How Student Perspectives on Violence
Can Be Used to Create Safer Schools
-- Learning from Students' Experiences with and Perceptions of School Violence
- Responding to the Threat of School Violence
by Pedro A. Noguera
Among the students at the two schools, the responses to both the survey and the interviews revealed dramatic differences, and some unexpected similarities. This was revealed both in response to the true/false questions, the discussion of the survey that followed, and in the individual interviews. For example, whereas eighteen of the twenty-two students at school A responded "true" to question #1: "In the last year someone that I know was a victim of violence and was either killed or hurt", only six of the twenty eight students at school B responded affirmatively (See chart #2)
Other items revealed similar patterns of difference. In response to question #2 "I sometimes carry a weapon for protection", students at school A were twice as likely to respond affirmatively (eight of twenty-two) as students at school B (four of twenty-six). Similarly, students at school A were far more likely to respond "true" to questions #3 and #4 which asked "I have been in a fight in the last month(#3); in the last two months(#4)". Nine of the students at school A responded affirmatively to question #3, and thirteen to question #4, compared to four students at school B who answered true to both questions #3 and #4. Though the vast majority of students at both schools responded true to question #5 "I hardly ever fight if I can avoid it" (twenty one of the students at school A, twenty four of the students at school B), more students at school A responded "true" to question #10: "I respect and look up to people who know how to fight well" (eleven students at school A, four students at school B).
Differences in the attitudes and perceptions of these two groups of students were even more dramatic in the interviews and whole group discussions of the survey. For example, in response to question #11: "If you know someone wants to fight with you, the best thing to do is - A) Tell an adult so that the fight can be prevented; B) Tell a friend or family member so that you have someone to back you up; C) Carry a weapon just in case you get jumped; D) Try to talk to the person to resolve the conflict peacefully; or E) fill in your own response", the majority of students (15) at school A chose response (B) - tell a friend or family member so that you have someone to back you up. In contrast, the overwhelming majority of students at school B (21) chose response (A), "tell an adult so that the fight can be prevented", as the preferred method for handling a threat from another student.
In the discussions that followed their responses to this question, students at school A overwhelmingly felt that telling an adult if a person wants to fight with you is not a viable option because it can only provide temporary relief. According to one female student:
If you tell a teacher that somebody wants to fight with you its not like they're gonna walk you home. The most they can do is get the person sent to the office, but if the fight didn't happen yet, the person ain't even gonna get in trouble.
For these students, telling a friend or family member was a better solution because it might enable the student to avoid the fight altogether in that a show of force could neutralize the threat of violence. Another explained the logic behind such a response in this way:
When they see that you got back up if you're partners are with you, they know it ain't gonna be like they can just beat you down. Somebody is gonna get hurt and it ain't gonna just be on one side. Then they know they better just leave you unless they want some real action to jump off.
In contrast, the majority of students at school B considered telling an adult to be the most reasonable and effective way of handling a threat from another student. For these students there was no doubt that once such a matter was brought to the attention of a responsible adult that a violent conflict could be avoided. Adults at the school site were perceived as capable of protecting and supervising students, and these students believed that any individual threatening to use violence against a peer was likely to be punished severely. This certainty was conveyed by a male student at school B who asserted that
...the campus monitors at our school are really tough. If anyone wants to fight somebody they usually get caught right away by one of these guys. And they are really big. You'd have to be crazy to think that you could get away with fighting at this school, and if you tried to get someone after school, the principal or somebody will get you the next day, and kids who fight usually get suspended. You can't get away with any fighting around here, not even play fighting.
It is significant that at both schools in the study conflict resolution programs have been in place for several years, and many students, including some who participated in the study (four students at school A, three students at school B), have been trained to serve as mediators at their school. However, despite this training it is particularly noteworthy that none of the students at either of the schools chose response (D) "Try to talk to the person to resolve the conflict peacefully" in response to question #11 "If someone wants to fight you the best thing to do is...". In each interview, after discussing the student's responses to this question, I also probed to find out why they had not chosen the other possible responses. At both schools, the most consistent explanation given by students for not attempting to resolve a conflict peacefully was that students perceived such an approach to be unrealistic and impractical. To varying degrees, all of the students were aware of the conflict resolution programs that operated at their schools, and several of the students stated that they had received training on how to use these methods. However, when confronted with the prospect of an actual fight with another student, this option was not seen as viable. The following quotes from students at school A and B provide some insight into their reasoning:
When someone wants to fight you they usually don't give you a chance to do any talking. That stuff (conflict resolution) only works if the principal or somebody is around. If its just you and the other person you got to let your fists do the talking otherwise you could get hurt. I usually try to get the first punch in. That usually works better than trying to talk about it.
