Perceptions of School Violence as a Problem and Reports of Violent Events: A National Survey of School Social Workers

Article excerpt

School violence is viewed as a pressing national problem by the popular media, the American public, and state and federal government. For example, in a barrage of recent reports, the popular media has portrayed American schools as unsafe places characterized by rapes, shootings, stabbings, and beatings. Consistent with the media's evaluation of the condition of schools, the American public views violence as the most important problem that schools face (Elam, Rose, & Gallup, 1994).

Concern about school violence has led several states to commission studies about the problem and to draft legislation to address the ways in which schools should handle violent incidents (Furlong, Babinski, Poland, & Munoz, 1996; James, 1994). Media, public, and government recognition of and concern about school violence has even resulted in the targeting of school violence as a national education priority. According to the federal government's National Education Goals Panel (1994a), "by the year 2000 schools in the United States will be free of drugs, violence, and the unauthorized presence of firearms, and will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning" (p. 109).

As a result of the national concern, there is a burgeoning literature on school violence, including its epidemiology; its causes; and what schools are, can, and should be doing to reduce its prevalence. To date, the vast majority of the research on issues surrounding school violence has focused on students and, to a lesser extent, on parents and teachers (see Metropolitan 'Life Insurance Company & Harris Poll, 1993-1994, or National Center for Educational Statistics, 1991-1992, for examples of large-scale surveys).

Elam et al. (1994) found that 92 percent of the public supports violence training for school personnel. School-based professional organizations are responding to this growing concern by recommending that school professionals be trained to deal with violence (for example, American Psychological Association, 1993; Furlong et al., 1996; National Education Goals Panel, 1994b). However, very little is known about school violence from the perspective of school-based professionals (for example, school social workers) - the people most likely to design and implement interventions that work directly with students to reduce and prevent school violence.

In light of the absence of data on the issue of school violence from the perspective of pupil personnel professionals, NASW, in collaboration with social work researchers at the University of Michigan, undertook the first national study of school social workers that focused explicitly on the topic of school violence (Astor, Behre, & Wallace, 1996). Data concerning school violence from the perspective of school social workers can be used to inform university training programs, to promote the inclusion of social workers in national school violence legislation, to expand the role of school social workers, and ultimately to help school social workers and other education professionals better address the problem of school violence.

The National School Violence Survey discussed in this article explored social workers' personal experience with school violence, their assessment of violence as a problem in their schools, their preparedness to address school violence, and the extent of their involvement with school violence programs. Many survey questions were adapted from an earlier national survey of school psychologists (Furlong et al., 1996) used by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing School Violence Advisory Panel (Dear, 1995). A goal of that survey was to examine what types of violent events school psychologists encountered and if they perceived school violence as a problem.

Most national surveys on school violence have asked primarily subjective questions such as "How unsafe is your school?" or "How big of a problem is school violence?" Answers to subjective questions like these are extremely difficult to interpret without knowing what type of events the respondent encountered. …