Susan Dvorak McMahon Ph.D.

Unpacking School Violence

Violence in Schools Is a National Crisis

Aggression is often triggered by common directives and disciplinary practices.

Posted Feb 20, 2020

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Source: sharpshutter/Shutterstock

School violence is a problem both on and off school grounds, with reports of more than 20 episodes of gun violence at or near U.S. school sporting events since mid-August. In January of this year, three school shootings in California and Texas resulted in four people killed or injured, including a 9-year-old girl on the school playground.

The most recent national report on Indicators of School Crime and Safety reveals that of about 3.8 million teachers, 10 percent (or 373,900) teachers reported that students had threatened them with injury. Another 6 percent, or 220,300 teachers, reported that a student had physically attacked them. 

School violence represents a national crisis. Schools struggle to address this problem, and many educators lack the training and support to effectively prevent and address violence. Our research is diving into violence against teachers and strategies to solve the issue.

As a 25-year scholar on school violence and a member of the American Psychological Association National Task Force on Violence Against Teachers, I, along with colleagues, anonymously surveyed over 3,000 pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers across the United States to better understand the violence that teachers experience in schools. 

We found that while verbal aggression is the most common form, 44 percent of teachers reported experiencing at least one physical offense. Physical offenses are often serious, and 9 percent of teachers reported a doctor visit following the injury. Many teachers are physically victimized by students, parents, and colleagues, making the workplace a toxic environment.

In our study, one 63-year-old female teacher in an urban public elementary school in Maryland reported: "I was attacked from behind—a large object was thrown that hit me in the upper back and caused whiplash injury to my neck. This is the fourth time in four years that I have been hurt badly enough to need to see a doctor."

A 63-year-old male teacher in an urban middle school in Iowa reported: "Had student pull a gun on me in the parking lot and threaten to shoot me... The student got angry; he was caught cheating."

In another instance, a 57-year-old female, suburban public middle school teacher from Louisiana indicated: "I have logged in knives, drugs, brass knuckles, and the administration and deputies confiscated the AK-47… One student had detailed out, on every page, how he intended to kill me and bring a gun to school."

Studies that go beyond the prevalence of violence directed at teachers are limited, and researchers know little about the triggers and consequences surrounding these incidents.

The Task Force recently published a study on physical aggression toward teachers using an antecedent‐behavior‐consequence framework. Among 193 U.S. teachers, the common antecedents included breaking up fights, discipline, and directives. Common consequences included student removal, police or legal involvement, school staff involvement, positive outcomes, and inaction.

Given that physical aggression is often triggered by common teacher directives and school disciplinary practices, educators are frustrated. Schools are engaging in practices with the hope of improving safety and need research to examine their effectiveness.

I am chairing a newly created APA National Task Force on Violence Against Educators that will build upon the previous APA Task Force findings and broaden our study to include multiple school stakeholders. We are partnering with many national educational organizations to assess school violence against educators, para-professionals, administrators, school psychologists, and school social workers, as well as the effectiveness of various policies, practices, and training to inform the next generation of research on this important issue.

Given growing concerns about school violence, student protesters are calling for action in Iowa. Ohio created a new School Safety Center. Johns Hopkins University in Maryland established a new Center for Safe and Healthy Schools. Virginia proposed legislation to improve teacher training through adding instructional requirements on positive behavioral interventions, crisis prevention and de-escalation, and the proper use of and prevention of physical restraints. 

Reducing school violence requires more effective action, research, training, and policy to improve safety, school climate, and well-being for students and educators.

References

McMahon, S.D., Martinez, A., Espelage, D., Rose, C., Reddy, L.A., Lane, K., Anderman, E. M., Reynolds, C. R., Jones, A., & Brown, V.  (2014).  Violence directed against teachers:  Results from a national survey.  Psychology in the Schools, 51, 753-766.  DOI: 10.1002/pits.21777

McMahon, S.D., Peist, E., Davis, J.O., & Bare, K., Martinez, A., Reddy, L.A., Espelage, D.L., & Anderman, E.M. (2020).  Physical aggression toward teachers: Antecedents, behaviors, and consequences.  Aggressive Behavior, 46, 116-126. https://doi.org/10.1002/ab.21870

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