How Student Perspectives on Violence
Can Be Used to Create Safer Schools
Part 2- Understanding Student Perspectives on Violence
by Pedro A. Noguera
To begin to understand how students perceived the threat of violence within the context of their everyday experiences at school, I undertook a study of student attitudes utilizing the grounded theory approach developed by Glazer and Strauss.(1977) As is typical for most inquiries that are premised on grounded theory, I had a great deal of prior knowledge about the subject matter, having worked and engaged in research with schools for many years. However, despite my familiarity with the subject I had no compelling hypothesis or causal explanation for the questions that motivated the inquiry.
I wanted to understand how students perceived the threat of violence in their environment and how this perception might influence their attitudes toward violent behavior. I was also interested in understanding the ethical judgements they made regarding particular manifestations of violence that they observed and/or experienced within their daily routines. Specifically, I wanted to know if there were circumstances in which students might regard violent behavior as legitimate or appropriate, and if so, what connection if any this had to their personal stance toward violence.
To find answers to these questions I surveyed and conducted interviews with forty-eight students at two middle schools in northern California. I chose the two schools because they provided a striking contrast along the diminesions of race, class and enviornmental context. I surmised that such a contrast would illuminate the ways in which social context - the community, neighborhood economy, physical environment, etc - influenced the atttitudes and perceptions of young people toward violence. Additionally, I suspected that while students at the two schools seem to exist in completely separate worlds, a closer examination might reveal other ways in which the students are similar to each other as a result of their exposure to television and other media, and the more diffuse influences of popular youth culture. Understanding how these factors - the cultural and the environmental - influenced the attitudes and perceptions of students toward violence was a primary goal of this inquiry.
In order to protect the identities of those associated with the two schools, I shall refer to them in this paper as School A and B. School A is a relatively small middle school - 347 students, 18 teachers, a principal, an assistant principal and two guidance counselors. It is located an an industrial area in an economically depressed and socially isolated community; a neighborhood with a reputation for its dangerous streets, dense housing projects, and illegal dumping that occurs on its streets. The school, like the community, has a diverse non-white student population, made up predominantly of African Americans, but with significant numbers of students who are recent immigrants from Mexico, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
School B is a medium size middle school - 812 students, 36 teachers, a principal, 2 assistant principals, and 3 counselors. It is located in a park-like setting on twelve acres of land, with large athletic fields, a swimming pool and tennis courts. It is surrounded by the homes of middle class families, the average value of which exceeds $300,000, in a predominantly white, middle class, suburban community. The community is made up largely of college educated professionals, though there is a working class side of town where most non-white families live.
Even though the actual distance between the two schools is less than ten miles, in existential terms the schools feel as though they were thousands of miles apart. The contrast is most readily apparent in the physical aspects of the two schools. The hall ways in school A are dark, and the play areas are covered with asphault. The hall ways in school B are bright with natural illumination from skylights in the ceilings, and grass and trees cover the campus.
Similarly, the way these schools relate to the surrounding community is also telling feature of comparison. While school A is surrounded by a fence approximately 15 feet in height which borders the perimeter of the campus, school B and its facilities - pool, playing fields, tennis and basketball courts, - are easily accessible to its neighbors and the general public. The design of the two schools suggest that whereas school A regards its community with suspicion and fear, school B perceives the community as an ally and its facilities are regarded by residents as a public resource and asset.
My access to both schools was made possible by prior relationships with the faculty and administration. In years past I had been involved in professional development workshops for teachers, and spoken to groups of parents and students at both schools. To obtain their participation in this study I approached each principal with an offer to assist them in devising a violence prevention strategy for their schools that would be informed by concrete knowledge about the views and perceptions of students. Like many schools, both were faced with growing concern from parents and teachers related to the threat of violence. Though neither school had experienced any major incidents of violence in the last few years, heightened awareness about violence at other schools throughout the country prompted both principals to readily agree to participate in the study and welcome my offer of assistance.
The design called for surveys and interviews with students to be conducted in 8th grade social studies classes with the support and cooperation of the classroom teachers. Twenty-two students were surveyed and interviewed at school A, and twenty eight students were surveyed and interviewed at school B. In both classes the study was introduced as part of a unit on violence prevention which I taught as a guest teacher over a two week period. The unit began with a lecture/presentation on the forms of violence in American society - violent crime, interpersonal and domestic violence, police and military violence, and violent acts carried out by hate and terror groups. This was followed by a discussion of how these forms of violence are represented in the media. Following a brief interactive discussion to clarify the focus of the study and definition of terms, a survey was administered which consisted of ten true/false and six oepn-ended questions(see Chart #2). Once the surveys were completed and collected, a discussion of the responses was facilitated with the whole group in an effort to understand why individuals responded as they did to the questions. This enabled me to get a better understanding of the logic behind the responses, and also provided an opportunity for an open discussion of related issues.
Following completion of the survey I conducted individual interviews with the students over the course of the week, using the six open-ended questions from the survey as the basis for our conversation. Each interview lasted approximately twenty five minutes. All of the questions were designed to solicit the student's views and perceptions of violence and to ascertain the extent to which they perceived a threat of violence within the school environment. The following week I presented a unit on violence in the media for the purpose of investigating how students interpreted and responded to violent images in film. The results of that portion of the study will not be reported here, though its findings have indirect relevance to the issue of violence in schools.
Published in In Motion Magazine November 10, 1999.
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