Violence is the use of force or intimidation against another person or group to express the intention of causing physical or emotional harm.
What Is School Violence
School violence is a model of youth violence that happens on school property or at school-sponsored events, or on the way to school or school events.
The issue of school violence is not a new one. Incidences of shootings and other attacks at schools in the United States have been reported since the nineteenth century.
While reliable statistics from that era are difficult to find, early media accounts of school violence tended to report serious incidents involving guns, knives, or other weapons.
The issue captured enough public attention that in 1866 a New York Times editorial spoke out against the growing practice of students carrying pistols to school.
Fighting, bullying, and similar types of student-on-student violence were rarely reported.
The first documented mass school shooting in the United States occurred in 1891 when a 70-year-old man started firing with a shotgun on a group of students in Newburgh, New York. Several students were injured.
In 1927, a school treasurer named Andrew Kehoe detonated explosives at a school in Bath, Michigan, killing 44 people, including 38 children.
While these and other examples of mass violence in schools by nonstudents are traumatic and garner intense media attention, they are not typical.
Students have historically and currently perpetuated most school violence.
Through most of the twentieth century, the frequency of violence in U.S. schools increased. By 1993 (CDC), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated 34 homicides occurred among students aged 5–18 at school.
The nationally based Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) conducted by the CDC found that 11.8% of students in grades 9 to 12 carried a weapon onto school property from 1991–1993, and 7.3% were threatened with a firearm.
During that period, 16.2% of students said they were involved in physical fights on school grounds.
Attitudes toward school violence began to change during this period. Many school districts installed metal detectors, deployed security measures, and instituted zero-tolerance policies for students carrying weapons or fighting.
Since 1993, the rate of violence in U.S. schools has declined. By the 2011–2012 school year, the number of homicides in schools had fallen to 15.
In 2017, the CDC released the first YRBS data summary and trends report, which stated that between 2007–2017, there were some declines in the proportion of students who were threatened or injured with a weapon at school and who experienced physical or sexual dating violence.
But the proportion of youth who did not go to school due to safety concerns, who were forced to have sex, who were cyberbullied, or who were bullied at school did not change over this period.
The 2017 YRBS found 3.8% of students in grades 9–12 carried a weapon to school; a weapon threatened 6.0%5% were involved in a physical fight at school.
While there are multiple ways to categorize school violence, some of the most commonly used include bullying, electronic aggression, school-associated violent deaths, nonfatal violent victimizations, and fear and avoidance.
Bullying is the unwanted aggressive use of physical or emotional power, or the threat of that power, to repeatedly intimidate or harm others.
Bullying can show itself in several forms and cause a great deal of physiological or physical harm.
Bullying can take different forms, namely:
- Verbal bullying: This form includes teasing or taunting, calling others names, making inappropriate sexual comments, or threatening others.
- Social bullying: This form involves hurting another person’s reputation or relationships. It includes intentionally excluding others from activities, telling other children not to befriend someone, spreading rumors, or publicly embarrassing another person.
- Physical bullying: This form involves physical altercations and can include spitting, tripping, pushing someone, taking or destroying another’s property, making rude or obscene hand gestures, or hitting, kicking, or punching.
Bullying can occur anywhere from inside the school building, on a school playground or bus, on the path to or from school, or the internet.
Although bullying can happen at any age, research has shown physical bullying tends to increase in elementary and middle schools and decline in high school. Verbal and social bullying has been found to grow through adolescence.
The 2017 School of Crime Supplement by the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 20.2% of students grades 6–12 said they experienced bullying.
According to the 2017 YRBS, 19.0% of students grades 9–12 said they were bullied on school property; 14.9% said they had been electronically driven.
Aside from the physical harm bullying can cause, it has also been shown to produce emotional trauma that can increase the risk of depression, anxiety, academic problems, or problems sleeping.
According to the CDC, youth who bully others are more likely to engage in substance abuse, have academic problems, and show a propensity for violence later in life.
In 1999, two high school students who had suffered bullying at the hands of classmates stormed into Columbine High School, Colorado, and fatally shot 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves.
While there was no definitive proof that bullying was the primary cause of the attack, the incident was one of several that prompted states to begin enacting anti-bullying legislation.
