The number of criminal offenses reported in South Dakota's schools has increased across the board in recent years, and the number of assaults in particular has continued to climb.
Statistics from a report released by the South Dakota Attorney General's Office last week indicated more simple assaults occurred in the state's schools last year than in bars, nightclubs, hotels and a number of other locations.
According to the Crime in South Dakota 2018 report, 359 instances of simple assault were reported in elementary and secondary schools last year. There were 130 more simple assaults in schools in 2018 than there were in 2017, which is an increase of more than 56 percent.
Steve Pluta, the director of the South Dakota Office of Homeland Security, which is part of the state's Department of Public Safety and does physical security assessments of schools, said there's likely no single factor to which an increase in crime in schools can be attributed and that without looking at each school's security systems, it's hard to know just how safe South Dakota's schools are.
"There is a myriad of factors that influence each of the situations. It is difficult to point to one or two specific reasons without knowing the facts of each case," Pluta wrote in an email to The Daily Republic on Tuesday afternoon.
The crime report included tallies of other offenses which occurred in those schools throughout the course of the year, including 345 drug-related offenses; 149 thefts; 147 weapons law violations; 12 aggravated assaults; seven burglaries; six rapes; two instances each of kidnapping, sodomy and assisting or promoting prostitution; and one arson.
Pat Oleson, the resource officer for the Mitchell School District, said he hasn't seen a particularly high number of simple assaults in Mitchell schools, and that patterns of crime in schools tend to result from trends. For example, he said the increasing popularity of vaping has made that a more prevalent issue on school campuses than traditional forms of tobacco use.
Oleson said student offenders could face repercussions from the school, law enforcement or both, and that the district does well with handling offenses. He said that if students are combative, they could be charged with simple assault, and determining how an incident will be handled depends on its severity.
In 2013, the number of simple assault offenses in schools made up 0.5 percent of the total simple assaults recorded in all locations across the state. That proportion rose to 1.9 percent the next year, and has increased each year since and was more than five percent in 2018.
Prior to 2013, the annual crime reports did not include a separate category specifying how many offenses were committed on elementary and secondary school properties; they only included a category listed as "school or college." That category is also included on the 2018 report and lists 21 additional simple assaults, but the attorney general's office was unable to be reached for comment on the criteria involved in categorizing offenses.
The numbers in the report indicate that three other location categories saw more simple assault offenses in 2018 than did elementary and secondary schools. Those categories were residences (which included well over half the total offenses), areas such as roads and sidewalks and jails, prisons and correctional facilities. In the latter category, 13 more simple assaults occurred in 2018 than were reported in schools.
Representatives from the South Dakota Department of Education and the South Dakota Department of Public Safety did not respond to questions concerning school safety and crime rates in 2018.