"Indicators of School Crime and Safety," a 2006 study by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice, reveals that public schools experiencing violent incidents increased from 71 to 81 percent over a five-year period (1999-2004).
The same study reports that the percentage of students who reported gang presence at school increased from 21 percent in 2003 to 24 percent in 2005. Although no direct connection between gang activity and school violence can be established, the initiation of gang activity in neighborhoods and schools does frequently coincide with increased violence reports.
School violence does not limit itself to the student population. Eight percent of teachers say they are threatened with violence on school grounds at least once a month. Two percent report being physically attacked each year.
Although the specific incidents of school-based fatalities are too numerous to list, there were 48 school-associated deaths in elementary and secondary schools in one year alone, from July, 2004, through June, 2005.
Statistics indicate that efforts to curb school violence are making some headway since 1992, a high point for school-based violence. From 1992 to 2004, violent incidents occurred less frequently in school than away from school, according to the above listed study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Education Center.
In the context of school violence, it is critical to recognize that a large majority of young people are not violence-prone, do not have criminal attitudes or criminal records, and can be "demonized" by legislators, the media, and the general public.
Michael Males, a professor at University of California at Santa Cruz, points to another source beyond the attitudes and behaviors of children. "More than any past generation, he writes, " today's kids are far more likely to grow up with parents who abuse drugs, get arrested, go to prison, disappear, fail to maintain stable families. Poverty, disownment, and messed-up adults are by far the biggest problems kids face, and the mystery is why only a relatively small fraction of modern kids are acting dangerously."
Therefore, while it is critical that schools and communities recognize that school violence needs to be addressed, it is also critical that they respect the hopes and rights of the majority of students who are neither perpetrators nor victims of school violence and who want nothing more than to receive a good education in a safe environment.
Most educators and education researchers and practitioners would agree that school violence arises from a layering of causes and risk factors that include (but are not limited to) access to weapons, media violence, cyber abuse, the impact of school, community, and family environments, personal alienation, and more.
Access to Weapons
During the late 1980's and early 1990's, teen gun violence increased dramatically in the United States. More teens began to acquire and carry guns, leading to a sharp increase in gun deaths and injuries.
In two recent academic years, a total of 85 young people died violently in U.S. schools. Seventy-five percent of these incidents involved firearms.
According to the National Youth Violence Prevention Center (NYVPC), "fewer teens are carrying guns now , and gun-related murders and suicides have begun to decline. Even so," claims the NYVPC, "many teens still illegally carry guns and harm others and themselves."
A National Institute of Health study recently interviewed 1,219 seventh and 10th graders in Boston and Milwaukee. Forty-two percent of students claimed "they could get a gun if they wanted, 28 percent have handled a gun without adult knowledge or supervision, and 17 percent have carried a concealed gun…."
How do young people gain access to weapons? According to a report issued by the University of Southern California School of Medicine, approximately 35% of U.S. homes with children under age 18 have at least one firearm, meaning that roughly 11 million children live in homes with firearms.
Teens can also acquire handguns in illegal sales. A 2007 study by University of California at Davis' Violence Prevention Research Program concluded that "American gun shows continue to be a venue for illegal activity, including unlicensed sales to prohibited individuals."
Although Cho purchased his weapons from a licensed gun dealer, his medical records declaring him mentally unstable did not surface during the transaction. Following the Virginia Polytech shootings, the U.S House of Representatives passed a measure that would, according to the Los Angeles Times, "streamline the system for keeping track of criminals, mental patients, and others [including youth under 18] barred from buying firearms…" Currently, the bill has yet to pass into law, although many legislators believe the bill will be approved by both House and Senate.
Media Violence. By the time the average American child reaches seventh grade, he or she will have witnessed 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence on television. Some people say that so much violence on television makes American society--including its children--more violent.
Discussion regarding the impact of the media on youth behavior is not new. In 1956, researchers compared the behavior of 24 children watching either a violent cartoon episode (Woody Woodpecker) or a non-violent cartoon (The Little Red Hen). During subsequent observed interactions, children who watched the violent cartoon were more likely to hit other children and break toys than those who watched the nonviolent cartoon.
In 1963, professors A. Badura, D. Ross and S.A. Ross studied the effect of exposure to real-world violence, television violence, and cartoon violence. They divided 100 preschool children into four groups. Group one watched a real person shout insults at an inflatable doll while hitting it with a mallet. Group two watched the incident on television. Group three watched a cartoon version of the same scene, and group four watched nothing. When the same children were later exposed to a frustrating situation, groups one, two, and three responded with more aggression than did group four.
In 1972, Dr. Jesse L. Steinfeld, the U.S. Surgeon General under the Nixon Administration, released a report concluding that "televised violence . . . does have an effect on certain members of our society."
On the other hand, many researchers, including the respected expert Jonathan Freedman of the University of Toronto, maintain that "the scientific evidence simply does not show that watching violence either produces violence in people, or desensitizes them to it."
A 1999 study conducted at Case Western Reserve University and Kent State University found "disturbingly high" levels of violent attitudes and behaviors in 2,000 young students but could not find a direct link between the viewing of televised violence and violent tendencies in their subjects."
