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What Predicts Fear of School Violence Among U.S. Adolescents?


by Motoko Akiba — 2010

Background/Context: Ensuring a safe learning environment for every student at school is a major responsibility of educators, school administrators, and policy makers in our society. Students’ fear associated with school violence affects their school attendance, learning motivation, and academic achievement. Although predictors of adults’ fear of crimes have been studied extensively in the field of criminology, only a small number of studies have been conducted to examine the school and teacher factors associated with students’ fear of school violence.

Objectives: The objectives of this study are (1) to examine the characteristics of students who fear being victimized by school violence and (2) to examine teacher and school characteristics associated with students’ fear.

Research Design: This study is based on a secondary analysis of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) data collected from a nationally representative sample of 2,787 15-year-olds in 111 schools in the United States.

Findings/Results: The study found that low achievers reported a higher level of fear of school violence than high achievers. In addition, classroom disorder and a lower level of school mean parental education level were associated with a higher level of fear, and students’ sense of belonging and student–teacher bonding were associated with a lower level of fear. Low academic achievement and a weak sense of student belonging at school were the two strongest predictors of students’ fear.

Conclusions/Recommendations: It is important for school administrators and teachers to focus on developing a sense of school community and maintaining orderly and effective classroom environments. Teachers play an important role in developing a close and trusting relationship with students, providing meaningful learning and social activities for students to strengthen their sense of belonging at school, and developing caring and effective classroom environments. School administrators should provide support to teachers and develop a school climate that promotes a sense of school community among students through involving students and their family members in important school decision-making processes.

Ensuring a safe learning environment for every student at school is a major responsibility of educators, school administrators, and policy makers in our society. Although the statistics show that the number of violent crimes at school has declined since the early 1990s (DeVoe, Peter, Miller, Snyder, & Baum, 2004; DeVoe, Peter, Noonan, Snyder, & Baum, 2005; Dinkes, Cataldi, Kena, & Baum, 2006), students’ fear of school violence has not proportionally declined since the late 1980s (DeVoe et al., 2005; Lawrence & Mueller, 2003; Small & Terick, 2001). One out of ten 15-year-olds thinks of school as a place where someone will attack or harm them, according to the data in this study. Studies have shown that students who fear violence are most likely to bring a gun to school (Chandler, Chapman, Rand, & Taylor, 1998; Vacha & McLaughlin, 2000), which would further increase the level of fear among other students in the school environment. Student fear, therefore, is a policy issue that requires attention and a systematic investigation. Indeed, it is a global phenomenon that educators around the world have struggled with as a major barrier to effective student learning (Akiba, 2008; Akiba, LeTendre, Baker, & Goesling, 2002).


Students’ fear of being victimized by school violence affects their school attendance, learning motivation, and academic achievement (Bowen & Bowen, 1999; Juvonen, Nishina, & Graham, 2000; Schwartz, Gorman, Nakamoto, & Toblin, 2005). Although criminologists have uncovered individual and community predictors of fear of crimes among adults, our knowledge base on school characteristics associated with students’ fear of school violence is still limited (Gainey & Seyfrit, 2001; Hale, 1996; May & Dunaway, 2000). Many U.S. studies identified that victims of bullying and peer harassment are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, suicidality, and low self-esteem (Graham & Juvonen, 1998; Klomek, Marrocco, Kleinman, Schonfeld, & Gould, 2007; Poteat & Espelage, 2007). Fear of school violence may be part of these characteristics of bullying victims. However, none of these studies has investigated what school characteristics predict the level of fear or anxiety among students.  


An investigation of individual characteristics of students who fear school violence provides useful information for school administrators to identify who needs to be assured a safe learning environment. Furthermore, an analysis of school factors associated with students’ fear will inform policy makers and administrators regarding which school characteristics need to be improved to create a safe learning environment for students. Although a series of school shootings reported by the media has heightened fear among the general public, and many studies have been conducted on school shootings (Burns & Crawford, 1999; Fox & Harding, 2005; Lawrence & Mueller, 2003; Newman, Fox, Harding, Mehta, & Roth, 2004; Webber, 2003), statistics show that school shootings are still rare incidents (DeVoe et al., 2005). Therefore, the focus of the current study is on students’ day-to-day fear caused by widespread behaviors at school such as bullying and physical violence.


With this focus on students’ fear at school, this study aims (1) to examine the characteristics of students who fear being victimized by school violence and (2) to examine teacher and school characteristics associated with students’ fear. This study investigated fear of school violence among a nationally representative sample of 2,787 fifteen-year-olds in 111 schools in the United States using publicly available data from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).


