Few educational settings are exempt from school violence. Violent incidents occur at the primary level and continue all the way through the post-secondary levels of education. School violence has become a fairly popular topic over the last few decades, and a great deal of public opinion concerning school violence is affected by increased media attention regarding incidents that occur on school grounds.
Contrary to popular belief, school violence has been on the decline for at least the past decade. Middle school and high school students are far more likely than elementary school students to perceive danger in multiple school subcontexts. However, students at the high school level are among those most at risk, with public high schools reporting incidents of violence at higher rates than either public middle schools or primary schools.
The causes of high school violence are of critical concern. Which variables increase the likelihood that school violence will occur? Exploring this phenomenon from the individual level is a common approach taken by researchers. However, structural causes of violence are of equal importance. Sociologist James Henslin characterizes social structure as “the framework of society that was already laid out before you were born.” Thus researchers must explore the contributions that social and economic forces make to delinquent behavior among high school students to gain insight into the underlying causes of structural violence among this group.
Structural causes for school violence are multifaceted. Dewey Cornell, Professor of Education at the University of Virginia likens exploring this phenomenon to that of airline industry accidents. In the airline industry, it is generally understood that plane crashes rarely have just one cause. Instead, they typically result from an accumulation of factors, such as poor weather, human error, and electrical failure. These factors come together as a whole, with the end result being a crash. The same tends to be true with school violence: Poverty, discrimination, and lack of social support appear to represent the accumulation of factors most responsible for structural violence in U.S. high schools.
Economic inequality has long been positioned the forefront in discussions of structural violence. The United States is home to many of the world’s most affluent people. Statistics, however, reveal significant disparities between the rich and the poor, and those affected most by such income and wealth disparities in the United States are children. Long-lasting scarcity among a great deal of U.S. residents has led many to believe that U.S. social class systems now include a permanent underclass. Furthermore, American children face bouts of poverty at rates unprecedented in other industrialized nations.
Economic deprivation places an individual at an increased risk for violence. Research reveals that adolescents’ attempts to prevail over their poverty-stricken conditions often result in a variety of challenges. They often have strong aspirations to achieve the “American Dream.” Yet, given their limited circumstances, they often find themselves partaking in delinquent behaviors to accomplish these goals. These delinquent behaviors include illegal drug trafficking and gang activity, as well as problematic behaviors on school grounds.
People of color disproportionately occupy the lower-class sector of U.S. society. In fact, blacks and Hispanics significantly outnumber their white counterparts in this realm. As a result, discussions of poverty, to some degree, must be racialized. Thus, in addition to suffering from class discrimination, members of minority groups must cope with racial discrimination. Many people overlook the fact that youth must endure these oppressive conditions. Minority adolescents have spoken directly about the complexity of mentally coping with these conditions. Some have conveyed feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness, while others have reported expressing hostility through physical altercations as a means of protesting society’s unjust ways. The implications of this phenomenon often leave the individual feeling socially excluded.
Lack of social support is an additional factor when examining causes of structural violence in high schools. Societal, community, and familial support are all critical aspects of social control. For instance, children exposed to violence in their homes or neighborhoods are more likely to behave violently in school. For most children, home is a safe haven. However, this scenario is becoming less and less common, particularly for those who reside in low-income neighborhoods. Children have reported witnessing shootings and violent gang activity. Contemporary children often witness first-hand the impact of violence and drugs in their neighborhoods and even in their homes, which can have devastating effects. These issues are perpetuated by single-parent households and further worsened if the custodial parent participates in self-destructive behavior.
Community violence resulting from such problems as drug use and gang activity tends to disproportionately afflict lower-class neighborhoods, and children’s perpetual exposure to violence plays a significant role in their likelihood of partaking in violent behavior. For example, studies have revealed that children who are exposed to chronic community violence suffer much higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. Consequently, their likelihood of developing cognitive and behavioral problems also increases.
The literature suggests that the more violence children are exposed to (whether in the home or in the community), the more likely they are to feel a loss of control. Researchers have also concluded that students are often overwhelmed by these obstacles. Thus their concerns regarding community violence often take precedence over anything happening in school, good or bad, including their behavior. Feelings of hopelessness, frustration, and loss of control make acting out an appealing choice for struggling adolescents.
Clearly, what happens at school is only one segment of a student’s life. Students of all ages may struggle with issues of drugs, abuse, and even neglect within the home, and exposure to violence increases a youth’s risk of partaking in deviant behavior in the school system. The duration of exposure to structural violence sets adolescents apart from their pre-teen counterparts and could play a role in the higher incident rate of violence at the high school level. Adolescents have likely endured poverty-stricken lifestyles, racial and class discrimination, and associated societal consequences to a longer degree than younger children, and many adolescents have likely tailored their coping mechanisms to fit their circumstances. However, even the most dedicated students can find themselves developing harmful coping skills. It is apparent that environmental circumstances play a significant role in student performance, and a variety of social factors, from social exclusion to inequality, appear to be critical components in discussions of structural violence in U.S. high schools.
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