Gender And School Violence Essay

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Although school violence may refer to any form of violence within schools, including a broad range of bullying, fights, and even murder, more recently, the notion of school violence has become increasingly associated with school shootings. Male gender has been a common factor in the most lethal forms of school violence; thus, scholars and researchers interested in understanding and preventing violence in schools have begun to consider the link between masculinity and violence. Researchers have also noted and searched for answers to account for the seeming increase of girls’ violence in the 1990s and early twentieth century. This entry looks at school violence and its relationship to gender.

Increasing Violence

During the midto late 1990s, a series of highly publicized school shootings by young suburban White males brought school violence into the national spotlight. The 1997 Heath High School shooting in Paducah, Kentucky, and the 1998 shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas, both were featured heavily in national news. The shootings were notable particularly because of the young ages of the shooters—fourteen years old in Paducah, and thirteen and fourteen years old in Jonesboro.

The notorious shooting of the late 1990s was the 1999 killing of twelve students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The murders became the most deadly high school shooting in the history of the United States, thereafter serving as an inevitable reference point for any subsequent discussion of school violence. The Columbine shooting has also served as a reference point for young men fascinated with school violence, including those interested in perpetuating similar crimes. In 2006 alone, at least three different incidents of teenagers specifically mimicking Columbine were reported in North America, including the shooting of more than twenty people at Dawson College in Montreal. In April 2007, the deadliest school shooting in the United States occurred when one gunman killed thirty-two people and wounded twenty-five with two semi-automatic handguns at Virginia Tech University.

In the wake of Columbine, schools enacted stricter policies for violence prevention, including zero-tolerance policies requiring expulsion for any act or threat of violence. Metal detectors and video cameras also became more frequent within schools. While schools attempted to push for student safety, scholars and journalists searched for both causes of and solutions to the violence. In the national media, family problems, lax discipline, video games, violent films and music, access to guns, and bullying have been prominent factors discussed and debated as possible contributing factors to the crimes.

Boys Who Bully

One factor that was common to the shootings, but rarely discussed initially, was the gender of the perpetrators. In almost all of the school shootings of the late 1990s, the shooters were boys. In addition, all of the murder victims were girls in both the Paducah and Jonesboro school shootings. Despite the common factor of male gender among perpetrators, masculinity was not a prominent consideration in the popular media. Some scholars have pointed to a similar trend in studies of bullying, wherein masculinity often has been ignored as a factor in school violence despite the fact that boys are perpetrators in most cases of school bullying. Many school shootings have been related to a perceived failure at masculinity and the desire to establish masculinity through dominance and violence. Bullying is a common factor in boys’ concerns at failed manliness, and bullying often has a distinctly homophobic aspect.

Particularly in instances of bullying, boys have seen retaliatory violence as the most effective way to confirm their masculinity. Studies indicate that many violent boys are depressed, yet they often shut themselves off from their feelings, repressing their sadness and turning it outward into rage and aggression. If boys have low self-esteem and buy into traditional notions of masculinity, they may be more at risk. Research shows that boys who adhere to traditional masculinity are more likely to get in trouble at school and become involved in illegal activities. This may be because within the limits of traditional masculinity, fighting back can seem like the only viable choice to a boy.

Hegemonic masculinity celebrates toughness and the capacity for violence more than the ability to express emotions effectively; thus, boys may view aggressive emotions and actions as their only possible outlet for expression. Media images of emotionally expressive and nonviolent men are limited, and instances of male violence are often normalized in media representations of men and in the sports culture that exists nationally and locally. In public schools, an example of this normalization of aggression may be seen in the popularity of high school football.

Aggressive Girls

Although the effects of hegemonic masculinity and sports culture have begun to garner more attention in the post-Columbine era, a parallel trend in the 1990s and early twenty-first century has been an increased focus on aggressive behavior in girls and young women. In the last decade of the twentieth century, overall arrest rates for girls increased while arrest rates for boys declined. In particular, girls’ arrests for assault increased at a rate that was ten times the increase for boys.

Yet some scholars have been skeptical of the notion that girls are becoming more violent, pointing to the decreased arrest rates for more violent crimes and the decreased reports of girls’ violence in self-reported data. Some researchers have discussed escalated awareness rather than increased incidence of girls’ crime and increasingly severe zero-tolerance policies as explanations for the rising arrest rates of girls.


  1. Benbenishty, R., & Astor, R. A. (2005). School violence in context. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  2. Chesney-Lind, M. (2004). Girls and violence: Is the gender gap closing? [Online]. Harrisburg, PA: National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. Retrieved September 3, 2006, from Research/VAWnetDocs/AR_GirlsViolence.php
  3. Messerschmidt, J. W. (2000). Nine lives: Adolescent masculinities, the body, and violence. Boulder, CO: Westview.
  4. Mills, M. (2001). Challenging violence in schools: An issue of masculinities. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.
  5. Newman, K. S., Fox, C., Roth, W., & Mehta, J. (2004). Rampage: The social roots of school shootings. New York: Basic Books.
  6. Talbot, M. (2002, February 24). Girls just want to be mean. The New York Times Magazine, pp. 24–65.

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