BACKGROUND


STUDENTS’ FEAR OF SCHOOL VIOLENCE


Under the current educational reform context led by the No Child Left Behind Act, which focuses on improving students’ learning outcomes, there is an urgent need for policy makers and educators to understand the student perception of school safety and be informed what school- and teacher-related factors are associated with a higher level of students’ fear of being victimized by school violence. However, the existing studies on adolescents’ fear focus on individual and community predictors, and only a limited number of studies examine students’ fear of school violence and school-related predictors of their fear. Because of the limited theoretical foundation of research on organizational-level predictors of students’ fear of school violence, theories of “fear of crimes” developed by criminologists were reviewed first, and a conceptual framework was developed based on these theories and existing studies on the predictors of school violence and school bullying.    


THEORIES OF FEAR OF CRIME


Criminologists developed three major theories explaining individual and community characteristics associated with people’s fear of crime: (1) victimization theory, (2) social disorganization theory, and (3) social integration theory.


VICTIMIZATION THEORY


Victimization theory states that people who perceive themselves as vulnerable in the community are more likely to fear crimes. Based on this perspective, females, older people, people with low socioeconomic status (SES), and minority groups have been consistently found to be more fearful of crime because of their perception of their own physical and ecological vulnerability (Brown & Benedict, 2004; Gainey & Seyfrit, 2001; Gibson, Zhao, Lovrich, & Gaffney, 2002; Kanan & Pruitt, 2002; Katz, Webb, & Armstrong, 2003; May & Dunaway, 2000; Reid & Konrad, 2004).


Based on a study of 956 high school students in two rural communities on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, Gainey and Seyfrit (2001) found that female youths who had a recent victimization experience in the community and who perceived a racial separation in the community were more likely to fear their victimization in the community or worry about someone breaking into their homes. Similar findings were reported on two other studies on high school students’ fear at school (Brown & Benedict, 2004; May & Dunaway, 2000). Brown and Benedict found, based on a study of Latino youths, that females, immigrant youths (who speak Spanish at home), and those who had seen guns at school were more fearful of being shot at school than were males, nonimmigrant Latino youths (who speak English at home), and those who had never seen guns at school. Similarly, May and Dunaway found that female students with prior victimization were more fearful of criminal victimization at school than were male students with prior victimization. Among male students, Black students were more fearful than White students.   


SOCIAL DISORGANIZATION THEORY


Social disorganization theory explains that when a city grows, business and industry invade residential areas and cause a disorganization of the community as a unit of social control (Gottfredson, McNeil, & Gottfredson 1991; Sampson & Grove, 1989; Shaw & McKay, 1969). A rapid population shift diminishes the capacity of a community organization, including school organization, to socialize the population effectively. Based on the theory, fear-of-crime theorists have suggested that urbanization, population heterogeneity, poverty, signs of incivility and crimes (e.g., vandalism, gang presence) are important community factors that predict fear of crime (Katz et al., 2003; Lane & Meeker, 2003; Markowitz, Bellair, Liska, & Liu, 2001; McGarrell, Giacomazzi, & Thurman, 1997; Wikstrom & Dolmen, 2001).


Studies on adolescents’ fear also found that the level of disorganization in the community and school predicts adolescents’ fear of crimes and violence (Alvarez & Bachman, 1997; Gainey & Seyfrit, 2001; May & Dunaway, 2000; Skiba et al., 2004). Survey studies on high school students conducted by Gainey and Seyfrit (2001) and May and Dunaway (2000) showed that a presence of gangs and drug dealers or signs of drug use in the community significantly predicted fear of crime in the community or at school. In addition, Skiba et al. and Alvarez and Bachman, based on survey research of secondary school students, found that perceived level of school disorder measured by presence of gangs, drugs, alcohol, bullying, or conflicts among students predicted students’ fear of violence or perception of safety at school.  


SOCIAL INTEGRATION THEORY


Social integration theory explains that the degree of social integration, characterized by informal network and social ties that a resident enjoys, predicts the individual perception of fear of crime in a neighborhood (Adams & Serpe, 2000; Gibson et al., 2002; McGarrell et al., 1997; Wikstrom & Dolmen, 2001). A perception of social integration in the community is linked with the strength of informal social control and “collective efficacy” in the community perceived by the residents, which explains a lower level of fear of crimes among them (Gibson et al.; Sampson & Raudenbush, 1999; Wikstrom & Dolmen). Gainey and Seyfrit (2001) found that the sampled high school students who reported strong social integration, measured by items such as feeling at home in the community and familiarity with the community members, were less likely to be afraid of getting beaten up in their community or worry about someone breaking into their home.


