Violence in Grade Schools a Global Problem, Says USC Researcher

January 31, 2005

Contact Elaine Lapriore (213) 740-7895

Bullying, weapon use and sexual harassment in schools are an interrelated, global and damaging problem, especially among grade-school children, according to a new book by professors at the University of Southern California and Hebrew University.

“School Violence in Context: Culture, Neighborhood, Family, School and Gender” (Oxford University Press) examines the relationships between forms of school violence and the influence of family, community and cultural factors. The book also offers solutions for this worldwide issue.

“Globally, we saw much higher rates of victimization in younger grades, in more than 30 years of data,” said Ron Avi Astor, USC professor of education and social work, who co-wrote the book with Rami Benbenishty of Hebrew University.

“My sense is that the public and politicians find that hard to believe. They say, ‘kids will be kids.’

“But why is violence viewed as normative development for kids when it’s not for adults?” Astor asked. “There are serious consequences over time in development, especially if a child is victimized often.”

“School Violence in Context” reports on the largest study by any country about school violence. The first study of both Jewish and Arab students in grades 2 to 12, the project – funded in part by the Israeli Ministry of Education – also surveyed teachers and principals and incorporated community, family and neighborhood information.

The book also compares the Arab-Israeli study to similar data about U.S. schools collected in the California School Climate Survey at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Astor and Benbenishty surveyed three sample groups totaling 51,500 people between 1998 and 2003, with a 95 percent response rate. They asked more than 100 questions about violence by peers and staff, weapons in school, risky behaviors in school, school climate and feelings of safety.

“Unlike studies that look at a single form of violence, we have them all together in one study in one group of kids,” Astor said. “We acknowledge that a child on the playground may experience bullying, weapon use and sexual harassment all in the same week or month.”

Surprisingly, incidence of physical assault shows very little national and cultural variation; it’s mainly affected by gender and age. Boys are twice as likely as girls to be victimized physically, and most often in elementary school; rates decline with age across cultures, researchers said.

Sexual harassment was the most different from culture to culture.

“The more patriarchal the cultures – ultra-Orthodox Hasidic, fundamental Islam – the more sexual harassment we saw,”Astor said. “But not the way we expected.

“In most fundamentalist Muslim and Orthodox Jewish samples, the girls were least victimized, while the boys were off the charts,” he added. “It’s boys harassing other boys. In the seventh grade, rates for boys shoot up, and go down for girls, largely due to the single-gender middle schools within patriarchal cultures.”

The researchers showed that sexual harassment with intent to humiliate and sexual harassment with the intent of sexual contact are actually two very different forms of aggression. The humiliation type follows similar patterns of physical assault, where boys are victimized far more often than girls.

Harassment for sexual gratification follows different patterns and is more prevalent among young male Arabs and Orthodox Jews; among secular Jews, girls are slightly more often victims than boys.

In both the U.S. and Israel, fear of victimization is a major predictor of who brings weapons to school, said Astor, who added that a climate of fear also affects children who have not personally confronted a weapon.

“Seeing a gun on campus or hearing about a gun on campus – even knowing a gun is on campus is a form of victimization,” he said.

“When all forms of victimization – verbal-social, threats and physical violence – are rank-ordered,” Astor explained, “overall patterns are extremely similar across gender, ethnicity/culture, age and within and between countries.”

“We think this reflects common global victimization patterns that exist within schools.”

Astor said that the social climate in schools accounts for much of the violence that occurs there; it’s more influential than the community or families. School policy, teachers’ relationships with students and peer group support have a large influence on victimization patterns.

He offers one solution: the “whole-school” approach to school violence, where school leaders, students and parents decide together what problems of violence exist and how to solve them.

“Many school violence programs in the United States,” Astor said, “want to leave the school intact and treat violent kids as deviant, so the rest of the school doesn’t have to deal with it.

“In Norway, Australia, the UK, they might say, ‘What’s up with that circle around the fight, with the kids who are encouraging the fight? Where’s their moral obligation?’ ”
he said.

“In the whole-school approach, all are held responsible. It leads to much greater awareness.”