(Female student from school B)
Conflict resolution is OK if you're in class, or PE or even during recess at lunch time. If you know that adults are around its smarter to try to talk it out than to fight. I don't fight anyway, but I was one of the people that was trained to be a school mediator and I know that it only works during school, not after.
While it is difficult to discern whether or not students were being completely honest in their responses, it is important to point out that only two of the students at either school chose response (C) - "carry a weapon with you just in case you get jumped", in response to this question. Most of the students expressed the view that introducing weapons into a conflict increased the likelihood of escalation, and increased the penalties that might be imposed upon those who are caught. In the view of one female student from school A:
If you bring a knife or something then the other kid is gonna probably bring something, then it just gets too crazy. Its better to fight and get your butt kicked than to make it worse by bringing a weapon. Somebody could get killed.
For the three male students from school A who felt bringing a weapon might be an appropriate way to handle a confrontation, both stated that the use of a weapon was the best way to neutralize and prevent violence from a group of people who intended to do them harm. They also explained that acquiring a weapon, including a hand gun, would not be very difficult given that they each knew friends and family members who possessed firearms.
Similar patterns were revealed in the responses of students to the question #12 "If you knew that another student brought a weapon to school you would: A) Tell a teacher or the principal; B) Mind your own business and not tell anyone; C) Talk to the person to try to find out what was going on; or D) Talk to your friends about it". Once again, the differences in the responses of the students from the two schools was quite dramatic. Students at school A were far more likely to choose response (B) - "mind your own business and not tell anyone about it"(16 of 22 students), while students at school B were more likely to choose response (A) - "tell a teacher or the principal"(15 of 26 students). Two female students from school A said that they would attempt to talk to the person about why he/she was carrying a weapon if they knew the individual. Four students at school A and seven students at school B said that they would warn their friends that a student was in possession of a weapon so that they could avoid the individual. However, none of these students stated that they would tell an adult about the matter either because they feared there might be retaliation at some point in the future from the student with the weapon, or because they felt this was the best way to avoid trouble.
Once again, the reasons for the differences in the students responses to this question were rooted in their perceptions of security within and outside of school. Repeatedly, students at school A described feeling afraid that any attempt to report an armed student to school authorities would make it more likely that they would become a target of aggression. These students had no confidence in the ability of school administrators to provide them with protection. Moreover, several of the students expressed an unwillingness to violate school and community norms related to "snitching". This sentiment was summed up aptly by the following student:
Why would you report someone for carrying a weapon in school? They probably need it for protection on their way home from school 'cause usually people don't use no weapons at school. Anyone who rats out (reports) somebody to the principal or the police deserves to get hurt. If they don't like it they should mind their own business. That's the best way to stay out of trouble.
Such views were in stark contrast to those articulated by many of the students at school B. For these students, reporting another student to an adult was the most responsible way to respond to a student in possession of a weapon. These students had no doubt that school authorities would be able to protect them, and few even mentioned the possibility of reprisals from the reported student. Some of these students even expressed the view that by telling an adult about an armed peer they were actually helping the armed individual because their actions could prevent the student from hurting him/herself or someone else. According to one student:
I would let one of the security guards know because they know how to deal with kids that have problems, and any kid who brings a weapon to school has problems.
In the interviews, students were also asked what they would do if they knew that two people were going to fight after school, or if they were afraid of violence in their neighborhood (Question #13). Again, similarities emerged with respect to their interest in serving as spectators to fights among their peers. At school A, sixteen of the students said that they would want to watch the fight, while at school B seventeen students said they would watch. At both schools students expressed some pleasure in watching other students fight, describing it as fun, exciting, good action and hecka cool. What is interesting about this reaction is that it shows an important contradiction related to student, and I believe, societal attitudes toward violence: while many are afraid of becoming victims of violence, they (we) may still derive vicarious pleasure from observing others engage in it.