APPLYING THEORIES OF FEAR OF CRIME TO FEAR OF SCHOOL VIOLENCE


Victimization theory identified individual characteristics associated with perceived vulnerability as the individual predictors of fear of crime. However, it is important to identify the difference in the vulnerability between crimes and peer victimization at school. School violence and bullying mostly occur within the same gender group and age group (Akiba, 2004; Owens, Slee, & Shute, 2001; Smith et al., 1999). In addition, the students with the highest risk of victimization at school have different characteristics from the individuals with the highest risk of crime victimization on the street (Gibson, et al., 2002; Kanan & Pruitt, 2002; Katz, et al., 2003; Smith et al.). Therefore, studies on bullying and school violence victimization were further reviewed to identify individual predictors of fear of school violence.


Social disorganization theory and social integration theory are associated because empirical studies on crime rates have shown that a higher level of social disorganization, measured by poverty level, immigrant concentration, and residential mobility, predicts a lower level of social integration or collective efficacy (Sampson, Morenoff, & Earls, 1999; Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earls, 1997). Specifically, Sampson et al. (1997) found that the relationship between social disorganization and neighborhood violence was largely mediated by collective efficacy. This relationship may apply to the school settings. The schools characterized by disorganization—a lack of resources and high levels of teacher turnover and student mobility—may be less likely to develop collective efficacy, and a lower level of collective efficacy predicts a higher level of student fear of school violence.  


It is important to note, however, that unlike communities where collective efficacy is developed by an informal mechanism among residents to achieve public order, the collective efficacy at school can be formally developed through school administrators’ and teachers’ practices. Therefore, it is possible to develop collective efficacy in school environments characterized by poverty and urban location—the proxies of school disorganization. For this reason, the measures of school disorganization and school community were developed separately, and the relationship between these measures was examined before investigating how these factors predict student fear of school violence.


INDIVIDUAL PREDICTORS OF STUDENTS’ FEAR OF SCHOOL VIOLENCE


Victimization theory supports that students who perceive themselves as vulnerable to violent victimization at school are likely to be more fearful of school violence. Based on the strong relationship between actual victimization and level of fear (Gainey & Seyfrit, 2001; May & Dunaway, 2000), individual characteristics of bullying victims are reviewed here.


Studies have shown that ethnic minority students tend to become victims of school bullying (Eslea & Mukhtar, 2000; Lahelma, 2004). Based on an ethnographic study of students in two secondary schools in Helsinki, Finland, Lahelma found that ethnic and cultural diversities of some students may be perceived as “ethnic different-ness,” which may cause exclusion and racist bullying. Eslea and Mukhtar surveyed three ethnic minority groups—243 Hindu, Indian Muslim, and Pakistani children in Lancashire, England—and found that 57% of boys and 43% of girls had been bullied during a 6-week school term. Students in each ethnic group reported being bullied by White students and other minority students (e.g., Hindu students identified Indian Muslim, Pakistanis, and White students as bullies). Hindu students reported that they had been bullied because of their religion, such as place of worship and God/gods, whereas Indian Muslim and Pakistani students reported skin color and clothing as reasons for bullying victimization (Eslea & Mukhtar). Because of the existence of racism and racist bullying at school as shown in these studies, ethnic minority students may report a higher level of fear of becoming victims of school violence.


According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice, percentages of students in Grades 9–12 who reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property during the previous 12 months were 10% among Latino students, 8% among African American students, 10% among American Indian/Alaska Native students, 5% among Asian American students, and 7% among White students (Dinkes et al., 2006). With the exception of Asian American students, a higher percentage of ethnic minority students than White students reported victimization. Therefore, Latino, African American, and American Indian/Alaska Native students may be more likely than White students to report a higher level of fear of school violence. Although Asian American students reported lower rates of victimization than White students, their level of fear may be higher than that of White students because of the existence of racism and racist bullying at school and their perceived level of vulnerability to victimization of racism and racist bullying.


Many studies on school bullying have also shown that boys are more likely to be engaged in violent behaviors than girls, whereas girls are as likely as boys to engage in indirect forms of bullying such as social exclusion and verbal threats (Owens et al., 2001; Smith et al., 1999). The most recent statistics on students aged 12–18 years from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice showed that 2.7% of male students reported that they became victims of violent crimes at school during the previous 12 months, compared with 1.7% of female students (Dinkes et al., 2006). In addition, 12% of male students in Grades 9–12 reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property, compared with 7% of female students (Dinkes et al.). Based on the higher rates of violence victimization among boys, boys may report a higher level of fear of school violence than girls.  


