Human beings are genetically programmed to seek safety. From the moment a baby is born it will orient toward that which seems safe and away from that which feels unsafe, and throughout its life will engage in both instinctive and learned behaviors to maximize real or perceived safety. These behaviors can be effective, efficient, flexible, and relationship-enhancing, or not. They can be effective in the moment and at the same time create multiple ongoing disruptions in one’s relationships with others and with society as a whole.
Many of us perceive the world as particularly unsafe right now. It doesn’t matter that historians tell us that all things come in cycles – we are living NOW. Even those of us fortunate enough to not be living in abject poverty or in areas ravaged by war or natural disasters are experiencing persistent stress: the effects of an ongoing global health crisis; economic uncertainty and distress; the potential threats associated with AI, social media, and technology; toxic political and social strife; fears related to climate change and parental worries about the world that their children will inherit; and widespread discrimination/aggression directed toward anyone perceived as different by virtue of race, ethnicity, religion, gender expression, physical disability, neurological difference, etc.
Considered within this context, we must view school violence as having many layers of complexity that need to be addressed for intervention or prevention efforts to be successful. According to the CDC, “School violence is violence that occurs in the school setting. It describes violent acts that disrupt learning and have a negative effect on students, schools, and the broader community.” The CDC specifies that to be characterized as school violence, the actions must occur on school property, on the way to or from school, during a school-sponsored event, or on the way to or from a school-sponsored event. Examples of school violence include bullying and cyberbullying, fighting (e.g., punching, slapping, kicking), the use of weapons, gang violence, and sexual violence, and it can be perpetrated by outsiders or by members of the school community.
Examining Statistics on School Violence and Violent Youth
In June 2022 the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences released its “Report on Indicators of School Crime and Safety”. The report compared the prevalence of a variety of violent/aggressive events during each school year from 2000-01 through 2020-21.
As stated in the report, the good news is that “Overall, throughout the last decade, several crime and safety issues have become less prevalent at elementary and secondary schools. For instance, between 2009 and 2020, the rate of nonfatal criminal victimization (including theft and violent victimization) decreased for students ages 12–18, from 51 to 11 victimizations per 1,000 students.” In addition, “student behaviors at school that targeted fellow students were also generally less prevalent compared with a decade ago. Lower percentages of public schools in 2019–20 than in 2009–10 reported that each of the following discipline problems occurred at least once a week: student bullying (15 vs. 23 percent), student sexual harassment of other students (2 vs. 3 percent), and student harassment of other students based on sexual orientation or gender identity (2 vs. 3 percent).”
The report also noted that changes in school protocols, both pre- and since the pandemic, have contributed to this downward trend. These include controlling access to school buildings, the use of security cameras, requiring faculty and staff to wear photo IDs, the increased presence of onsite security staff, the creation of written plans to deal with emergencies including pandemic disease, and the increased availability of onsite mental health diagnostic and treatment services.
The bad news is that while school shootings are rare events (chances at a given school are 1 in 6000), “there were a total of 93 school shootings with casualties at public and private elementary and secondary schools in 2020-21, the highest number since 2000-01,” and the data reflect a steady increase in injuries and deaths from 2017-18 through 2020-21. In addition, “cyberbullying and student discipline problems related to teachers and classrooms have become more common over time” as well as higher percentages of public schools reporting student verbal abuse of teachers (10 vs. 5 percent in 2020-21 vs. 2009-10), other student acts of disrespect toward teachers (15 vs. 9 percent), and widespread disorder in the classroom (4 vs. 3 percent).
According to a survey of 15,000 school personnel conducted by the American Psychological Association from July 2020 to June 2021, 59% of teachers, 58% of administrators, 48% of support staff, and 38% of school psychologists and social workers have reported being victimized in some way while at work. Support staff, e.g., school resource officers, aides, and bus drivers, were the most likely to report physical aggression, with more than 99% of the aggressors being students.
What Is Contributing to the Increase in Violence in School and Disruptive Behavior?
While there is a consensus that classroom aggression and disruptive behavior is an escalating problem, the factors contributing to the phenomenon are less clear-cut. The causes are varied and complex but fall into at least two major (although related) categories, environmental factors and student factors.
