Newletter Masthead
January 2000 · Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 18-19

School violence:

Quo vadis?

Elin B. Berg MD PhD

Research Committee

The research committee is preparing a presentation for the year 2000 Vancouver meeting regarding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in children and adolescents. As part of that preparation, the committee is undertaking a review of the current knowledge and research aspects of school violence, comprising the years 1994 –1999.

In the literature review, violence refers to the use or threat of physical force with the intent of causing physical injury, damage or intimidation of another person. Verbal and psychological abuse, which is an even larger problem but that has received much less attention, is not included in the definition of violence here. Several articles point to three prominent features of violence among high school seniors in the 1990’s. These include increased lethality due to an increase in handgun homicides, more random violence and fewer safe places both at school and in the community.

It has been shown that youth are three times more likely to encounter weapon related crime in their neighborhoods than at school. Still children in various surveys tend to report that they feel safer at home and in the community than at school. The two questions repeatedly asked in various articles include why the level of youth violence has escalated so steeply over the past decade and what are the impacts of this change on the priorities and functioning of the school on teaching, learning and developmental outcomes for our children.

Authors address an emerging concern that the epidemic of youth violence is a signal of serious erosion of the under-pinning of healthy growth and development in youth. Between a quarter and one third of American children and adolescents lack a safe haven for after school activities, and dependable adult support or guidance is lacking according to various surveys. Youth employment is high for legal jobs but there is an enticing inducement for participation in the illegal economy (drug running, prostitution and theft). Youth often express deep pessimism about future life chances or at times doubt that they will survive the violence to become adults.

The "Monitoring The Future" study involving a national sample of high school seniors describes the epidemiology of escalating school violence but does not address the causes of school violence in the 1990’s. Hanke (1993) found that only about 7 percent of serious assaults and 4% of robberies occur in the school setting. It appears that the occurrence of violent crime involving juveniles peaks between 3 pm and 11 pm. A survey among teachers reflected that the teachers’ feeling of safety correlates with their perceived quality of the school’s education.

Prevention and control policies

The literature describes measures that have been taken to deal with the problem of increasing school violence. Governmental policies at all levels primarily reflect a punitive legalistic approach to violence prevention and control. These measures include judicial waivers of juveniles, gun control policy, "boot camps" and "community policing." The research evidence on the effectiveness of community policing and gun control is very limited and the few studies that have been done are inconclusive.

There are also some genuine prevention efforts sponsored by both federal and state government, by private foundations and businesses. On the federal level, the major initiative involves the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities Act of 1994. State departments of education and local school districts are currently developing guidelines and searching for violence prevention programs that are effective. Most of the violence prevention programs currently being employed in the schools, e.g., conflict resolution curricula, peer mediation, individual counseling, metal detectors and locker searches and sweeps have either not been thoroughly evaluated or found ineffective.

In the American Teacher Survey (Harris et al, 1993) one third of teachers reported that, because of the threat of violence, both teachers and students in their school were less eager to go to school. One in four students believed that violence has lessened the quality of their education. The effects of violence appear to be even greater for students who are struggling academically.

Current research approaches

The phenomenon of school violence is currently being studied from several different perspectives, including the social/ecological perspective, which shows that social contacts play an important role in generating and shaping attitudes, beliefs and behavior. From a social/ecological perspective, violent behavior is an adaptive response youths make to a particular social context.

In research from the life course perspective, individuals are followed from early childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. These studies have shown that there are multiple causal taps into violent offending and that violence is often intermittent and of short duration.

The developmental perspective addresses the effects of personal violent encounters and/or exposure to high levels of violence on developmental processes. This approach also addresses factors of resilience pointing out that successful mastery of the developmental tasks of youth can act as a protective factor to prevent violence and promote healthy adaptation to life across many social settings.

Finally, there is the public health model, which is an operational framework characterized by prevention of violence and the view that youth violence is a serious public health issue. The public health approach brings a proven set of concepts, tools and measures to the prevention and reduction of youth violence.

Integration of the theoretical models, methods and data from these various fields can advance our understanding of youth violence. Such advances would increase the spectrum of options available for designing new soundly based programs and policies - bearing in mind that unless children feel safe in school, they will not be able to learn.

Selected References

Bronsendrenner U (1989): Ecological Systems Theory, in R. Vasta, Ed.: Annals of Child Development-Six Theories for Child Development: Revised Formulations and Content Issues (pp. 1-103). Greenwich, CT; JAI Press.

Hanke PJ (1996): A Profile of Rural Texas Youth Who Carry Handguns to School. General Criminal Justice, 24: 207-226.

MacKenzie DL, Brame R (1995): Shock Incarceration and Positive Adjustment During Community Supervision. General or Quantitative Criminology, 11: 11-142.

Moffit T (1993): Adolescent Limited and Life Course Persistent Antisocial Behavior: The Developmental Typology. Psychological Review, 100: 674-701.

Walker HM, Warner GS, Bullis M, Spraque JR, Spraque DB, and Kaufman MJ (1996): Integrated Approaches to Preventing Antisocial Behavior Patterns among School Age Children and Youth. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 4: 194-209.