Research findings on the relationship between parental education level or SES and bullying have been inconsistent. On one hand, studies in Scotland (Mellor, 1999), France (Fabre-Cornali, Emin, & Pain, 1999), and The Netherlands (Veenstra, Lindenberg, Oldehinkel, De Winter, & Verhulst, 2005) showed that both bullies and victims are from low-SES or unemployed families. On the other hand, SES or parental education level had no association or a weak association with students’ victimization or perpetration of bullying in Norway and Sweden (Olweus, 1999), Germany (Losel & Bliesener, 1999), and Canada (Ma, 2001, 2002). Little is known about the SES of bullies or victims in the United States. National statistics showed, however, that the rates of violent crime victimization at school reported by students aged 12–18 years were higher in urban and rural areas (2.8% and 2.7%, respectively) than suburban areas (1.7%). Because the SES of residents in urban and rural areas is generally lower than that of suburban residents, we may see that students with low SES or less educated parents report a higher level of fear of school violence.


The relationship between peer victimization and academic achievement measured by grade point average (GPA) or standardized assessment is well established based on the empirical studies on kindergarteners (Buhs & Ladd, 2001), elementary school students (Schwartz et al., 2005), and middle school students (Juvonen et al., 2000; Graham, Bellmore, & Juvonen, 2003). Based on a longitudinal analysis of survey data from 243 seventh- and eighth graders in a large public middle school in Los Angeles, Juvonen et al. found that an increased level of peer victimization over a 1-year period, along with an increase in loneliness and a decrease in self-worth, significantly predicted a lower GPA 1 year later. Schwartz et al. also investigated the relationship between peer victimization and academic achievement based on longitudinal data from 199 third- and fourth graders in two elementary schools in Los Angeles over 1 year. They found that peer victimization in the 1st year significantly predicted low academic achievement in the 2nd year, mediated by a higher level of depression. In the current study, using cross-sectional data, we will not be able to test the causal relationship between fear of school violence and academic achievement. However, if victimization predicts student fear, it is likely that a higher level of student fear is associated with a lower level of academic achievement.


SCHOOL-RELATED PREDICTORS OF STUDENTS’ FEAR OF SCHOOL VIOLENCE


School Disorganization


Social disorganization theory explains the link between community disorder and individuals’ fear of crime. Although community and school are two different contexts, a school can be considered a community for students. In this context, “school disorganization” predicts students’ fear of school violence. In particular, classroom disorder, characterized by student disobedience, disengagement with learning, and excessive noise in class, can be perceived by students as signs of a lack of teacher control in the classroom, which could invoke their fear of peer students’ violent behaviors.


In addition, unclear or unfair school rules can cause school disorder characterized by delinquent behaviors and hostile student–teacher relationships. Studies have found that unclear and unfair school rules were significantly associated with a higher level of school violence victimization (Gottfredson & Gottfredson, 1985; Gottfredson, Gottfredson, Payne, & Gottfredson, 2005; Ma, 2001; Mayer & Leone, 1999). Thus, unclear and unfair school rules would also create a higher level of fear among students who are vulnerable to victimization at school.


Furthermore, urban schools are more likely than suburban schools to lack resources and to be characterized by high turnover rates of school administrators and teachers, and high mobility rates among students. However, the past research on the relationship between urban location and bullying or delinquency rates has produced inconsistent findings (Olweus, 1996). The relationship between SES and bullying or school violence also has been inconsistent; some found poverty associated with higher rates of violence (Payne, Gottfredson, & Gottfredson, 2003; Welsh, Greene, & Jenkins, 1999; Whitney & Smith, 1993), and others found no significant relationship (Ma, 2001).   


The inconsistent findings regarding school poverty level and school location seem to stem from the differences in the sample and the study location, methodological differences between bivariate and multivariate analyses, and the number and types of other factors controlled in the statistical model. Although the relationship between school location or poverty level, and rates of bullying or school violence is debatable, school personnel and student body instability and poor building conditions that characterize many high-poverty inner-city schools would be likely to heighten fear of school violence among students.  


Sense of School Community


The level of students’ integration into school based on social integration theory can be described by the concept of “sense of school community.” Past studies have found that schools with a strong sense of community are more likely to have lower rates of school violence and delinquency (Battistich & Hom, 1997; Bryk & Driscoll, 1988; Jenkins, 1997; Payne et al., 2003).


