School Policy and Culture Influence Student Violence


After 20 years of hints in research, it’s clear, according to a recent study by a University of Illinois at Chicago psychologist and colleagues: schools can influence aggression and attitudes favoring violence among their students for better or worse, at least during the sensitive transitional period of middle school.

The influences of school policies and environment on individuals were surprisingly strong, said David Henry, the study’s lead author and a professor of health policy administration. After ruling out the influences of individual students on group behavior in the statistical analysis, he said, the researchers could look at specific aspects of a school’s culture and predict not only how much violence was occurring in the school, but also how much would be seen over the next three years.  

What can schools learn from this study? Three lessons, Henry said.

“One is to foster a climate where kids are encouraged and expected to use nonviolence to solve problems,” he explained. “Teachers should pay attention to what bystanders are doing in situations that involve bullying or fighting. Encouragement or protest from other students can either promote or discourage violence.”

“The second lesson is to take steps to improve interpersonal relationships, among students and between students and teachers,” he said. “The third is being attentive to violence by taking action when violence occurs, and learning what areas in the school are unsafe and making them safe.”

These aspects of the school environment are especially important for students in the sixth grade, when they experience substantial social changes, he said, and the influence of these school factors diminish by the end of eighth grade.

“We know from research on small groups that if you bring a group of people together, they establish their norms very quickly. We think the same thing is true when you put a bunch of kids in a school,” said Henry, a psychologist. “The opportunity to influence behavior is stronger when kids are in a new environment.”

The research was conducted as part of a larger intervention study with a diverse sample of middle schools in Chicago and three areas in South Atlantic states. The researchers surveyed 5,106 students in those schools in fall and spring. Only data from students who attended the same school from sixth grade through eighth were included in the researchers’ analysis to ensure accuracy of the measurements of the school’s effects.

In these semiannual surveys, students were asked about their beliefs about the acceptability of violence, their confidence in using nonviolence to resolve conflict and their own physical aggression. Each student’s behavior was also rated by the teacher who best knew him or her.

Students, teachers and administrators also were surveyed about norms about violence and nonviolence in the school; the level of kindness, support and respect in relationships among students and between teachers and students; teachers’ awareness and responsiveness to violence; and safety concerns.

Thirty-seven schools in Chicago, northeastern Georgia, Durham, NC, and Richmond, Va.—some urban, some rural—participated in the study. Most students in these schools were from low-income families, eligible for the federal lunch program. Half the students were African American (52 percent), a fifth (21 percent) were Hispanic, and a sixth (17 percent) were Caucasian. The remaining students were American Indian or Asian American.

While the sample of schools was “large and diverse,” it was not nationally representative, so “these findings can’t be generalized to the entire country or to suburban populations,” Henry said.

The study was part of the Multisite Violence Prevention Project, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The project, which tested an intervention to reduce violence in middle schools, may have influenced findings of this study to a slight degree, Henry said. In their statistical models, the researchers took steps “as much as possible” to eliminate the intervention’s influences from the examination of school climates, and “we probably were somewhat successful,” he said.

Henry conducted the research with faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Chicago and the University of Virginia. The article was published in the October 2011 issue of the Journal of School Psychology.

Read the abstract of the article, “Influence of School-level Variables on Aggression and Associated Attitudes of Middle School Students.”

Read about research about parental influences on violence among middle school students, which Henry and colleagues published earlier this year.

This news release was written by Veronica Johnston, IHRP communications director.