Experts once defined school violence conventionally as a serious crime (i.e., murder, rape, assault, robbery, and theft) that occurred on school grounds. However, as social and political awareness focused more rigorously on investigating the phenomenon of school violence, the definition of school violence expanded. The broadened definition rested on research indicating that the threshold for injury for children is much lower than for adults. Compared to adults, children have less emotional maturity and physical ability to defend themselves, making them more vulnerable to emotional, mental, and physical injury. Therefore, even minimal exposure to violence in a school setting may have lasting detrimental effects on a child’s development. Traditionally, peer harassment (physical and verbal), sexual harassment, bullying, and fear were accepted as school cultural norms. However, such behaviors are becoming less accepted as a normal part of the “school experience.”
Detrimental developmental and educational outcomes occur for students who endure school violence. Exposure to school violence correlates with diminished educational attainment, mental health, general adolescent development, school attachment, and a negative impact on the overall educational process as well as the student’s life course. Dropping out, suicide, drug use, and future involvement with delinquency and adult criminal behavior each correlate with school violence. Because school violence may severely impair a student’s educational and life outcomes, an understanding of the individual and school environmental factors that make students more or less vulnerable to school violence is important.
School Violence Data and Trends
The best sources of data about violence in school come from government agencies. Notably, the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, publishes the School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey, one of the most comprehensive sources of data available about victimization.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics in cooperation with the National Center for Education Statistics also publishes an annual report on crime occurring in and on the way to and from school called “Indicators of School Crime and Safety.”
Contrary to popular perception, most varieties of school violence declined in the past decade. Although multiple homicides in schools appeared in news media headlines, school-related homicides actually declined drastically. In fact, schools are among the safest places for children. Students ages 12 to 18 are more likely to be victimized outside of school than in school. In the past decade, the percentage of students carrying weapons to school and engaging in physical fighting also declined.
Despite popular conceptions of schools as violent places, the majority of crimes that occur on school grounds are property crimes such as theft. Like violent offenses, most varieties of property offenses have also declined. These declines in violent and property offense in schools were consistent across gender, grade, and race/ethnicity, although younger, male, and African American or Hispanic students continue to engage in a higher rate of delinquency than their older, female, and white or Asian American counterparts.
Stratification of School Violence
Evidence suggests that school and student characteristics structure a hierarchy of vulnerability to school violence. At the school level, findings illustrate that students attending larger, urban, relatively poorer schools, with predominantly a racial and/or ethnic minority student body, are more likely to be victimized. At the student level, grade, gender, and sexual orientation are individual factors associated with exposure to school violence.
Racial/ethnic and economic segregation remains a prevalent dilemma in the United States. Research shows that segregated communities have higher rates of crime, violence, and victimization. In turn, schools serving minority students report relatively higher incidences of violence, fear, and victimization. In addition, younger students are more exposed to school violence than older students, even within the same school. For instance, freshmen students in high school and incoming students in middle school report the highest rates of bullying.
Gender also plays an important role in determining risk of school violence, as male students are found to be more frequent victims and victimizers. However, research suggests that each gender is exposed to different forms of school violence. For example, male students are more likely to be exposed to physical violence, while female students are more likely to experience verbal harassment. Further, sexuality plays an important factor, as studies indicate a correlation between student sexual orientation and school violence. Regardless of gender or race/ethnicity, students who report being homosexual or perceived as gay by other students are more likely to experience both verbal and physical violence while on campus.
The Role of the School
Schools are a mirror of their communities because they reflect many of the social mechanisms, cultural values, and behavioral patterns occurring in the world at large. Faculty, students, staff, and administrators share common activities and routines, influence one another, and are ideally connected by the “ethos of caring.” The collective relationships create a sense of trust and belonging to a larger community, and this in turn influences the school’s overall effectiveness, efficiency, safety, and climate. Although schools are increasingly studied as community-like, the larger community served by the school also influences what goes on there. Research provides evidence that schools are influenced by a community’s social stratification such as the nature and extent of crime, local economy, local culture, community organization, discrimination, unemployment rate, racial and ethnic composition and segregation, and poverty, all of which correlate with school violence.
Media and School Violence
In the past decade, the news media periodically focused on high-profile mass murders occurring in schools, such as the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre and the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Colorado. School shootings are among the most salient of news events, and although they occur infrequently, they capture the public attention. The Columbine shooters erroneously personify the current generation of violent youth and serve as a starting point for public discourse about school violence and larger social problems such as delinquency and youth disaffection. The irony is that, while concrete evidence from the past decade indicates consistently declining rates of school violence and the relative safety of schools, the popular perception is that schools are increasingly violent places.
While mainstream America may suffer from the mistaken fear that the turn of the millennium has spawned a new breed of youth superpredators who now stalk our schools, another irony is that youth themselves do not report increased fear of victimization in school. In fact, even immediately following the Columbine shootings, researchers did not find an increased fear of victimization among youth ages 12 to 18. The popular press has suggested the existence of the “Columbine Effect,” or increased fear of violence in schools, but this increased fear does not seem to have touched the students as much as adults.
School Violence Policies
There have been varying policy responses implemented to reduce school violence. Perhaps the most punitive approach has been the institution of zero-tolerance policies, such as suspension or expulsion following the first violence offense. Increasingly evaluated, these policies often are determined to be inflexible and ineffective. Another popular policy is placing in schools police school resource officers who work with students to prevent and deter violence. In addition, schools may rely on electronic means to control violence, such as installation of metal detectors and surveillance cameras. Besides punitive measures, many schools instituted other measures to combat the problem. Notably, school uniform programs have been effective, although they often raise legal issues related to students’ right to free expression. Finally, many schools also institute educational programs, such as conflict resolution education and hiring additional counselors.
- Addington, Lynn A., Sally A. Ruddy, Amanda K. Miller, Jill F. DeVoe, and Kathryn A. Chandler. 2002. “Are America’s Schools Safe? Students Speak Out: 1999 School Crime Supplement.” NCES 2002-331. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED472826).
- Bonilla, Denise M., ed. 2000. School Violence. New York: H. W. Wilson.
- DeVoe, Jill F., Katharin Peter, Margaret Noonan, Thomas D. Snyder, and Katrina Baum. 2005. “Indicators of School Crime and Safety. ” NCES 2006-001. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2006/2006001.pdf).
- Elliott, Delbert S., Beatrix A. Hamburg, and Kirk R. Williams, eds. 1998. Violence in American Schools: A New Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Glassner, Barry. 2000. The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. New York: Basic Books.
- Newman, Katherine. 2004. Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. New York: Basic Books.
- Shafii, Mohammad and Sharon Lee Shafii, eds. 2001. School Violence: Assessment, Management, Prevention. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.
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