School Violence

Education Post-Columbine: An Overview of Violence in Schools in the 21st Century
Rachel DiFonzo, Katie Gall, Dana Quante

In light of the sensationalized Columbine shootings in 1999 where two senior boys fatally shot 12 students, 1 teacher and wounded 23 other students and teachers before they shot themselves, school violence is often thought to entail fatal shootings, beatings or otherwise extremely violent behavior (Adams & Russakoff, 1999, p. A1). However, violent deaths on school grounds account for a very low percentage of the homicide or suicide rates among students ages 5-18 (Centers for Disease Control, 2008). Despite the relatively low number of homicides, school violence is still prevalent in educational systems nationwide, as there are many different interpretations of what school violence really consists of. After the shootings at Columbine, it became known that athletes within the school had frequently bullied the shooters. The school’s administration and the children’s parents had been aware of this bullying yet did nothing to intervene (Adams & Russakoff, 1999, p. A1). After Columbine, multiple forms of violence, weapon carrying, aggression, peer victimization, and student subculture in schools, and the factors that contribute to their occurrence, became the focus of research regarding school violence (Columbine High School Massacre, 2008). In this paper, we will address what school violence is, what social factors contribute to school violence, and ways to intervene and prevent school violence so perhaps tragedies like Columbine can be avoided in the future.

School Violence

School violence is a broad term that encompasses a wide variety of actions. Many reports indicate actions that constitute violence to range from physical fighting, to carrying a weapon, to drug use. Furlong and Morrison note that there is no clear definition but they consider school violence to be “conceptualized as a multifaceted construct that involves both criminal acts and aggression in schools which inhibit development and learning, as well as harm the school’s climate” (Furlong & Morrison, 2000). In relation to considering school violence as harming the environment of a school, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) consider school violence to be “a subset of youth violence, a broader public health problem” (CDC, 2008). Youth violence, according to the CDC “refers to the harmful behaviors that may start early and continue into young adulthood. It includes a variety of behaviors such as bullying, slapping, punching, weapon use and rape. Victims can suffer serious injury, significant social and emotional damage, or even death” (CDC, 2008). It is hard to reconcile any one definition of school violence, but for purposes within this discourse, we will refer to school violence in the general sense of an action against another student that can cause harm, either physically or psychologically.

Everyday school violence is not often a newsworthy topic. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, non-fatal forms of violence and aggression in school, such as bullying, are more prevalent and more a part of a student’s daily life than the less common, but more sensationalized, fatal shootings on school grounds (Dinkes, Cataldi, & Lin-Kelly, 2007, p. iv). As students progress through school the types of violence they encounter change slightly over time. Students in upper elementary school are commonly prone to bullying and a limited amount of verbal and some physical fighting. Children in middle school also see violence as bullying, verbal and physical fighting plus sexual harassment. By high school, students witness violence in all of the forms listed previously plus weapon use or drug possession and dealing (Furlong & Morrison, 2000).

Factors Contributing to School Violence

The School Violence Resource Center (SVRC) at the University of Arkansas summarizes the youth risk factors below, but notes that “risk factors do not predict violence in individuals, and misusing them in this way can lead to stereotyping of individuals and groups” (School Violence Resource Center [SVRC], 2001). Educators can use the following criteria to identify possible at-risk students, but must be careful about pre-determining which students are prone to violent behavior as these are only indicators of those who may be at-risk for violent or aggressive behavior, they are not to be confused as determinants.

Risk Factor Domains

Individual Risk Factors
• Alienation/Rebelliousness
• Delinquent Peers
• Aggressiveness
• Gender (male)
• Substance Abuse
• Low Intelligence
• Birth Complications

Family Risk Factors
• Family history of violence
• Lack of clear expectations
• Limited monitoring by parents
• Excessively severe or inconsistent punishment
• Parental attitudes toward drugs, crime and violence
• Child abuse/neglect
• Broken homes

Community Risk Factors
• Availability of drugs
• Availability of firearms
• Laws and norms favorable to drug use, firearms and crime
• Media portrayal of violence
• Transitions and mobility
• Economic deprivation/poverty

School Risk Factors
• Early and persistent antisocial behavior
• Academic failure
• Lack of commitment to school
• Gang involvement
(School Violence Resource Center, 2001)

In addition to the above risk factors, The Surgeon General, through the United States Department of Health and Human Services, indicates that risk factors increase the probability that a young person will become violent, while protective factors buffer the young person against those risks” (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services [DHH], chapter 4, para. 2). The Surgeon General’s 2001 report, Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General, also proposed protective factors in a child’s life that “buffer or moderate” the risk factors mentioned above, although more research is needed to identify them and their effectiveness (DHH, chapter 4, para. 23). Further on in this paper we will identify methods for prevention of school violence that have been shown to reduce violent or aggressive behavior. Those methods will act as the buffer for those students that are pre-disposed to violent or aggressive behavior according to the factors listed above.

