Feeling at Home in One's School: A First Look at a New Measure

Article excerpt

In light of recent events involving extreme violence in schools, commentators have drawn the conclusion that there is a strong connection between being bullied, social isolation, and lashing out violently towards peers (Nansel, Overpeck, Pilla, Ruan, Simons-Morton, & Scheidt, 2001; Spivak & Prothrow-Stith, 2001). They contend that teasing, bullying, and "picking on" individuals facilitates increasingly greater social isolation, which may for some students lead to extremely violent acts against peers.

This "diagnosis" of school violence leads to questions about school environment. Do some school environments aggravate social isolation more than others? Given that every school has its share of socially isolated youth and bullies, are some school environments more likely to aggravate the social isolation so that the outcast individual strikes out? Alternatively, do some school environments diffuse social isolation so that individuals are less likely to strike out and more likely to find help at critical moments?

There is little scholarship comparing school cultures in this light. Social scientists have explored the role of peers in the emergence of social isolation (Tani, Chavez, & Deffenbacher, 2001; Cotterell, 1996), as well as behaviors associated with social isolation (Mason & Windle, 2001). Even so, many of these studies view social isolation from the perspective of the isolated individual, rather than from the perspective of the isolating group. Lashbrook (2000) points out that the literature on peer pressure consistently presupposes the passivity of the individual, rather than viewing him or her as part of a group that creates an environment for other individuals to experience. The reciprocity between members and groups is explored in some studies examining the psychological sense of community (e.g., Brodsky, O'Connor, O'Campo & Aronson, 1999), but the focus has been restricted to adults, and findings may not generalize to adolescents in schools.

Promising theoretical insights are offered by research dealing with dissent and difference among adolescents. For example, D'Augelli and Patterson (2001) point to not only the social isolation of gay youth, but also the strong intolerance from their peers. This intolerance was expressed in a range of actions targeted at the gay youth, from pressure to conform to bullying, and from taunting to property damage. Back (1996) explores the complexities of racism and tolerance among urban youth, suggesting that the limits of tolerance vary considerably by community. Even among majority-race adolescents who reject "racism," the tolerance displayed may vary in depth and may not extend to more than one minority group.

These two studies suggest that adolescents who may feel socially isolated (because they are gay or of a minority race), upon entering their school, confront environments that are forgiving and inclusive, environments that are unforgiving and exclusive, or environments that are somewhere in between the two extremes. For adolescents, the quality of the school culture in terms of forgiveness and inclusiveness could define the extent of "social capital" they find at school--the number and quality of social resources to which the individual can turn when a problem arises.

Thus, perhaps one key to diffusing social isolation is a "hospitable" school environment, one in which students feel at home even if they feel different from others or awkward. In this vein, Cotterell (1996) calls for the development of "supportive school environments," in which administrators build a sense of community in the school by extending adult- and peer-support networks as a means of preventing or diffusing social isolation. We hypothesize that, for adolescents, a key component of social capital in the school is the level of hospitality in the school environment.

Examining social capital within the school by exploring perceptions of hospitality is at odds with the substantial literature on social capital and psychological sense of community for adults. …

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