Violence in American Schools as a Social Issue

In recent years, an increasing number of incomprehensible multiple killings committed by students at schools are being reported and many students, parents, and teachers are surrounded by threats of violence. There is a grave concern across the nation on the epidemic of youth crime that spills from streets to schools, which are considered as safe havens from violence, and safe school programs are being evolved to tackle this menace.

Addressing this social problem that triggers youth violence and crime, particularly among adolescent school goers, is the first step to a long-term solution. Evaluations of past incidents reveal that the tragic social and personal background, and complexity of the individuals involved in the crime are responsible for such reprehensible actions. Major contributors to school violence include “exposure to violence within the family and community, child abuse and neglect, poor parenting practices, and lack of interest in children’s activities, social prejudices, peer pressure, unsupervised access to firearms, excessive exposure to violence in mass media, drug or alcohol abuse, negative student self-image, and lack of adult supervision after school” (IACP, 1999).

Detailed case studies conducted to identify circumstances that led to extreme lethal violence in schools and a review of antecedents of adolescent violence in urban, suburban, and rural schools reveal that, though drug abuse and carrying of firearms led to school violence and homicide, bullying is the major cause for school violence. Though it may be difficult to curb the social menace of school violence, formulating intervention strategies for making our schools safer places of learning require integrating diverse bodies of knowledge from social ecology, child and adolescent development, life course studies, criminology, to the field of public health and active participation of parents, schools, peers, and students.

There is an alarming increase in school-aged children who have gone on violent rampages and multiple-victim homicides, which has become an issue for urban, rural, and suburban communities alike. It is significant to remember that children differ in social behavior for a variety of reasons, and have distinct personalities and temperaments from birth. In addition, family background, social behavior, and cultural influence play a crucial role in a child’s personality development.

Children in adolescence have a multitude of problems, ranging from serious emotional problems to behavioral problems, and large number of needs, which cuts across all segments of society. Identifying possible causes of violence and suggesting the most effective interventions require a better understanding of the potential threat and how healing might be promoted in affected communities. The dramatic incidents of violence in schools signaled an implicit and growing fear that these events would continue to occur and even shoot up in scale and severity, which captivated national attention for finding solutions to prevent school violence.

The key aggressive behaviors noticeable in school settings are hostile teasing, pushing, bullying, ostracism, robbery, and physical fighting, which can have a major impact on the lives of all those involved. Literature reviews reveal that the rate of victimization in the form of theft, vandalism, or threats of violence without a weapon at schools is very high and the majority of the incidents are not being reported either to the police or school authorities.

The first statistics released by Safe School Study Report to Congress in 1978 indicated that “approximately 282,000 students and 5,200 teachers were physically assaulted in secondary schools every month” and subsequent surveys confirm that there is an increasing apprehension among students that their schools are becoming more violent (Elliot et al, 2006). Researchers found that the development of aggression during childhood and adolescence can involve broad changes in child behavior across multiple settings, and environmental influence determines different forms of disruptive behaviors like serious fighting and criminal violence.

It is also important to note that children spend the majority of their time in schools, and creating safe schools, a tranquil and conducive place of learning, requires developing and implementing safe school plans so that teachers could teach and students could learn without detraction. Creating an appropriate learning environment provides an encouraging educational climate, where behavior expectations are clearly communicated, consistently enforced, and fairly applied.

It may be observed that a small percentage of young people make most of the school problems and creating appropriate educational and behavioral plans with special counseling support and referrals to appropriate community resources for this small group of serious habitual offenders could transform them and help reduce violence in schools, as well as the community. Schools are using a wide variety of approaches to addressing issues of conflict and violence, ranging from adopting zero tolerable policies or employing various security measures such as using metal detectors or having police or other law enforcement representatives stationed at the school to offering students education programs that teach problem-solving and social skills or that work to create caring and supportive school environment.