Perhaps the most striking contrast between students at the two schools concerned their perception of safety in their neighborhood(Q-9). While only three students at school A said they felt safe when walking in their neighborhood, nearly all (26) of the students at school B reported feeling safe. In fact, students at school A said repeatedly that they felt safer at school than anywhere else in their neighborhoods. There was no similar split in the perception of students at school B with respect to school and neighborhood safety. Students at school B consistently reported feeling unafraid to walk home from school, or to play in parks or on the streets in their neighborhoods. Hence, while both groups of students may find some aspects of violence entertaining, the perception of the threat it posed to them varied significantly.
An examination of student attitudes and perceptions toward violence in school provides insight into how environmental factors influence their sense of vulnerability and safety. In this study, students at both schools, the middle class suburban school and the low income innercity school, shared important similarities with respect to their attitudes toward violence. For example, the majority of students at both schools thought of fights between students as exciting and entertaining. Similarly, conflict resolution was not perceived by students at either school as an effective means of preventing fights when adults were not present.
Differences were evident with respect to the taboo against snitching among students at the two schools. Although most of the students seemed reluctant to report classmates who broke school rules, students at school B were much more willing to report an armed student to an adult, than students at school A who said they were more likely to mind their own business. The unwillingness to communicate with adults about a matter so important to the well being and safety of students at school A is very significant. It suggest two things: 1) that the pressure to not report another student who may pose a danger to others or himself is powerful; and 2) that the inability of the school to insure the safety of its' students makes it unlikely that students will risk reporting their peers. Given the threat posed by the increased accessibility of weapons, the continuation of a taboo against snitching among young people adds considerably to the dangers schools and students face.
This difference in attitudes among students at the two schools is also directly related to their perception of the threat they face within the school and the environmental context. Students who believe that adults can and will protect them if they are threatened are much more likely to call upon adults to intervene and to prevent conflicts. They have a certainty that fights can be avoided and their safety assured by adults who are charged with securing the school environment. In contrast, if students feel vulnerable outside of school they are likely to feel afraid within school as well because they may believe that there is no way for adults at school to protect them once they leave, and therefore no way to avoid the threat of violence. The most telling evidence of the inevitability of violence among students at school A came from the fact that none of the students considered telling an adult a viable strategy for avoiding a fight. This was true among both boys and girls, and even among children who were seen by adults as unaggressive and non-violent.
How can we use information related to student's perceptions of violence to promote safety in schools? The first step is to recognize that what students think and feel about this issue matters, and must be taken into account when policies are being adopted and implemented. Their perspectives matter because in most schools students are more vulnerable to the threat of violence than any other constituency - teachers, administrators, or others. Consulting with students increases the likelihood that the policies enacted to insure safety actually addresses their fears and concerns about violence. Moreover, because the social realty of adolscents - their values, norms and ethical standards, is generally very different from that of adults (Erickson, 1968), it is not uncommon for adults to be totally unaware of incidents, threats, brewing conflicts, or the circumstances under which students feel most threatened. Incorporating their perspectives on security issues will increase the possibility that their concerns are addressed and that policies are relevant to the real dangers they face.
When the perceptions and experiences of students are not taken into account, the policies adpoted to help young people often miss the mark and may even generate greater polarization and antipathy toward authority figures. Additionally, there is evidence that when kids are afraid to walk home from school, they may be less likely to participate in sports and extracurricular activities, and they may be frequently truant (Steinberg, 1996).
The question is not whether action should be taken to prevent violence, but rather what form of action will be most prudent and effective. Elsewhere I have argued that the preoccupation with controlling student behavior has inadvertently weakened the schools ability to insure safety (Noguera, 1995). This occurs because the fight against school violence has turned some schools into prison-like facilities without responding adequately to the basis of fears felt by teachers and students. Just as closer connections between neighbors has been shown to be more effective in reducing crime than adoption of individual security meansures (Currie, 1985), solutions to violence in schools may also come from greater connections between adults and students rather than increased security.
