Is There a Growing Violence Epidemic in Schools?
In November 2021, the University of Ottawa released a report titled “In Harm’s Way: The Epidemic of Violence Against Education Sector Workers in Ontario”. The report included survey data from nearly 4,000 CUPE education workers from the 2018-2019 school year. Their report showed that:
-Rates of workplace violence were increasing
-Educator assistants were among the most likely workers to experience on-the-job violence
-Educators were subject to exceptionally high rates of harassment
89% of educators experienced either the threat of violence or were assaulted. On average educators faced 26 instances of harassment and 24 instances of violence. 80% of educators felt that violence had increased a lot or somewhat. 14% of workers had suffered from PTSD or burnout, due to the job. One-third of education workers admitted to taking time off work, because of the violence or harassment.
Nova Scotia has also been reporting worrying increases in school violence. In 2022 Education writer Paul Bennet reported “School violence in Nova Scotia is alarming, averaging 1,100 incidents a month during the 2020-21 school year. After filing a freedom of information request, SaltWire discovered that the province’s schools reported 11,240 physical violence incidents during that year. Back in February 2015, the comparable figure was 4,730”. Suggesting that incidences of assault in schools has more than doubled in the last 7 years, in Nova Scotia.
Canada is not the only country dealing with issues of violence in schools. In 2020, the Crime Survey for England and Wales showed that teachers were one of the most likely people to experience violence in the workplace. “Across all groups, teachers and support staff have the sixth highest level of violence at work, out of 25 occupational areas.”
A 2021 NASUWT survey showed that one out of twenty teachers had been assaulted by a student in the past year. One out of ten had faced a threat of violence. Only 42% of affected teachers felt that their school had dealt with the incident in a satisfactory way.
In Australia, the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research reported the highest-ever incidences of violence in NSW schools, in a single year, in 2021, with 1923 reported assaults. The 2020 Australian principal reports showed that 40% of principals reported being assaulted while at work in 2019, compared to 27.3% in 2011, suggesting that assaults on principals during that time period grew by 46%.
In the United States, the situation seems far more grave, perhaps due to additional factor of firearms. Earlier this year, Education Week published an article showing that not only were rates of school violence going up in the United States but so were rates of school shootings. I decided to use the wikipedia database on this subject, to see if it was indeed true that school shootings were on the rise. The results were shocking to say the least. While school shootings in the early 2000s were on average less than 10 per year, over the last 10 years that number increased to an average of 28. This result was even with the inclusion of 2020, when many schools were locked down.
I am sure many would blame most of these murders on the number of guns, not as a symptom of an increase of student violence, overall. So I decided to cross reference that data, with US gun trends. The results can be seen below.
While I am generally speaking personally in favor of moderate gun control. These results did not show a significant correlation between gun ownership and school shootings. To be sure, I conducted a Pearson test, a statistical test designed to detect the magnitude of correlation between two sets of data. The results were -.30, suggesting that the number of guns had a small downward effect on the number of school shootings. Of course, it should be pointed out that the USA has the highest gun ownership rates per capita in the world, and is also to the best of my knowledge the only country in the world with regular school shooting incidents. However, this data does suggest that gun ownership trends within the US are not the primary influencing factor in school shootings. Clearly, there is also an international cultural phenomenon that is increasing violence in schools.
Perhaps one component of this crisis is the rate of depression among students. A 2021 study conducted by Michael Daly showed that the rate of depression among US students aged 12-14, increased by 126% and by 84.8% among students aged 15-17, between 2009 and 2019. Comparatively in Ontario, an ICES 2020 report showed that incidences of youth emergency trips to the hospital for mental health or drug-related issues increased by 89.1%
That said, the rise of mental health issues in teens alone cannot explain the increase in violence and school shootings alone. If we compare school shootings for the same period, as the Michael Daly study, there was an 850% increase in school shootings during this period. That said, 2009 and 2019, both appear to be outlier years. 2009 was a particularly low year for school shootings, and 2019 was a particularly high year. If we use a 9-year rolling average to normalize this data, we see a 242% increase in school shootings. These results suggest that school shootings and incidents of depression might have a connection; however, it clearly does not explain the full picture. As school shootings were up almost double what rates of depression were.
Jackson Katz wrote a documentary on the connection between school shootings and toxic masculinity in 1999. Jackson lays out a compelling case as to why school shootings might be inspired by young men, feeling alienated and wanting to feel powerful. He also in particular blames the media for portraying a version of masculinity that idealizes violence. Toxic masculinity is clearly still prevalent in today’s culture. Walk into any theater and you will find a marvel movie featuring a buff male violently solving all of their problems. Similarly, we have seen the rise of social media influencers like Andrew Tate who intentionally idealize these traits. However, I am not convinced that toxic masculinity is more heavily featured in the media today than it was in the 1990s. If anything, I feel the media has allowed its portrayal of masculinity to soften, albeit not by a significant amount. That said, I do not think we can point to a sudden surge in media representations of male violence and supremacy as being to blame for the surging violence in schools.