Safe Schools/Healthy students initiative aims to provide students, schools, and communities the benefit of enhanced comprehensive educational, mental health, social service, law enforcement, and, as appropriate, juvenile justice services that can promote healthy childhood development and prevent valence and alcohol and other drug abuse. It is envisaged to help young people develop the social skills and emotional resilience necessary to avoid drug use and violent behavior and establish a school environment that is safe, disciplined, and alcohol and drug-free. Following six key elements:

  1. a safe school environment;
  2. alcohol, drugs, and violence prevention and early intervention programs;
  3. school and community mental health preventive and treatment intervention services;
  4. early childhood psychosocial and emotional development program;
  5. educational reforms; and
  6. safe school policies are considered comprehensive safe school plans to tackle the major issue of increasing violence at schools.

Drug abuse is considered as one of the reasons for violent behavior among adolescents, and it is pointed out that the use of antidepressants may also develop assaultive behavior. According to Kelly Patricia O’Meara (1999) “there are nearly 6 million children in the United States between the ages of 6 and 18 taking mind-altering drugs prescribed for alleged mental illnesses that increasing numbers of mental health professionals are questioning.”

Analysis of past incidents involving school violence and multiple shooting, for example, Kip Kinkel of Springfield, Oregon; Shawn Cooper of Notus, Idaho; Eric Harris of Columbine, Colorado; T.J. Solomon of Conyers, Georgia; Elizabeth Bush of Williamsport, Pennsylvania; and Jason Hoffman of El Cajon, California points to the relation between “violence and influence of psychiatric drugs” (CCHR, 2008). Investigations revealed that all were taking one or another antidepressant or undergoing anger management before or during the incident. CCHR(2008) also opines that most recent psychiatric drugs, which have not been tested to determine short-term side effects, albeit

long-term effects, could create “horrific physical and mental side effects including suicidal thoughts, hostility spasms, grimacing movements, manic reactions, seizures, and much more” and ”children are vulnerable because their brain circuitry and hormones are still developing.” Experts in the field of mental health may defend this allegation and argue that the benefits of psychotropic drugs far outweigh the consequences. Professionals in mental health shall be able to provide important insight into the possible connection between the senseless acts of violence being committed by school-age children and the prescription of psychotropic drugs.

It is probable that people can have difficult problems in their lives and can be mentally unstable, but this obstacle could be overcome through the help of non-psychiatric practices and natural alternatives that treat our whole selves, including physical, intellectual, and emotional rather than symptomatic mental disorders.

Though there were relatively fewer violent incidents of weapon-related crimes at schools than on the streets it is observed that one of the reasons for increased hostile confrontations in schools becoming lethal is linked to the carrying of guns and lethal weapons by students. There is clear evidence that weapons are more frequently being carried into schools as the statistics show that between 1987 and 1997 gun carrying at school increased 138 percent in Central Texas and California the number of guns confiscated doubled between 1985 and 1988 ( Elliot et al, 2006, p.6).

Keeping firearms and ammunition locked up and in separate locations and teaching children about the dangers of firearms will be effective in preventing unauthorized use of guns and lethal weapons. Sporadic incidents of shooting are reported even recently installing metal detectors at all entry and exit points of schools, preparing threat assessment strategies, and constant check by security will reduce student’s weapon carrying practice to a larger extent.

Among all the major reasons for adolescent violence, bullying is considered as a possible contributor to school violence and past incidents of school shootings establish that the attackers experienced some form of bullying at schools over a long period. “Bullying is repeated harassment, abuse, oppression, or intimidation of another individual physically or psychologically” (UCLA 2005). The National Educators Association estimated that “160,000 students miss school every day due to fear of attack or intimidation by a bully and 90% of all students felt that bullying caused social, emotional, or academic problems and

60% of students believed that schools respond poorly to bullying and victimization” (Weinhold and Weinhold, 2000 cited by Garette, p.36). It is observed that constant bullying can diminish self-esteem, decline grades, increase dropping out of school, and develop depression and the victims will eventually become either withdrawn or aggressive. Bullying and harassments are community issues that need multifaceted, systematic approaches which can include parents, teachers, community leaders, and national stakeholders.

