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School Violence


School Violence Defined

The term school violence describes acts of interpersonal violence that occur within a school community.

It can occur in both passive and physical forms, causing both bodily and psychological harm. Passive forms of school violence include verbal bullying, making threats, intimidating, ostracizing, and electronic aggression (cyber-bullying). Physical forms of school violence include various types of fighting (punching, kicking, biting, slapping), and can involve assault with a weapon or involvement with a gang. 

Researchers sometimes define school violence as a subset of youth violence, involving student victims, perpetrators or witnesses between the ages of 10 and 24. School violence can occur (1) on school property, (2) on the way to or from school, (3) during a school-sponsored event, or (4) on the way to or from a school-sponsored event.

School Violence in the United States

Although a 2011 report produced by the National Center for Education Statistics found that acts of physical violence in schools resulting in death are relatively rare, many students experience nonfatal acts of passive and physical school violence.

  • 17 homicides of school-age youth ages 5 to 18 years occurred at school during the 2009-2010 school year.
  • Of all youth homicides, less than 2% occur at school, and this percentage has been stable for the past decade.
  • In 2010, there were about 828,000 nonfatal victimizations at school among students 12 to 18 years of age.
  • Approximately 7% of teachers report that they have been threatened with injury or physically attacked by a student from their school.
  • In 2009, about 20% of students ages 12–18 reported that gangs were present at their school during the school year.

According to a 2011 report by the Center for Disease Control, a nationally representative sample of youth in grades 9-12 found that:

  • 12% reported being in a physical fight on school property in the 12 months before the survey.
  • 5.9% reported that they did not go to school on one or more days in the 30 days before the survey because they felt unsafe at school or on their way to or from school.
  • 5.4% reported carrying a weapon (gun, knife or club) on school property on one or more days in the 30 days before the survey.
  • 7.4% reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property one or more times in the 12 months before the survey.
  • 20% reported being bullied on school property and 16% reported being bullied electronically during the 12 months before the survey.

The Physical and Emotional Impact of School Violence 

While school violence results in death only rarely, many youth experience nonfatal injuries ranging from the relatively minor (cuts, bruises, and fractured bones) to more serious injuries that can result in permanent disability (gunshot wounds or head trauma). More insidious is the invisible ocean of passive violence that young students are often confronted with (emotional, psychological, and verbal abuse). Without effective prevention strategies, exposure to passive and physical violence in school can lead to a broad range of harmful health behaviors and outcomes including drug and alcohol abuse, depression, anxiety, fear and suicide.

Risk Factors

While these risk factors do not guarantee that a young student will become a perpetrator of school violence, these factors have been correlated with an increased risk of engaging in school violence.

  • Past history of violence
  • Abuse of drugs, alcohol, or tobacco
  • Association with delinquent peers
  • Poor family functioning
  • Poor grades in school
  • Poverty in the community

How to Prevent School Violence

The goal of school violence prevention strategies should be primary prevention - preventing the violence from occurring in the first place. Prevention efforts should be aimed at promoting protective factors at multiple levels of influence to build a culture of peace at individual-, relationship-, community- and societal-levels. Researchers have begun identifying promising prevention strategies in these four areas.

Individual-level Prevention Strategies

Strategies to prevent school violence at the individual-level have two objectives. Firstly, they aim to encourage nonviolent attitudes and behavior in children and young people to prevent violence before it occurs. Secondly, they aim to help change attitudes and behaviors in students who have already become violent or are at risk of harming themselves.

  • Inner Change: Students develop skills such as emotional self-awareness and control, positive social skills, problem solving, conflict resolution, and teamwork in order to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence. Universal, school-based prevention programs focused on the individual have been shown to significantly lower rates of aggression and violent behavior. To be effective, these programs should be delivered to all students in a school or grade level.

Relationship-level Prevention Strategies

Strategies to prevent school violence at the relationship-level focus primarily on influencing the type of relationships that both victims and perpetrators of school violence have with the people they most regularly interact.

