said.
Of the 33 violent deaths involving students, staff and others on school campuses, 25 were homicides, five were suicides and three involved a law enforcement officer. Among youth ages five to 18, there were 17 homicides and one suicide that occurred on school grounds.
The highest number of violent deaths at schools occurred in the 2006-07 school year, when there were 63.
"These tragic incidents are fortunately relatively rare, but it's hard to interpret a change from one year to another," Snyder said. "The numbers are lower but you don't know if it's part of a national pattern or just reflecting random occurrences in those years."
The annual report comes after a number of high profile incidents, including the 2010 suicide of Phoebe Prince, who hung herself after repeated bullying at a high school in South Hadley, Mass. Five students later accepted plea deals in criminal cases. Prince's death was among several that led to new laws cracking down on bullying in schools.
The total number of homicides, including those not committed on school grounds, declined from 1,701 to 1,579 among youth ages five to 18 in the 2008-09 school year. The number of suicides, however, saw an increase, from 1,231 to 1,344 in the 2008 calendar year.
And while the proportion of students ages 12 to 18 who reported being bullied at school has declined from 32 to 28 percent, more say they are being cyber bullied, an increase from 4 to 6 percent.
Trump said he was skeptical of the numbers showing an overall decrease in crime. He said that in traveling across the country and conducting school safety presentations with administrators, he asks whether they've experienced the crime decline the federal government reports.
"I have yet to have one person raise their hand," Trump said.
Joyner said her advocacy organization has noticed an increase in violent attacks on children. The Philadelphia School District recently decided to eliminate 91 school police jobs.
"You always need supervision, particularly in high schools," Joyner said. "My concern is the impact of what's going on in our schools is going to get worse."