Parents play a crucial role in identifying abnormal behavior in their children and noticing changes in appearance, habits, and attitude comprise monitoring and assessment of victimization or aggression and decide whether intervention is needed for their child. Mutual trust and cooperation between parents and schools are primary to identify abnormal behavior in children and for interacting with them to develop resilience.

Parents should teach their children to recognize and express emotions nonviolently, develop skills in conflict management, and promote empathy by pointing out the consequences for others of the child’s verbal and physical actions. Similarly, schools have to play a major role in reducing bullying by fostering the active involvement of teachers, administrators, school support personnel, parents, and the community.

Prompt intervening in bullying situations include talking with the perpetrator(s) and victim(s), consulting with administrator and other teachers, as well as staff to get broad information on the problem and getting advice to handle the situation according to school policies, and informing the parents of both bullies and victims, as soon as possible. Establishing a reporting mechanism, where incidents of bullying are recorded immediately, that meets applicable standards for confidentiality with due care to protect witnesses, accused, and victims from retaliation will be essential to establish a conducive environment for learning in each school.

It is also necessary to boost the morale of the victim through peer help, and social skills, and confidence development. Students should be educated to be polite, but firm with the bully; stand straight and tall and look straight in the eye; do not cry or show their feelings when upset; report incidents to an adult immediately when encountered by a tormentor. Programs to reduce isolation and alienation and to promote self-respect and respect for others, establishing better lines of communication with students who have low self-esteem, and developing a climate that encourages open interaction between students and adults will maximize the options to exchange student’s concerns about violence to school personnel and foster an environment of trust.

It may not be possible to eradicate the bullying problem in schools as there are lots of bullies and role models for children in their own homes and communities as well as fuming personalities they see in the media. Only by modeling adult behavior and with the help of comprehensive bullying prevention programs for creating a school climate of “respect, acceptance and caring, and statewide promotion of proven anti-bullying programs” would be a powerful instrument toward reducing the effect of bullying behavior as a concerted effort to reduce school violence. (Garrett, 2003)

An individual’s ability to live and work peacefully and productively with others is the prime characteristic of a successful human being, and the social capacity of an individual is measured by his or her ability to interact positively within the intimate social relationships of a larger social arena. As a nation, we want our children, especially our adolescents, to avoid drugs, violence, and crime as well as do not want them to drop out of school.

Every parent wants their children to be happy and emotionally healthy, have positive relationships with other people, and contribute positively to the community. Parents and peers influence adolescents during their developmental years and positive interactions influence a child’s social and moral development. A good relationship with peers helps perfect pro-social behavior, develop cognitive skills, cooperative and mutually beneficial relationships, and instill resilience.

Better communication between students, faculty, parents, and peers makes the students feel that they are part of a community that is built on trust, not fear. In short, problems should be openly addressed, and not swept under the carpet or pushed out the door—which is exactly what is happening in schools in the post-Columbine climate (Murray, 2000). Thus, the social menace of school violence could be checked with the concerted effort of parents, teachers, peers, and the community.

Works cited

Social and Interpersonal Problems Related to School Aged Youth. Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA. Los Angeles, CA: Author. 2008. Web.

What is Causing the Violence. Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR). 2008. Web.

Elliot, Delbert S., Hamburg, Beatrix A., and Williams, Kirk R. Violence in American Schools. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Garrett, Anne G. Bullying in American Schools: Causes, Preventions, Interventions. New York: McFarland, 2003.

Guide for preventing and Responding to School Violence. IACP (International Association of Chiefs of Police). Alexandria. (Produced by Security Research Centre), 1999.

Kelly, Patricia O’Meara. Doping Kids. Insight. P.10-13. 1999.

Mark H. Moore et al. Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence. National Research Council. 2003. Web.

McClellan, Diane E; Kartz, Lilian G. Assessing the social Development of Young Children: A checklist of Social Attributes; Dimensions of Early Childhood. Pp.9-10. 1992. Web.

Murray, N. Creating a Violence Free School for the Twenty-First Century: Striking a Balance: Students, Educators, and the Courts: School Safety: Are We on the Right Track? New England Law Review, No. 34. 2000.

Addressing Barriers to Learning. UCLA. Vol. 10. No.1. 2005. Web.