Despite all attempts to identify who may be prone to aggressiveness and despite precautions taken to inhibit school violence, some outbreaks of violence are bound to happen. Sibylle Artz argues that:

"Schools and school districts don’t cause violence; they do, however, play a part in providing the context for the
social networks that support violence because they draw together all the young people of a certain age in a given
area and demand of them that they operate within a certain set of rules in a certain building under the guidance
and supervision of a relatively small number of adults" (Artz, 1998).

By having so many young people in a small area, it is no wonder power struggles emerge. Bullying is often a fight for power within one’s peer group.

Types of Violence

According to Dinkes, Cataldi ,and Lin-Kelly, 28% of middle and high school students reported that they were victims of bullying. These statistics show that non-fatal forms of violence and aggression in school, such as bullying, are more prevalent and more part of a student’s daily school life than the less prevalent, but more sensationalized, fatal shootings on school grounds (Dinkes, Cataldi, & Lin-Kelly, 2007, p. iv). Bullying, or peer victimization can be defined in three ways: physical/verbal victimization (usually perpetrated by boys), relational victimization (usually perpetrated by girls), and sexual harassment (Felix & McMahon, 2006, p. 707). Their findings showed clear correlations between the gender of the aggressor and the victim’s well-being. Felix and McMahon (2006) also show that different forms of victimization had different affects:

• Boy aggressors target both boys and girls
• Girl aggressors tend to target girls
• Victimization in the form of sexual harassment and bullying is the most damaging
• Being victimized by a boy is more damaging to the victim’s well being than being victimized by a girl
• Relational victimization did not have the same profound negative effect on the victim
• Girls report relational victimization by boys and girls equally
• Boys do not report significant relational victimization by a girl
• Both boys and girls who are victims of sexual harassment, the most common form of peer victimization in this study, are most likely to internalize and externalize their experience (Felix & McMahon, pp. 717-718).

Felix and McMahon indicate that sexual harassment has been viewed in the past as a normal aspect of adolescent development, and that their study proves that the negative psychosocial effects on its victims should be addressed in prevention plans in addition to bullying or other types of violence (Felix & McMahon, 2006, p. 721).

Both boys and girls bully other students in order to show their dominance within their peer group and Artz concluded that some girls perpetrate violence only on other girls because that is the best way they know how to gain prestige within the male-dominated world they inhabit. She identified this horizontal violence as symptomatic behavior of an oppressed group which “views itself though the eyes of those who set the standards that they are to meet” (1998, p. 105). The standards they are trying to meet are those of their male peers to gain acceptance. This cycle also perpetuates occurrences of sexual harassment as girls continue to try to gain acceptance from boys.

Intervention and Prevention

As with any possibility of a dangerous situation, i.e. fires, bomb threats…etc., response to school violence should be well planned, practiced, and prepared. School systems should have in place an intervention plan when violent or aggressive acts occur on school grounds. This may include immediate action such as calling the police, restraint, expulsion or having a room where students can decompress and relax before a situation escalates into violence. The most effective way to intervene and respond to school violence is to create a violence prevention plan in the school system. Predicting school violence is difficult and just as difficult as trying to identify possible candidates of school violence. However the “goal (of preventing school violence) is to predict and prevent rare, socially embedded violence for which little effective intervention technology exists” (Mulveny & Caufmann, 2001).

Before a school can successfully implement a prevention plan, the school system must realize who owns school violence. Furlong and Morrison (2007) ask whether the criminal justice system, the public health domain or education professionals should own school violence. They question whether teachers should pass off violence-prone children to security guards and police officers. Furlong and Morrison also consider if principals and teachers ignore bullying because they regard it as normative behavior. Furlong and Morrison advocate taking a different look at the role school plays in contributing to systemic violence on its students. Systemic violence in schools means policy and pedagogy that harm children because those practices actually prevent their optimal learning. They state: “Examples of systemic violence include but are not limited to exclusionary practices, overly competitive learning environments, toleration of abuse, school disciplinary policies rooted in exclusion and punishment, discriminatory guidance policies, and the like” (Furlong & Morrison, 2007, p. 75). By acknowledging the idea that schools themselves form a context where violence and aggression may more easily arise, we are obligated as educational professionals to critically look at our school climates and our inclusive policies. In other words, the schools must own school violence.

One of the most efficacious protective factors defined by the Surgeon General for youth at-risk for school violence is strong bonding to the school. Teachers can facilitate this bonding by encouraging their students and using the classroom as a forum to talk about the violence in their students’ lives (Furlong & Morrison, 2007, p. 74). Finally, as teachers, we must acknowledge (and do action research on) the subculture of our students. As we saw in the Artz study, a school subculture that oppresses those of lower social status, and whose value system is based on punitive justice, must be addressed in a therapeutic response, not a punitive reaction.

Prevention as a Therapeutic Response

With prevention programs in place and early intervention, many violent acts in schools could be avoided. “A key component in any good school violence program is an environment with ongoing communication where problems are discussed. This type of school promotes togetherness and clarification for those faculty and staff who work closest with the ‘at-risk’ students” (Mulveny & Caufmann, 2001). Identifying at-risk students is an important factor in preventing violent situations. Although one method is to identify those that fit within a risk factor domain, it is not a guarantee.