More recently, a 2004 report published by Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Psychological Science Institute, claims that extensive research on violent television and films, video games, and music reveals unequivocal evidence that media violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior.
According to this 2004 report, this new research base is large and consistent in overall findings. The evidence is clearest in research on television and film violence but a growing body of video-game research yields "essentially the same conclusions…" that "exposure to these media increases the likelihood of physically and verbally aggressive behavior, thoughts, and emotions."
The divergent findings of these studies, conducted over a protracted length of time, underscore the difficulties in quantifying cause factors for youth violence in or out of school.
Since the 1990s, the Internet, blogging, e-mail, and cell-phone text messaging have grown to play significant roles in the erosion of school safety. Violent, Internet-based video games have also grown in popularity as cyber technology becomes more sophisticated.
Computerized video games were first introduced to the public in the 1970s. Today, many popular video games feature high levels of realistic violence. How do children respond to video games? In research conducted by Ohio State University, psychologists explored the effects of violent video game exposure on children and adolescents.
The Ohio State researchers found that high school students who had more exposure to violent video games held "more pro-violent attitudes, had more hostile personalities, were less forgiving, believed violence to be more normal, and behaved more aggressively in their everyday lives."
However, in 2001, communications researcher John Sherry conducted a broad-ranged review of research focusing on violent video games and concluded that the "overall effect of these games on aggressiveness does not appear great."
Cell-phone text messaging and e-mail provide additional platforms that support a new form of violence--cyberbullying. Cyberbullying occurs when young people use electronic media to taunt, insult, or even threaten their peers.
Race and ethnicity, income levels, and other measurable elements have often been singled out by public heath experts as risk factors that can contribute to anti-social behavior, from smoking and drinking to violent behavior and suicide.
However, according to a 2001 survey of U.S. adolescents conducted at the University of Minnesota and published in the American Journal of Public Health (Vol. 90, No. 12) these measurable factors only partially explain adolescent health risk behaviors. More important, investigators say, are school performance, the nature of friends' behaviors, and family relationships. In short, immediate environments including schools, communities, peer groups, and families can exert a powerful influence on young persons' attitudes and behaviors.
School Environments. A survey conducted by the Children's Institute International revealed that almost 50 percent of all teenagers, regardless of their settings--rural, suburban, or urban--believe that their schools are becoming more violent.
Gangs at schools. In 2005, 24 percent of students ages 12-18 reported that there were gangs at their schools. However, relatively few young people join gangs; even in highly impacted areas, the degree of gang participation rarely exceeds 10 percent and less than two percent of juvenile crime is gang-related.
School size. Researchers at the National Center for Education Statistics found that discipline problems are often related to school enrollment size. Large schools tended to yield more discipline problems than small schools. Thirty-four percent of schools with 1,000 or more students reported student disrespect for or assaults on teachers at least once per week, compared with 21 percent of those at schools with 500-999 students, 17 percent of those at schools with 300-499 students, and 14 percent of those at schools with less than 300 students.
Middle schools. Middle school students are more than twice as likely as high school students to be affected by school violence. Seven percent of eighth graders stay home at least once a month to avoid a bully. Twenty-two percent of urban 11- and 12-year-olds know at least one person their age in a gang. The typical victim of an attack or robbery at school is a male in the seventh grade who is assaulted by a boy his own age.
Studies suggest two reasons for the higher rates of middle school violence. First, early adolescence is a difficult age. Young teenagers are often physically hyperactive and have not learned acceptable social behavior. Second, many middle school students have come into contact for the first time with young people from different backgrounds and distant neighborhoods.
As with schools and families, communities can neglect children. If our communities are not responsive to the needs of families and their children, this neglect can develop into school violence. After-school and summer programs are not always available.
A child who starts acting violently will often do so during periods of unstructured and unsupervised time. Juvenile-justice statistics show that, lacking after-school supervision, youth violence rises to above average rates between 3 and 7 p.m.
School violence has also been linked to the transformation of communities. Constantly shifting school demographics often reflect larger upheavals as communities undergo changes in size, economic well-being, and racial and ethnic mix.
Although our culture expects the family to deal with childhood problems, contemporary society makes it difficult for parents to meet all their children's needs. The current economy, for example, often demands that both parents work; more children are raised by single parents including teenage mothers; and some children are subjected by their parents to neglect or physical, sexual, and substance abuse.
Ideally, parents nurture and reinforce positive behavior. When parents fail to do so, children may develop negative--and often violent--behavior patterns. In addition, neglectful or abusive family environments can inhibit the development of communication skills; self-esteem can be seriously damaged. In homes where positive behavior is not the norm, exposure to violence through popular culture may have a more profound impact.
Echoing the Case Western-Kent State study referred to above, a 2006 report released by the Vermont National Education Association maintains that parental alcohol abuse, domestic violence, the presence of guns in the home, may encourage a child to follow in his or her parents' footsteps.
Regardless of family and community dependence on schools to educate, shelter, and discipline their children, most schools have difficulty playing multiple roles as educators, surrogate parents, social service, or law-enforcement agencies.