Student Fear of Violence

Reprinted with permission from the Texas School Safety Center, Texas State University.

Violence is a particularly concerning problem in the school setting, resulting in low student academic achievement, increased dropout rates, teacher turnover, and spillover of juvenile crime into the community.9,11 Similar to violence, the fear of violence is also associated with a number of negative outcomes, including avoidance behaviors such as skipping school,5 protective behaviors such as carrying a weapon to school,14,20 poor academic achievement,5,6 and decreasing transition into post-secondary education.5 Although fear of violence may not be considered as seriously as actual violence, fear still introduces barriers to a safe and healthy learning environment.

2017 02 01 15 43 24Figure 1 displays patterns of student-reported behavior related to school violence. It shows that student behaviors remained relatively constant throughout the 2000s. It was not until 2013 that any noticeable changes occurred in students’ reports of skipping school, carrying a weapon, being victimized, or getting into fights.7 It is somewhat puzzling to see that student reports of being involved in fights at school decreased in 2013 by almost four percent since 2011, yet students reporting that they skipped school because they felt unsafe increased by two percent between 2009 and 2013. These figures may suggest a pattern where students have an inflated perception that they are at risk, despite decreasing victimization trends. However, these changes are relatively small and other possible explanations for these trends are also plausible; further research should be conducted before valid conclusions can be made.

Fear and Perceived Risk
Fear is not a simple concept. People often mistake perceptions of risk for fear. Some students who believe they would be at risk during certain situations may not actually be afraid in these risky situations. Researchers have drawn a number of important distinctions between the two concepts of fear and perception of risk.10,18,21 Perceived risk is understood to be a cognitive and rational anxiety, while fear is an emotional and physiological response to immediate danger. Perception of risk is a rational process that involves judging riskiness, and is described in terms of the likelihood of being victimized and the seriousness of that risk. For example, the seriousness of being murdered is high, but the likelihood of being murdered is extremely low for most individuals. On the other hand, the seriousness of theft is generally low, but the likelihood of theft victimization is much higher.18 People tend to believe they are at greater risk of theft than of being murdered, because the probability of murder is much lower.

Fear, in contrast to perceived risk, is a fleeting emotion that overwhelms the mind and body at a particular time and place when risk is perceived. Being a dynamic emotion rather than a static anxiety, fear is related to the immediate experience. For example, someone feels fearful when walking home alone at night in a dark alleyway, because they believe there is risk in this activity. Intensity of the fear emotion increases when perceived risk increases, such as when that person is then being followed by a hooded, young male walking with their hands in their pockets. Although perceptions of risk and fear are not equivalent, they often work together to influence how a person responds to threats. As described above, students may respond to fear and perceptions of risk by not showing up at school (avoidance) or by carrying a weapon for protection (protective behavior). Although unknown, students that avoid school are likely fearful, and those that protect themselves with a weapon are those students that perceive risk but do not act afraid.
2017 02 01 15 47 18Figure 2 illustrates how various factors lead to perceived risk, fear, and their impact on negative outcomes, such as truancy, weapon carrying, and poor academic achievement. A school’s safety climate can affect student fears.3,15,16,19 Being victimized by others, the most important contributor to fear according to researchers, significantly increases students’ beliefs that they are at risk while in school.1,2,4,13,15 These perceptions of danger, in combination with a risky lifestyle and personal psychological characteristics, can contribute to heightened senses of fear on school property. Fearful students are more likely to avoid school, protect themselves with weapons, and drop out of school altogether. Knowing that fear and perceptions of risk are different concepts, but work together, can help educators understand the anxieties and emotions that students may have.

What Can Educators Do?
Numerous school crime prevention methods have failed to significantly reduce fear and its negative consequences. For example, general access control, such as locking doors, and broad-stroke security approaches, such as using closed-circuit television (CCTV) monitoring systems, have shown to be ineffective to reduce student violence,15,17 and therefore do little to influence student fear. The most promising approaches include evidence-based prevention techniques, that specifically address individual students and particularly risky times and places. Students who are most at risk of victimization also report the greatest fears. Similarly, these students tend to associate with delinquent peers, participate in criminal behavior themselves, behave impulsively, and have few close attachments to others.17 Therefore, it is imperative that risk factors are accurately communicated to students to help address perceptions of risk and fear.13

In addition to addressing individual-level factors discussed above, the school environment also plays a role in student fear and victimization. Situational prevention methods can be used to reduce fear and victimization at risky times and places.8 For example, monitoring the hallways while students change classes (a more general approach) is important to ensure appropriate behavior among the majority of students, but it may not help students who fear being bullied in a corner stairwell where no adults can see what is happening. Focusing efforts towards the riskiest situations can help to target when and where students feel most vulnerable. Asking students can be an effective way to identify these perceivably dangerous circumstances. School climate surveys, for example, can incorporate more specific questions asking “when” and “where” students believe they are most at risk of victimization. Students who demonstrate some of the negative outcomes mentioned above (truancy, poor grades, etc.) can also be asked if, when, and where they feel fearful or believe they are at risk while at school. Furthermore, administrators, teachers, or school-based law enforcement officers can then be deployed to these “hot spots” to provide guardianship to students as they go about their routines. Generally, reducing fear at school requires problem-solving and cooperation between school staff (including school-based law enforcement officers if they are assigned to the school) and students.

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