Criminologists have noted that violence has increased all over the country, likely attributable to the pandemic and the social unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd in 2020. They hypothesize that these trends have affected not only adults, but also have inevitably trickled down to our nation’s K-12 students. According to James A. Densley, a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota, “The global pandemic has exacerbated risk factors for violence in general, like loneliness, isolation, and economic instability. Violence also tends to rise at times of uncertainty, especially when distrust in public institutions is high. And social media serves as an accelerant, whipping up anger and frenzy… It’s a combination of the pandemic; a lack of trust in our institutions, particularly law enforcement; the presence of guns; the toxic, divisive, contentious times we live in. They’re all interacting together.”
Although the world is emerging from the worst of the pandemic, the aftermath of this crisis is still taking its toll. Many American families are grieving family deaths and/or have members who are struggling with long-Covid symptoms or pandemic-related anxiety. Many have ongoing financial problems and have children struggling with school avoidance, anxiety and depression, and/or with the recovery of learning losses. At the same time, as mentioned above, other stressors have quickly replaced Covid as disruptors of one’s sense of the world as a safe and predictable place. Many Americans are experiencing “a cascade of collective traumas” (Silver, 2021), grieving ambiguous losses, and struggling with feelings of fear, vulnerability, and helplessness.
These ongoing environmental stressors affect both caregivers and children (not to mention educational staff!) and set the stage for the repeated triggering of the Fight-Flight response. This survival-in-the-moment response makes it more difficult to trust others and interferes with executive functioning skills such as the ability to self-reflect and plan. It contributes to depressive/withdrawn behavior on one end of the spectrum and impulsive and aggressive behavior on the other. Environmental/community stressors both cause and exacerbate pre-existing trauma reactions, and traumatized students are more likely to lash out, approaching the world with a “fight to survive” response.
When a school professional encounters defiant, angry, or aggressive behavior in a student, particularly if the acting out is chronic, the impulse might be to label the child as “oppositional” or simply “a problem kid.” It is rare, however, that a child truly wants to be difficult. One root cause that underlies problematic behavior is a trauma history, and, according to data reported by the American Psychological Association (APA, 2008), greater than two-thirds of school-aged children have experienced a traumatic event before reaching their sixteenth year.
It is important to remember that trauma doesn’t always look like trauma. According to experts at the Child Mind Institute, “Trauma is particularly challenging for educators to address because kids often don’t express the distress they’re feeling in a way that’s easily recognizable—and they may mask their pain with behavior that’s aggressive or off-putting.” Complicating the matter, besides the emotional impact of trauma, research has shown that traumatic experiences also alter the brain and can affect children socially, behaviorally, and academically.
Besides the complications associated with trauma, there are certainly other student-centered reasons for aggressive and disruptive behaviors at school:
- Children diagnosed with ADHD can experience high levels of frustration in classroom situations and because of difficulties with self-regulation can act out impulsively and aggressively.
- Students with undiagnosed or unaddressed learning disabilities might lash out when they’re faced with school assignments that they find particularly challenging.
- Youngsters with sensory processing issues are easily overwhelmed by too much noise, bright lights, crowded conditions, and other overwhelming sensory inputs. When this happens, they can become anxious and dysregulated, which can lead to disruptive behavior.
- Another group of students who are prone to high-powered meltdowns are children on the autism spectrum. When they experience frustration or are forced to deal with an unexpected change, they can become agitated and prone to self-destructive and/or aggressive outbursts.
- Undiagnosed or untreated anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder can also contribute to a child’s explosive outbursts. We might expect anxious and/or depressed students to look shy or reserved, but anxiety and depression can present in any number of ways, including emotional volatility.
- Students with full blown or burgeoning substance use disorders may appear either under or overreactive in the classroom as substances interfere with the ability to self-regulate.
- Home environments with a high degree of parental conflict, and where there is poor supervision, erratic and harsh discipline, rejecting attitudes, and low parental involvement in a child’s activities are associated with the development of antisocial behaviors.
- Finally, some children grow up in family and/or community environments where aggressive behavior is modeled and reinforced.
Maintaining Hope and a Proactive Approach to Violence Prevention
It is easy to become overwhelmed and to struggle with helpless/hopeless feelings when confronted with a problem as complex as school-based violence. It is not just students and families who are dealing with “a cascade of collective traumas.” School professionals are also affected and can find it difficult, if not impossible, to stay calm and engage their cognitive skills when feeling unsafe.
First, for anyone dealing with difficult or disruptive behavior, it is helpful to remember that “behavior is communication.” Children who are lashing out in harmful ways are always in some kind of distress. Throwing a tantrum or acting aggressively may be the only behaviors at their disposal because of impulse control deficits, the lack of language to express feelings, or the lack of problem-solving abilities.