Based on data collected from 1,434 fifth- and sixth graders in 24 elementary schools around the United States, Battistich and Hom found that schools with a stronger sense of community had significantly lower rates of delinquency after controlling for students’ gender, ethnicity, grade level, and school poverty level. Payne et al. (2003) further examined how student bonding mediates the relationship between communal school organization and school disorder based on data on 307 secondary schools nationwide. They found that communally organized schools have less student delinquency and student and teacher victimization and that the relationship is mediated by student bonding, after controlling for school and community characteristics. The importance of student–teacher bonding in improving student achievement and disciplinary problems was also empirically proved by Crosnoe, Johnson, and Elder (2004).


Examining adolescents’ perception of school safety based on a sample of 2,465 secondary school students in two Midwestern states, Skiba et al. (2004) found that measures of connection to school, such as “I am proud of this school” and “I feel welcomed when I am at school,” significantly predicted a higher level of students’ perception of school safety. Based on these previous research findings, this study examined how students’ fear of violence is predicted by students’ sense of belonging to school, student–teacher bonding, and perceived level of teacher support for student learning.  


Learning Opportunities


In addition to the factors that measure the levels of school disorganization and sense of school community, school characteristics defining students’ learning opportunities may predict students’ fear of school violence. Studies have shown that low achievers are significantly more likely to engage in delinquency, including violent behaviors (Gottfredson, 1981; Hawkins & Lishner, 1987; Maguin & Loeber, 1996; Silberberg & Silberberg, 1971). Therefore, in the school environments where ample learning support is provided, there will be fewer low achievers and lower rates of school violence. This would lead to a lowered level of fear of school violence among students who are vulnerable to victimization at school.


Researchers have found that academic tracking increases the likelihood of dropping out and delinquency among students placed in lower tracks (Jenkins, 1995; Kilgore, 1991; Polk, 1982). Academic tracking provides unequal learning opportunities to students placed in lower tracks, and unequal placement decisions are often made that result in minority and low-income students being more likely to be placed in lower tracks (Vanfossen, Jones, & Spade, 1987; Zimmer, 2003). Therefore, the existence of academic tracking predicts a higher level of school violence and, in turn, a higher level of fear of school violence among students with a higher risk of violence victimization.


In addition, the level of instructional support that the school provides to low-achieving students may predict the level of violence among students, which will affect students’ feeling of safety. In a school context where teachers provide homework assistance or extra lessons for students who need help, and English instruction for English language learner (ELL) students, low-achieving students may feel they are supported and thus be less likely to become violent against other students. This would lead to a lowered level of fear among students who are vulnerable to violence victimization. Moreover, the professional quality of teachers measured by full certification may predict an instructional quality that provides rich learning experiences to low-achieving students.


Based on the association between low achievement and violent behaviors, the schools that provide equal learning opportunities, support for low-achieving students, and access to highly qualified teachers are likely to be successful in improving student achievement and lowering rates of school violence. In such school environments, students are less likely to fear school violence. Therefore, the level of learning opportunities indirectly affects the level of students’ fear of school violence through improving student achievement and lowering the rates of school violence.  


HYPOTHESES


Figure 1 illustrates the individual and school characteristics that are hypothesized to be associated with students’ fear of school violence. Male students and ethnic minority students have a higher risk of violence victimization at school; thus, they are hypothesized to report a higher level of fear of becoming victims of school violence. In contrast high achievers and students whose parents have a higher level of education are less vulnerable to violence victimization and are hypothesized to report a lower level of fear of becoming victims of school violence. School disorganization characterized by classroom disorder and urban location is hypothesized to predict a higher level of fear among students, whereas schools with clear and fair school rules and a high level of school mean parents’ education predict a lower level of student fear.


In the schools characterized by a strong sense of school community—a strong sense of belonging to school among students, strong student–teacher bonding, and teacher support of student learning—there will be less school violence and a lower level of student fear of becoming victims of school violence. In addition, in the schools with ample instructional support and quality instruction provided by certified teachers, there will be less school violence, and student fear of school violence will likely be lowered. However, the existence of academic tracking indicates unequal learning opportunities provided to students placed in lower tracks, and this predicts more school violence and a higher level of student fear. Thus, the following hypotheses will be tested in this study: (1) Male students and ethnic minority students will report a higher level of fear of becoming victims of school violence, whereas students with highly educated parents and high academic achievement will report a lower level of fear. (2) Students in schools characterized by classroom disorder and in an urban location will report a higher level of fear, whereas students in schools with clear and fair school rules and a higher level of mean parent education will report a lower level of fear. (3) Students in the schools characterized by a strong sense of school community—a strong sense of belonging to school among students, strong student–teacher bonding, and teacher support of student learning—will report a lower level of fear of becoming victims of school violence. (4) Students in schools with ample instructional support and quality instruction provided by certified teachers will report a lower level of fear, whereas students in the schools with academic tracking will report a higher level of fear.