  • Bystanders: Programs that encourage youth to serve as active bystanders can improve the likelihood that students will intervene to stop episodes of school violence when they occur. When such programs aim to improve social skills and problem solving among peers, the result can be improved peer relationships throughout the school.
  • Family: Parent- and family-based programs involve parents in the academic and social aspects of their children’s school experience. They can improve family cohesion and connections, thereby lowering the risk of violence by children. When begun early while children are young, such programs can achieve substantial long-term effects in reducing violent behavior in youth. Successful programs teach parents about child development, communication skills, and help parents learn to solve problems in nonviolent ways.
  • Mentors: Mentoring programs that pair a young person with an adult who can serve as a positive role model and help guide the young person’s behavior can be effective at significantly reducing youth violence.
  • Teachers: In order to affect broader changes in school culture, teachers should be mindful of not conveying attitudes to students that condone violence.  Instead, teachers should strive to develop supportive relationships in which students feel comfortable approaching them about violence-related issues.

Community-level Prevention Strategies

Strategies to prevent school violence at the community-level focus on raising public awareness and debate about school violence issues, encouraging community action, addressing the social and material causes of school violence in the environment and providing care and support for victims.

  • Culture: Efforts to improve the overall environment of the school community to reduce the likelihood of violence include improved classroom management practices, promoting cooperative learning techniques, student monitoring and supervision, and involving parents and caregivers.
  • Environmental Design: Proper environmental design can reduce crime, fear and improve the overall quality of student life. Simple environmental design features that can improve safety include (1) natural surveillance - making sure no shrubbery blocks the view from building windows, (2) limiting movement into and out of buildings to identified entrances and exits that are continually monitored, (3) territoriality - through a prominently displayed logo or mascot, (4) regular building maintenance to ensure the structures are sound and lighting systems are working.
  • Supervision: Given the link between lack of supervision and youth violence, communities can help decrease school violence through formal or informal supervision opportunities such as after school activities, mentoring programs, and recreational activities. Community leaders who take an active role in such programs can demonstrate their commitment to preventing school violence.

Societal-level Prevention Strategies

Strategies to prevent school violence at the societal-level focus on the normative cultural, social and economic values that shape societies, thereby influencing the educational systems and institutional policies that emerge from them.

In the future, VOV will highlight the best of these programs, introduce you to creative individuals putting these prevention strategies into action, report the latest research findings, share the best ideas for applying these lessons to our daily lives, and share some of your inspiring personal stories of victory over school violence that are helping to build a culture of peace. Keep checking the VOV Blog and Stories sections for the latest updates and share them throughout your social network.

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Image Source: Tomas Fano (Attribution via Flickr: Creative Commons)


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Youth risk behavior surveillance—United States, 2011. MMWR, Surveillance Summaries 2012;61(no. SS-4). [cited 2013 Feb. 8]. Available from www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/ss/ss6104.pdf.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The effectiveness of universal school-based programs for the prevention of violent and aggressive behavior: a report on recommendations of the Task Force on Community Preventive Services. MMWR 2007;56(RR-7):1-12. [cited 2013 Feb. 8]. Available from www.cdc.gov/mmwr/PDF/rr/rr5607.pdf.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Best practices of youth violence prevention: a sourcebook for community action (rev). Atlanta (GA): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control; 2002. [cited 2013 Feb. 8]. Available from www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pub/YV_bestpractices.html.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Using environmental design to prevent school violence. [cited 2013 Feb. 8]. Available from URL: http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/youthviolence/cpted.html

Dahlberg LL, Butchart A. State of the science: violence prevention efforts in developing and developed countries. International Journal of Injury Control and Safety Promotion 2005;12(2): 93-104.

Krug EG et al., eds. World Report on Violence and Health. Geneva, World Health Organization, 2002. [cited 2013 Feb. 8].  http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/violence/world_report/en/summary_en.pdf.

Robers S, Zhang J, Truman J, Synder TD. Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 2011. National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Washington, DC; 2013. [cited 2013 Feb. 8]. Available from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2012/2012002.pdf.


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