VIOLENCE AMONG CHILDREN and youth is a serious concern, as evidenced by the intense media coverage of incidents such as the school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on Apr. 20, 1999. Occurrences such as these that have taken place in relatively well-to-do areas in usually quiet small towns defy the stereotype that locates juvenile violent behavior in poor inner-city neighborhoods, and have brought teenage violence closer to home for many Americans.
Such incidents clearly differ from the phenomena that are more common in the peer group. A certain amount of disagreement and mutual conflict with peers is expected among adolescents. To disagree with others who have different opinions or preferences is a normal aspect of the emergence of self-awareness and the development of a sense of one's uniqueness and identity. In the same way that differences of opinion and disagreements with adults are a normal part of adolescence, those with peers are a normative part of adolescent development.
If they are intense, these forms of adolescent conflict may lead to a physical fight, or they might be expressed in more relational forms of aggression, such as spreading a rumor about another person or excluding someone from a group or group activity. Although these forms of aggression should not be condoned, the question here is what personal or situational factors cause adolescents to cross the line between these "ordinary" forms of aggression and the serious, destructive, and unconscionable forms of aggression that have been witnessed recently.
Over the last two decades, the study of violence and aggression has received an increasing amount of attention from behavioral scientists, partly in response to the rising number of incidents among children and youth. However, a new and disturbing element has been added to the phenomenon of juvenile violence, with recent incidents being more deadly than before and spreading to settings where they have not typically been expected.
Based on anecdotal evidence presented in the media, including interviews with at-risk adolescents who were prevented from committing serious crimes by school counselors who recognized the warning signals these youths gave, two things are clear. First, teen violence is embedded in the context of the peer group. Many of the recent school shootings were committed by friends, and the violence often seemed to take place in response to certain stressors within the peer group. Second, evidence suggests that the students involved in high school shootings were more likely to be outsiders or victims of aggression by peers rather than aggressive bullies. Typically, they were individuals on the fringe of the peer group who felt excluded, alienated, and victimized. This defeats the stereotype of the aggressive, antisocial individual as the one most likely to commit such serious crimes.
The dynamics of the adolescent peer group are more subtle than is commonly assumed. Complex processes in the group reinforce or influence the occurrence of antisocial behavior The stereotypical perception is that aggressive students are generally disliked, rejected by peers, and friendless. Actually, this is only partly tree. While there is a relationship between being aggressive and being rejected by peers, another process has been documented by several researchers.
Philip Rodkin of the University of Illinois has demonstrated that adolescent boys who are perceived as popular in the peer group can be divided into two subgroups. One, the "model boys," consists of those who are prosocial, empathic to the needs of others, and positive in their interactions with peers. The second, the "tough boys," consists of those whose profile is a mix of positive and negative behaviors. They are liked by some of their peers, but disliked by others. Most importantly, while these boys have many social skills, they also use aggressive tactics to maintain their reputation in the peer group. …