Figure 1. Conceptual model of individual and school predictors of student fear of school violence


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click to enlarge


Because these individual and school characteristics may be associated with one another, I examined the bivariate relationships among these factors first. School disorganization especially may predict a weaker sense of school community; the previous studies have shown that social disorganization factors predict a lack of social integration (Sampson et al., 1999; Sampson et al., 1997). School disorganization may also predict a lack of learning opportunities for students.


In addition, it is important to be aware that the relationship between these individual and school factors and student fear of school violence is likely mediated by actual level of school violence and students’ prior experience of violence victimization. Because the PISA data set did not measure these factors, this study cannot assess the mediating effects of school violence and violence victimization. However, given the lack of studies that examined the predictors of student fear, the relationship between individual and school factors and student fear of school violence will provide important and useful information for school administrators and policy makers to reform environments that could enhance student fear of violence victimization.


METHODS


DATA AND SAMPLING


The PISA was developed and organized by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the data collected during 2000 were used in this study. The U.S. data were collected by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in the U.S. Department of Education, and this study used only the U.S. data that include information on students’ fear of school violence. A three-stage stratified sampling was used by (1) dividing schools into primary sampling units (PSUs), (2) selecting schools within each PSU with a systematic probability proportional to measure of size, and (3) randomly selecting 35 fifteen-year-olds within each school. In the second stage, the schools where more than 15% of students were African American and Latino were given twice as much probability of selection as the other schools to ensure a sufficient number of ethnic minority students in the sample.


The U.S. data in the PISA provide (1) specific information on students’ fear at school and (2) extensive information on school policies and practices, as well as students’ perceptions of school experiences. Therefore, this data set enables researchers to conduct comprehensive analyses on school-related factors associated with student fear of school violence. The other available national or international databases, such as the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), do not include robust measures of student fear of school violence (e.g., only one item) or lack extensive information on teacher and school characteristics measured in this study. Therefore, this PISA data set was most suitable for addressing the research questions. The set of survey items on student fear of school violence was included only in the U.S. data, not in the other countries in the PISA. Data from a total of 2,787 fifteen-year-olds in 111 schools were analyzed in this study.     


MEASUREMENT


Table 1 presents descriptive statistics for all variables and reliability index (Cronbach’s alpha) for index variables.


Table 1. Descriptive Statistics of the Variables in the Analyses


Student Variables (n = 2,787)

Cronbach’s

Alpha

M

SD

Low

High

      

Fear of School Violence

.91

1.49    

.55     

1     

4

Individual Characteristics

     

  Male

-

.47

-

0

1

  White

-

.59    

-

0

1

  Black

-

.21    

-

0

1

  Latino

-

.19    

-

0

1

  Asian

-

.04    

-

0

1

  American Indian/Alaska

  Native (AIAN)

-

.15   

-

0

1

  Parental Education Level

-

4.62    

1.34     

1

6

  Academic Achievement

  (Reading score)

-

503.23   

100.82    

144.03    

854.69

School Disorganization

     

  Classroom Disorder

.81

2.23    

.68    

1

4

  Clear and Fair School Rules

.61

2.70    

.50

1

4

Sense of School Community

     

  Sense of Belonging

.82

3.09    

.50

1

4

  Student–Teacher Bonding

.83

2.85    

.55

1

4

  Perceived Teacher Support

.85

3.06   

.61

1

4

School Variables (n = 111)

 

Mean

SD

Low

High

School Disorganization

     

  Urban Location

-

.34   

-

0

1

  Mean Parents’ Education Level

-

4.51    

.59     

3.00     

5.62

Learning Opportunities

     

  Academic Tracking

-

.74    

-

0

1

  Instructional Support

-

3.50    

1.29

0

5

  Fully Certified Teachers

.90

3.52    

.65     

1.50     

4.00

Control Variables

     

  Rural Location

-

.34    

-

0

1


Dependent Variable


Students’ fear of school violence was measured by an index created from five variables. Fifteen-year-olds were asked their level of agreement with the following statements: My school is a place where: (1) I often feel as if someone will attack or harm me, (2) I often feel as if someone will attack or harm me while I am on my way to and from school, (3) I avoid participating in extracurricular activities at school because I think that someone might attack or harm me, (4) I avoid participating in particular classes because I think someone might attack or harm me, and (5) I sometimes stay home from school because I think someone might attack or harm me at school or on my way to or from school. Students’ responses ranged from 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree). The mean of responses to the five items was computed to create an index of students’ fear of school violence. It is important to note that the last three items measure “avoidance due to fear” rather than fear itself. Based on the high reliability (Cronbach’s alpha = .91) among these five items and the fact that avoidance is a result of fear, all these items were used to measure students’ fear of school violence.   