Another method to identify possible violent situations is to map out violence-prone locations. By indicating which areas of the school create the most violence, students and teachers can begin to identify those that are more likely to engage in violence by who is frequent a frequent visitor of these locations. “Such a procedure provides a foundation for prevention and intervention of violence in locations that may be more violence-prone” (Bardick & Bernes, 2008). Most importantly, if a student is suspected of violent behavior a parent or guardian must be contacted. If they refuse to cooperate, then protective services may need to become involved.

The following is a list of successful violence prevention measures implemented by school systems:

• Raise awareness and responsibility of students, teachers, and parents regarding types of violence in schools
• Create clear guidelines and rules for the entire school
• Clearly communicate with the school community
• Focus on getting staff, students and parents involved in improvement
• Interventions typically fit in with the mission of the school
• Use staff and parents to plan, implement and sustain programs of anti-violence
• Increase monitoring and supervision in non-classroom areas (Astor, 2005).

Once prevention measures are in place, the school system can begin creating an atmosphere of school connectedness. By creating connectedness to the school, students are more likely to promote healthy behaviors (Blum, 2005).

A few ways to create this school connectedness are:

In school
Academic development – includes elective courses or incorporates health courses that also promote anti-violence
Personal development – social, emotional, physical, spiritual improvements through counseling
Out of school
Family/Cultural development – workshops discussing parental involvement, coping techniques, heritage and tradition awareness
Recreational development – promote interpersonal skills in healthy living, teamwork, cooperation, relaxation and good health
Career development – provide children with skills necessary for job readiness. Explore opportunities and provide contact (Rodney, Johnson & Srivastava, 2005).

The ultimate goal of intervention and prevention strategies in school districts should be to create a safe school. According to Bucher and Manning, the following are characteristics of safe schools:

• Is more than eliminating fights, shootings and weapons. It is also a school with equality and the absence of ridicule for race, culture, gender, religion…etc.
• Is where the total climate allows all members to interact positively and in a non-threatening manner.
• Promotes physical safety, intellectual safety, and emotional safety.
• A safe school creates safe and violence-preventing policies that are strict and enforced by all faculty and staff. The policies are to be equitable and appropriate (Bucher & Manning, 2005).


Although it is difficult to articulate exactly what school violence entails, we do need to realize that the school system and community need to own that violence and take measures to prevent further violent outbreaks from occurring. Although action needs to be taken immediately upon the onset of school violence, therapeutic preventative measures should be taken in order to reduce the risk of the same students repeating their violent behaviors, thus making our school systems safer. As future professional educators we aim to create a classroom environment where it is safe for students to express themselves and relieve stress through writing or other expressive activities. By providing them this outlet and by teaching the hidden curriculum of anger management and problem solving, our goal is to make schools safer one student at a time.


Adams, L., & Russakoff, D. (1999, June 12). Dissecting Columbine's cult of the athlete. Washington Post, p. A1.

Artz, S. (1998). Where have all the school girls gone? Violent girls in the school yard. Child &
Youth Care Forum, 27(2), pp. 77-109.

Astor, R.A., Meyer, H., Benbenishty, R., Marachi, R., & Rosemond, M. (2005). School safety
interventions: best practices and programs. Children & Schools, 27(1), 17-32.

Bardick, A., & Bernes, K. (2008, April). A framework for assessing violent behaviors in
elementary school-age children. Children & Schools, 30(2), 83-91.

Blum, R.W. (2005). A case for school connectedness. Educational Leadership, 62(7), 16-20.

Bucher, K., & Manning, M. (2005). Creating safe schools. The Clearing House, 79(1), 55-60.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2008). Understanding school violence. Retrieved May 28, 2008, from

Columbine High School massacre. (2008, June 5). Wikipedia. Retrieved June 10, 2008, from

Dinkes, R., Cataldi, E.F., & Lin-Kelly, W. (2007). Indicators of school crime and safety:2007 NCES 2008-021/NCJ 219553).
National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau
of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Washington, DC.

Felix, E.D., & McMahon, S.D. (2006). Gender and multiple forms of peer victimization: How do they influence adolescent
psychosocial adjustment? Violence and Victims, 21(6), 707-724.

Furlong, M., & Morrison, G. (2007). The school in school violence, definitions and facts.
Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 8(2), pp. 71-82.

Mulvey, E. & Cauffman, E. (2001). The inherent limits of predicting school violence. American
Psychologist, 56
(10), 797-802.

Rodney, L., Johnson, D. & Srivastava, R. (2005). The impact of culturally relevant violence
models on school-age youth. The Journal of Primary Prevention, 439-454.

School Violence Resource Center. (2001, August). Fact sheet youth risk factors. Retrieved May 28, 2008 from

Surgeon General. (2008). Youth violence: the public health approach. Retrieved June 1, 2008

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Office of the Surgeon General. (2001). Youth violence: A report of the
Surgeon General. Retrieved May 28, 2008, from

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License