There were about 28 crimes of rape, sexual assault, robbery and physical assault for every 1,000 students in 2003, compared with 59 per 1,000 a decade earlier. The study looked at crimes against the 26.4 million students who were 12 years old to 18 years old in 2003.
In 2002, the violent crime rate per 1,000 students was 24, but government researchers said there was no statistically significant change between 2002 and 2003 because the numbers are estimates from relatively small surveys.
"The level of precision isn't good enough to say whether there has been a change," said Thomas Snyder, a report author at the Education Department.
Snyder said, however, there has been no change in the crime rate in several years. The report does not attempt to explain rises and falls.
The drop from the early 1990s is long-standing and large enough to overcome any doubts about comparing one year to the next, according to the report. Indeed, it mirrors the general trend in the United States, in which crime is at a 30-year low.
In 2003, there were about 738,700 violent crimes involving students at school and about 846,400 away from school property. For the most serious nonfatal violent crimes, rape, assault and robbery, the crime rates were at least 50 percent lower in school than away from school every year from 1992 to 2003.
Students were twice as likely to be victims of serious violent crimes away from school than at school, but more likely to have things stolen from them at school than elsewhere.
Pupils from poorer families were more likely to be victims of a violent crime at school than were wealthier students, while the opposite was true for theft, with richer students more likely to be victims.
Some school safety experts have attributed the fall in the crime rate in the last decade to installing metal detectors, hiring more security personnel and implementing programs aimed at curbing bullying, which can lead to more serious crimes.
A separate measure showed 17 homicides and five suicides in the 2001-02 school year, compared to 12 and five, respectively, a year earlier. By contrast, in the late 1990s there were two to three dozen killings year, the result of a string of fatal shootings. The most notable was the killings of 13 people at Columbine High School in Colorado by two heavily armed students in 1999.
Teachers are also targets of school crime. The report found that from 1999 through 2003 teachers were victims of an annual average of 183,000 crimes at school, 65,000 of them violent. That translates to an annual rate of 39 crimes per 1,000 teachers.
High school teachers were more than twice as likely as elementary school teachers to be violent crime victims. This month, an assistant principal at a high school in Jacksboro, Tenn., was shot to death by a student and two other administrators were wounded.
Yet some school violence experts said the annual report routinely understates crime in schools because it is based on limited surveys and self-reporting. The data also already is outdated, said
Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm in Cleveland, Ohio.
"Even if the government had actual real-time data, it's two to three years old," Trump said. "School administrators need to know what is happening today and what to anticipate tomorrow, not outdated numbers from yesteryear."