As of 2015, all 50 states and several U.S. territories had enacted anti-bullying laws or policies.
The rapid increase in technology in recent years has also fueled a rise in bullying through electronic means.
Cyberbullying (electronic aggression) is bullying that occurs online, over cellphones, through e-mail, or on social media.
This form of bullying can involve verbal threats, inappropriate sexual comments, spreading false information, or disseminating embarrassing or private photos or information to large groups at one time.
According to the 2017 School Crime Supplement, an estimated 15.3% of students ages 12–18 were bullied electronically during the 2016–2017 school year.
The YRBS reported that 14.9% of high school students experienced cyberbullying between 2016–2017.
While the relatively recent emergence of the technology and its quickly changing nature make detailed statistics challenging to obtain, some research has suggested that youth who are bullied electronically are also likely to be victimized offline.
School-associated violent deaths
Before the CDC began compiling statistics on school violence in 1992, consistent data were difficult to assess.
A 1990 study by the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence found guns had killed 65 students and six school employees in U.S. schools between September 1986 and September 1990.
The CDC classifies school-associated violent deaths as homicides, suicides, or legal intervention deaths caused by any means that occur at school or school functions or on the way to and from school or school functions.
These statistics include students ages 5–18, school staff, and nonstudents.
During the 1992–1993 school year, 57 school-associated violent deaths occurred. Of those, 34 were student homicides, and 6 were student suicides.
In 2011–2012, 45 school-related violent deaths were reported, 15 of which were student homicides and five student suicides.
For reference, the December 2012 Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting that killed 20 elementary students and six school staff members is not included in that 2011–2012 figure.
2018 was the worst year for gun violence in schools since 1970, according to a database from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School (1970 is as far back as the data spans).
In 2018, 94 school gun violence incidents occurred, killing 55 people, which is also the most deaths from school gun violence in a year.
While a few recent years have seen spikes in school gun violence, the 2017 National Institute of Justice Report stated that school shootings remain rare. The currently available data are not enough for statisticians to report any trends, meaning that they cannot say if school shootings have increased.
Student weapon carrying and weapon-related injuries have decreased, however, according to the report.
Research by the CDC shows that most school-associated violent deaths occurred during times when students were in transition, such as before or after the school day or during lunch, and were more likely to show at the beginning of a semester.
Almost half of those committing homicide left some warning before the attack, such as a verbal threat or note. Guns used in the incidents were usually taken from the perpetrator’s home or friends or relatives.
Nonfatal violent victimization
As to the 2016 Indicators of School Crime and Safety report, there were about 841,100 nonfatal violent victimizations among students ages 12–18 in 2015.
This number was down from the 1.4 million reported in 2014, the 1.3 million reported in 2012, and the 1.8 million in 2002.
Nonfatal violent victimizations include theft, robbery, sexual assault, rape, and simple assault.
Among teachers, about 9% said they had been threatened with injury by a student in 2013, while 5% reported that a student had physically attacked them.
During the 1993–1994 school year, 12% of teachers said they had been threatened, and 4% reported a physical attack.
A decline in fighting among students on school grounds mirrors that outside of school.
From 1993 to 2013, the percentage of students in grades 9–12 who said they had engaged in a physical brawl anywhere in the previous year dropped from 42% to 25%. In school, those numbers dropped from 16.2% to 8.1%.
During the 2016–2017 school year, just 3.3.% reported being in a physical fight at school. Gangs and gang violence also decreased.
In 1995, 28.4% of students reported a gang presence at their school. That number dropped to 12% in 2013 and 8.6% in 2017.
Fear and avoidance
The Gauges of School Crime and Safety: 2016 reported 93% of public schools said they controlled access to their property during school hours in the 2013–2014 school year, up from 81.5% in 2008.
By 2014, 89% of public high schools had installed security cameras to monitor school grounds, and 70% of students reported that their school employed at least one security staff member.
Schools have also increasingly enforced strict dress codes, required students to wear badges or picture identification, directed the use of clear book bags or banned book bags altogether, and conducted metal detector or random security checks.
Additionally, 88% of public schools reported having a written plan with procedures in the event of a school shooting in 2014.
Seventy percent of those schools had performed active shooter drills with students.
These drills are controversial, and teachers’ unions have said the drills provoke anxiety and are a traumatic experience for students.