Independent Variables


School disorganization. Four variables were used to measure the level of school disorganization: classroom disorder, clarity and fairness of school rules, urban location, and mean parental education level. Classroom disorder was measured by students’ responses about the frequency of the following situations in English classes: (1) the teacher has to wait a long time for students to quiet down, (2) students don’t listen to what the teacher says, (3) students don’t start working for a long time after the lesson begins, and (4) there is noise and disorder. The responses ranged from 1 (never) to 4 (every class period), and the mean was computed as an index of classroom disorder.


Clear and fair school rules were measured by an index of five variables: (1) everyone knows what the school rules are, (2) the school rules are strictly enforced, (3) if a school rule is broken, students know what kind of punishment will follow, (4) the school rules are unfair, and (5) the punishment for breaking school rules is the same no matter who you are. Students’ responses ranged from 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree), except for Item 4, which was reverse-coded. The mean of the five items was computed as an index of clear and fair school rules.1


Two school-level variables—urban location and mean parental education level—were used as proxies of social disorganization. It is important to note that urban location and parental education level are not direct measures of school disorganization because there are urban and low-SES schools that are socially organized. Because of the lack of direct school-level measures of school disorganization available in the PISA data set, these two variables were used as “proxies” of school disorganization.


Sense of school community. Three variables at the student level were used to measure the level of sense of school community: students’ sense of belonging, student–teacher bonding, and perceived teacher support of student learning. Students’ sense of belonging was measured by the degree of agreement with the following statements: School is a place where (1) I feel like an outsider (or left out of things), (2) I make friends easily, (3) I feel like I belong, (4) I feel awkward and out of place, (5) other students seem to like me, (6) I feel lonely, and (7) I don’t want to go. Students’ responses ranged from 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree), and Items, 1, 4, 6, and 7 were reverse-coded. The mean of the seven items was computed to create an index of students’ sense of belonging.  


For the measure of student–teacher bonding, students were asked, “How much do you disagree or agree with each of the following statements about teachers at your school?” and given five statements: (1) students get along well with most teachers, (2) most teachers are interested in students’ well-being, (3) most of my teachers really listen to what I have to say, (4) if I need extra help, I will receive it from my teachers, and (5) most of my teachers treat me fairly.  The responses were coded as 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree), and the mean of the five items was computed as an index of student-teacher bonding.  


Perceived teacher support of student learning was measured by the frequency ranging from 1 (never) to 4 (every class period) of the following statements: (1) the teacher wants students to work hard, (2) the teacher tells students that they can do better, (3) the teacher does not like it when students deliver sloppy work, (4) the teacher shows an interest in every student’s learning, (5) the teacher gives students an opportunity to express opinions, (6) the teacher helps students with their work, (7) the teacher continues teaching until the students understand, (8) the teacher does a lot to help students, (9) the teacher helps students with their learning, and (10) the teacher checks students’ homework. The mean of the 10 items was computed as an index of perceived teacher support of student learning.  


Learning opportunities. The level of students’ learning opportunities was measured by three principal-reported indicators: academic tracking, instructional support, and fully certified teachers. The existence of academic tracking was coded as 1 = yes, 0 = no. The level of instructional support was measured based on the availability (1 = yes, 0 = no) of (1) special training for English as a second language, (2) special training in English for low achievers, (3) special courses in study skills for low achievers, (4) special tutoring by staff members, and (5) room(s) where the students can do their homework with staff help. The number of services that the school provides to students was computed as the measure of instructional support.


To measure availability of fully certified teachers, principals’ responses ranging from 1 (a lot) to 4 (not at all) to the questions on whether the learning of 15-year-old students is hindered by a shortage/inadequacy of fully certified teachers in general, English teachers, mathematics teachers, and science teachers were used. The mean of the four items was computed as an index of availability of fully certified teachers.  