Another possible factor in the rise of school violence could be social media. Indeed there are many extremist groups online that promote all kinds of hateful behavior, whether it’s misogyny, homophobia, or white supremacy. In 2014, two pre-teen girls lured their best friend into the woods and stabbed her 19 times, claiming the internet myth of “slenderman” made them do it. Moreover, there is research suggesting that high internet use can increase rates of violence. “A 2013 study by Kim, et al, of more than 2000 Korean high school students found a nearly twofold increase in aggression in severely internet-addicted youth over mildly internet-addicted youth, and similar findings have been replicated in other adolescent studies” (Ganser, 2017), such as Hahn 2014.
In my personal career, I have worked in three different countries, two Canadian provinces, and more than a dozen schools. I have never worked in a school where there was not a perception amongst teachers that student behavior was more challenging than it used to be. Of course, this could be just perception. I remember reading a passage in high school, from ancient Rome, in which an adult was complaining about kids' behavior being worse than it used to be. Our own cognitive bias does tend to make us always believe that we were better behaved than those who came after us. However, the data I shared earlier in this article does seem to indicate that there does exist a real problem with increasing behavior and violence in schools, not just in one location, but internationally. In my own experience as a teacher, I have been punched, kicked, bitten, spit on, and sworn at more times than I can count. I have also had to go to the hospital on more than one occasion for injuries I obtained on the job, due to violence. That said, I have also spent time working in schools and classes for extreme behavioral students. However, I have experienced violence both in and out of those settings.
While violence in schools does appear to be on the rise, it is difficult to identify any one source for that violence. Whether it’s rising mental health concerns, the impact of social media, toxic masculinity, violent movies, and video games, or changes in school discipline policies. Solving this problem will likely take a multi-factorial approach and not a single solution. However, the first step needs to be admitting that there is a problem and that it's bigger than any one school location. There has been a growing concern with a crisis of students who do not know how to read, and while I too am concerned about the literacy crisis, I am equally concerned with the behavior and math crises that we are also seeing.
Deborah Creatura. (2020). More teens and young adults in Ontario are experiencing mental health issues. ICES. <https://www.ices.on.ca/>.
Meredith, Ganser. (2017). “The Internet Made Me Do It”-Social Media and Potential for Violence in Adolescents. Psychiatric Times. Retrieved from <https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/-internet-made-me-do-itsocial-media-and-potential-violence-adolescents>.
Hahn C, Kim DJ. Is there a shared neurobiology between aggression and internet addiction disorder? J Behav Addict. 2014;3:12-20.
Michael Daly. (2021). Prevalence of Depression Among Adolescents in the U.S. From 2009 to 2019: Analysis of Trends by Sex, Race/Ethnicity, and Income. Journal of Adolescent Health. Volume 70, Issue 3. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2021.08.026.
Stacey Decker. (2021). School Shootings in 2021: How Many and Where. Education Week. Retrieved from <https://www.edweek.org/leadership/school-shootings-this-year-how-many-and-where/2021/03>.
Scott, White. (2020). 40% of Australian principals are victims of physical violence. The Conversation. Retrieved from <https://theconversation.com/40-of-australian-principals-are-victims-of-physical-violence-132002>.
Kim K. Association between internet overuse and aggression in Korean adolescents. Pediatr Int. 2013;55:703-709.
Tom Livingstone. (2021). School violence across NSW at a 20-year high, new data reveals. 9 Now. Retrieved from <https://9now.nine.com.au/today/nsw-school-violence-at-a-20-year-high-new-data-reveals/a3aa1213-eee3-4124-afbd-fc2b642ffcf3>.
The University of Ottawa. (2021). In Harm’s Way: The Epidemic of Violence Against Education Workers in Ontario. Retrieved from <educatorviolence.net>.
Paul Bennet. (2022). Absenteeism, classroom chaos alarming in Nova Scotia. Salt Wire. Retrieved from <https://www.saltwire.com/atlantic-canada/opinion/paul-bennett-absenteeism-classroom-chaos-alarming-in-nova-scotia-100800836/>.
NEU. (2022). Violence in Schools. Retrieved from <https://neu.org.uk/advice/violence-schools#:~:text=A%20survey%20by%20the%20NASUWT,pupils%20in%20the%20past%20year.>
Violence Policy Center. (2022). Gun Ownership in America. Retrieved from <https://www.vpc.org/studies/ownership.pdf>.
Wikipedia. (2022). List of School Shootings in the United States. Retrieved from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_school_shootings_in_the_United_States_(2000%E2%80%93present)>.