John Devine, author of Maximum Security (1996), in his study on school violence in New York City, takes a different approach. Borrowing from Foucault he characterizes the current climate or approach to safety in some of the worse schools as the anti-panopticon; environments where the effort to construct the disciplined individual have been abandoned. He describes such schools as places where "teachers have lost all authority to discipline students; hallways and cafeterias have become sites where violent assaults occur regularly unless actively patrolled by guards; and the most disruptive and violent students freely intimidate their peers and their teachers." (1996 p. 98)
While such schools certainly exist I believe that they have come to be that way because the desire to control student behavior is all that is left of the educational mission in some schools. In many of the schools located in the poorest innercity neighborhoods, the need to create an atmosphere where teaching and learning are central to the operation of schools, has been replaced by a fixation on security and order. Standards of behavior like, academic standards, have been lowered, and the authority of teachers has been undermined by policies and practices which have removed them from the disciplinary process. (Devine, 1996 p.115) The focus on order and control remains even if it is now delegated to administrators, security guards and increasingly, the police. This can be seen most clearly in budgetary expenditures which prioritize the hiring of more security guards over the hiring of teachers and librarians. In some districts, the acquisition of new metal detectors and surveillance cameras has taken precedence over purchasing books, computers and lab equipment.
I concur with those like Devine who decry the response to the threat of violence in schools as weak and ineffective. However, I do not believe that this is because schools have given up on their mission of social control. Instead, I believe that the response to school violence has failed because it fails to address the source of teacher and student fears. Schools, especially those in economically depressed urban areas, have become less safe because they have ignored the need to promote supportive relationships between students and adults in environments that are nurturing and supportive. The schools I have visited which are described by students and teachers as safe, dont rely upon guards and metal detectors to prevent violence. Instead, they pursue strategies which insure that all students are known by adults and feel supported. Advocates of school reform have called for similar reforms in an effort to increase student achievement (Sizer 1992). Such schools construct systems that allow teachers, counselors and administrators to have a high degree of personal contact with their students, and they promote security by encouraging a sense of collective responsibility for the school environment rather than relying upon intimidation and coercion (Meier 1995).
Schools that succeed in producing safe environments are more likely to find solutions through the quality of human relationships they encourage than in the security measures they adopt (Noguera 1995). In this regard, it is especially important for schools to recruit and retain personnel who command the respect and admiration of students, not because they are physically intimidating, but because they possess what Durkheim has called "moral authority"(1973). The authority of such individuals is rooted in the values and norms of a community. Those who possess moral authority can exert authority with young people without relying upon formal titles or coercion. They are deferred to as leaders because of what they represent to students socially, culturally and historically.
Such a figure was hired to work as a security guard at school A after my study was completed. One of my recommendations to the principal was that she attempt to recruit individuals who resided in the surrounding neighborhood to work at the school so that they could serve as a social bridge between the students, parents and teachers. Shortly thereafter, an elderly woman who had previously served on the school's site committee, was hired as a security guard. Unlike the other guards this grandmother did not rely upon physical intimidation to deal with disruptive students. As a person familiar with the experience of the students outside of school, she was able to draw on her knowledge of the students and their culture to discipline, counsel and console students without relying upon threats or intimidation. Within a short period of time, she was recognized as a valuable member of the school community, someone who could be counted on to maintain peace, order and safety within the school environment.
I believe that this is precisely the kind of approach that schools must take if they are to succeed in making schools safer. If there is not a willingness to reconsider traditional approaches to school safety, to critically examine why our schools are now more vulnerable to violence, and to listen to the perspectives of students, it is unlikely that we will find answers to the problem of violence in schools.
Attempting to understand the attitudes that students hold toward violence is the first step that can be taken toward challenging its normalization. Without the benefit of such an understanding, efforts to promote safety are likely to fail and miss the mark because they are not based on a reading of students' perceptions of reality. It is only by understanding the attitudes, perceptions and experiences that students have in relation to violence that we can devise strategies that succeed in making our schools safer places. Moreover, through dialogue about the problem and all of its complexities, students and adults can work together in conceptualizing new possibilities for eliminating the threat of violence, and new strategies can be envisioned and created.
Published in In Motion Magazine November 11, 1999.
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