Despite increased security in schools and the downward trend in violence, students send mixed signals in their attitudes toward their safety.
The Signs of School Crime and Safety: 2016 report stated that 3% of students aged 12–18 said they feared being attacked at school in 2015, down from 12% in 1995, but no change from 2012.
About 5% said they avoided school or a school activity because they did not feel safe.
The CDC’s 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which polled students in grades 9–12, found the number of students who avoided school because they did not feel safe was 6.7%, basically unchanged from the levels reported in the past ten years.
Researchers have not provided any direct cause of school violence, but they have found some risk factors that can contribute to the problem, as follows:
- Individual risk factors: These include a history of being victimized or exposure to family violence, learning disorders, low IQ, involvement with drugs or alcohol, early aggressive behavior, and antisocial attitudes.
- Family risk factors: These include authoritarian, lax, or inconsistent childrearing attitudes from parents, low emotional attachment to parents, low household income, and parental substance abuse or criminal behavior.
- Peer and social risk factors: These include association with delinquent peers, gang involvement, bullying or social rejection by peers, lack of involvement in conventional activities, and poor academic performance.
- Community risk factors: These include poverty and diminished economic opportunities, homelessness or high level of transiency, high level of family disruption, low community participation, and socially disorganized neighborhoods.
Research on the prevention of school violence has shown promise in identifying positive strategies for parents, schools, and communities, namely:
- Communication: Talking and listening to children about their daily activities and concerns is a significant way parents can stay involved in their children’s lives. Initiating conversations about violence, drugs, drinking, and other issues is another practical approach.
- Establishing transparent and fair rules for children: Research has shown children respond better when parents set clearly defined limits and regulations for them to follow. When enforcing discipline, parents should adopt a consistent and fair approach. Parents should also be wary that their behavior also influences their children.
- Parental presence: Parents who are home with their children consistently and share activities with their children have a more positive influence.
- Recognizing warning signs: Parents should be aware of their children’s normal behavior and be alert to sudden changes, such as withdrawal from friends, declining grades, lying, trouble eating or sleeping, or complaints of the stomach or head pain.
- Encouraging social interaction: Children who participate in sports or other school or community activities are less likely to become involved in violence. Schools can also implement programs to promote social skills and foster positive interaction with peers.
- Encouraging academic success: Parents can help their children by setting aside times devoted to homework and taking an active part in promoting their academic endeavors.
- Outreach programs: Some schools and communities offer programs to teach violence prevention skills to families and parents. In addition to family-based programs, many schools and districts provide the same services to students, teaching self-awareness, problem-solving, and conflict resolution skills.
- Security measures: Increased security, surveillance cameras, metal detectors, and restricting access to school grounds have proven effective in lowering the number of violent incidents at schools.
The best way for parents to stop school violence is to impact the lives of their children positively.
Communication, parental interaction, and constructive parenting skills are robust tools in keeping children from taking part in bullying or other violent acts.
Being aware of possible warning signs can also help parents spot potential problems and take steps to help their children.
Parents should also be aware that despite extensive media coverage when violent events occur, the nation’s schools are relatively safe.
In 2012, an estimated 50 million students were enrolled in American schools from preschool through grade 12.
The number of nonfatal violent victimizations during the 2011–2012 school year affected less than 3% of this population.
The number of student homicides that year accounted for only 1–2% of childhood homicides in the nation.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “About School Violence.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/youthviolence/schoolviolence (accessed March 24, 2020).
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Understanding School Violence.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/school_violence_fact_sheet-a.pdf (accessed March 24, 2020).
K12 Academics. “History of School Shootings in the United States.” K12 Academics. http://www.k12academics.com/school-shootings/history-school-shootings-united-states#.Vb7LW_kYF8G (accessed March 24, 2020).
National PTA. “Checklist to Help Prevent Violence in Schools” National PTA. https://www.pta.org/content.cfm?ItemNumber=984 (accessed March 24, 2020).
StopBullying.gov . “Bullying Definition.” StopBullying.gov . http://www.stopbullying.gov/what-is-bullying/definition/index.html (accessed March 24, 2020).
Richard J. Sheposh
Revised by Jackie Rocheleau and Melinda Granger Oberleitner, DNS, RN