A leading criminologist cautioned that the survey may be lumping serious and minor incidents together.
More than 60 percent of children surveyed were exposed to violence within the past year, either directly or indirectly, according to data compiled by the department. The survey's authors defined exposure to violence as being a victim, or having witnessed violence, or learning about violence against a relative, friend, or hearing about a threat to their school or home.
That approach raised questions for some.
"What concerns me when you hear numbers like this is that in their attempt to be inclusive, which is commendable, the definition of violence becomes so broad that the results lack real meaning," said James Alan Fox, criminal justice professor at Northeastern University. "If you broaden the definition of violence so much, then most people will be included."
Nearly half of all children surveyed were assaulted at least once in the past year, and about 6 percent were victimized sexually, the survey found.
"Those numbers are astonishing, and they are unacceptable," Holder said in Chicago, where he was meeting with local officials to discuss the disturbing beating death of a high school student by other teens.
"We simply cannot stand for an epidemic of violence that robs our youth of their childhood and perpetuates a cycle in which today's victims become tomorrow's criminals," Holder said.
For example, the survey's definition of sexual victimization includes rape, attempted rape, sexual harrassment, or flashing.
Among the survey's other findings:
- Nearly one in ten children said they saw one family member assault another in the past year.
- More than one-half of the children, about 57 percent, reported having been assaulted at some point in their life.
- Thirteen percent reported having been physically bullied in the last year.
The results were based on telephone interviews of 4,549 kids and adolescents aged 17 and younger between January and May of 2008. The National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence was sponsored by the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, with help from the Centers for Disease Control.
The attorney general and Education Secretary Arne Duncan were in Chicago Wednesday to meet with local officials, parents, and students to discuss the vicious beating of a 16-year-old high school student whose killing last month was captured on a cell phone video.
Derrion Albert, an honor roll student at Christian Fenger Academy High School, was attacked when he got caught up in a mob of teens about six blocks from school. Video shows him curled up on the sidewalk as fellow teens kick him and hit him with splintered railroad ties. So far, four teens have been charged in his death.