Second, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it is important to cultivate a trauma-informed culture within your district. This involves adopting a “what happened to you?” rather than a “what’s wrong with you?” approach to students, and all school staff members regardless of their roles must be trained in this model.
There are other best practices that districts can consider in the quest to make schools safer and more welcoming:
- Districts should prioritize the ongoing review and enhancement of their mental health Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). On-site mental health programming that is designed to address the needs of students at various risk levels is paramount.
- Protocols for Threat Assessment and Classroom Re-entry should be regularly reviewed, and Crisis Team members should engage in ongoing training. Threat Assessment and Crisis Intervention protocols should be crafted with a strength-based approach that does not over-pathologize youngsters but at the same time remains laser-focused on the safety of the entire school community.
- Districts may also want to bolster prevention oriented (MTSS Tier 1) interventions such as the use of Universal Screening tools that are designed for the early identification of factors that might increase the risk of aggression.
- Professional development opportunities that emphasize the ways that staff can contribute to a safe and positive school environment should be prominent. Even experienced teachers can benefit from workshops on classroom management strategies, on how to minimize potential triggers, and on de-escalation techniques.
- Districts can work to ensure that systems for identifying children’s academic and developmental needs be efficient and responsive so that youngsters with neuro-developmental challenges receive relevant services in a timely manner.
- Visible signs of the school’s safety plan should be prominent: consistently locked doors, restricted entry points, hallway monitoring, video cameras, security resource officers, etc.
- District leadership must communicate strongly, clearly, and often about behaviors that are not tolerated in the school environment, such as in person or cyber-bullying and other acts of violence. Consequences should be clearcut and applied swiftly and consistently, with an emphasis on both getting help for the perpetrating students and requiring that they make restitution to the school community for their bad behaviors.
- Parent-Teacher Organizations as well as clubs and sports teams can be tasked with sponsoring activities that foster civil, cooperative, and mutually supportive parent-teacher, student-student, and student-teacher relationships.
- School safety literature consistently emphasizes that safety is tied to students and parents having a positive school connection. PTOs, clubs, individual classrooms, teacher committees, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, etc. should all be tasked with identifying their roles in contributing to a positive school culture.
- Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curricula should include opportunities to learn and frequently practice self-regulation, effective communication, and conflict resolution skills.
- Ongoing communication with parents and caregivers is critical.
- Teachers should develop, post, and frequently re-visit both classroom-specific and school-wide rules and boundaries and maintain consistent, predictable routines. Clear definitions of unacceptable behavior should be offered.
- It is easy to get into power struggles with disrespectful and verbally aggressive students, especially when school professionals might themselves be feeling unsafe. Teachers can use support in developing skills that will help avoid such power struggles, e.g., encouraging students to attach words to their feelings and then validating those experiences, helping them to increase self-awareness, and how to lean toward talking before acting. Teachers can optimize outcomes by learning to listen more, and by moving away from a punitive and dominating stance, thereby allowing space for students to have a greater sense of self-efficacy.
- Finally – Refer, refer, refer for school-based mental health consultations as soon as troublesome symptoms or behaviors are observed.
A Call for Balance
Chris Curran, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Florida, is a policy researcher who studies school safety and discipline. His research has shown that students who feel unsafe have worse attendance rates and perform worse on standardized tests. Teachers who feel unsafe are more likely to experience burnout and some are retiring early or leaving the profession altogether.
He notes that the uptick in student aggression and disruptive behavior has contributed to the development of “two camps with polarized and politicized views on school discipline. On the one side are those who seek more restorative responses to misconduct that emphasize building relationships with students and discipline policies that keep kids in school. On the other are calls for greater use of exclusionary and punitive practices like suspension.”
While Professor Curran acknowledges that restorative approaches to discipline have not shown consistently positive results, and that some students have been allowed to stay in school despite posing a safety threat for the larger school community, he rejects an either/or solution. To meet the ongoing challenges associated with disruptive behavior, he recommends that school safety protocols clearly delineate the criteria for both restorative and exclusionary practices, and that schools rigorously monitor to ensure that the criteria are applied consistently across groups of students.
School Violence: Types, Causes, Impact, and Prevention (verywellmind.com)
Silver, R.C., Holman, E.A. & Garfin, D.R. Coping with cascading collective traumas in the United States. Nat Hum Behav 5, 4–6 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-00981-x
Educators say student misconduct has increased − but progressive reforms or harsher punishments alone won’t fix the problem (theconversation.com)
Report on Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2021 (ed.gov)