Individual characteristics. Student gender, ethnicity, parental education level, and academic achievement were measured as individual characteristics. Gender was coded as 1 = male, 0 = female, and four dummy variables of Black, Latino, Asian, and American Indian/Alaska Native were used to measure student ethnicity, with the reference variable of White. Parental education level was measured by the mean of mother’s and father’s education levels, ranging from 1 (did not go to school) to 6 (completed a bachelor’s degree or higher). Academic achievement was measured by the score on the reading test developed by the OECD. Each examinee took only a subset of the test items in a given area, and item response theory (IRT) was employed to create a scale to represent students’ achievement levels. Five plausible values were imputed as the best estimates of each student’s performance, based on the test results and the background information for all examinees with similar demographic characteristics and identical response patterns. The first plausible value was used as the measure of student academic achievement in this study.   


ANALYSIS


To test the first hypothesis on the individual predictors of student fear of school violence, t tests were used to examine the mean difference in students’ fear of school violence between males and females, between students with parents with and without bachelor’s degrees, and between low achievers and high achievers. A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) test and Tukey post-hoc test were applied to examine the mean difference across five ethnic groups of students.


To test the second through fourth hypotheses on school predictors, hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) was applied to examine how the measures of school disorganization, sense of school community, and learning opportunities are associated with students’ fear of school violence victimization, controlling for individual characteristics (two-level analysis of students nested within schools). HLM analysis was used instead of traditional ordinary least squares (OLS) analysis because of its capacity to (1) conduct multiple units of analyses to avoid aggregation bias and (2) allow unique random effects for each school, which produces correct standard errors for clustering effect and different slope and intercept for each school (Raudenbush & Bryk, 2002). Because the study focused on the direct effects of school-related factors on student fear of school violence, the “intercept as outcome” model was used (Raudenbush & Bryk). Because of the small school-level variation for the slopes between student-level variables and outcomes, only the intercept was treated as random at school level. The level 1 variables (parental education level, academic achievement, classroom disorder, clear and fair rules, student belonging, student–teacher bonding, and perceived teacher support) and level 2 variables (school mean parental education level, instructional support, and percentage of fully certified teachers) were grand mean centered. All the other variables were left uncentered. In all the analyses, a sampling weight, STUWGT, was used to adjust for the unequal probabilities of selection for students.


RESULTS


LEVEL OF STUDENT FEAR OF SCHOOL VIOLENCE


Table 2 presents the percentage of students who agreed or strongly agreed with the five listed statements about their fear of school violence victimization at school or on the way to and from school. A total of 9.9% of students agreed that their schools are places where they often feel as if someone would attack or harm them. This percentage was higher than students’ fear on the way to and from school; 7.1% of students reported the same type of fear on the way to and from school. Approximately 4%–5% of students avoid extracurricular activities (4.9%), particular classes (3.9%), and going to school (4.1 %) because of their fear of being attacked or harmed by someone. These figures indicate that their fear significantly hinders their learning opportunities. For these students, school is not a safe place to learn, but a place of potential violence victimization.


Table 2. Level of Student Fear of School Violence


My school is a place where:

Percentage of Agree/ Strongly Agree

1.

I often feel as if someone will attack or harm me.

9.9%

2.

I often feel as if someone will attack or harm me while I am on my way to and from school.

7.1%

3.

I avoid participating in extracurricular activities at school because I think that someone might attack or harm me.

4.9%

4.

I avoid participating in particular classes because I think someone might attack or harm me.

3.9%

5.

I sometimes stay home from school because I think someone might attack or harm me at school or on my way to or from school.

4.1%

Note: Student responses were coded as 1 = strongly disagree; 2 = disagree; 3 = agree; and 4 = strongly agree. The percentage of students who agreed or strongly agreed was computed.


INDIVIDUAL PREDICTORS OF FEAR OF SCHOOL VIOLENCE


Figure 2 shows a comparison of the level of students’ fear of school violence by gender, ethnicity, parental education level, and academic achievement. The t-test results for the mean difference in the level of fear of school violence by gender (t = 6.28, p < .000), parents’ education level (t = -5.49, p < .000), and achievement (t = 16.68, p < .000) showed that low-achieving male students with less educated parents reported a significantly higher level of fear of school violence than high-achieving female students with highly educated parents. In addition, ethnic minority students reported a higher level of fear than White students. One-way ANOVA indicated that there is an overall statistically significant difference among the five ethnic groups (F = 11.13, df = 4, p < .000). American Indian and Alaska Native students reported the highest level of fear, followed by Latino, Asian, and African American students. Tukey post-hoc analysis of multiple comparisons showed that White students’ level of fear was statistically lower than that of American Indian/Alaska Native, Black, and Latino students. There was no statistically significant difference in the mean level of fear among four ethnic minority groups.


The national statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice showed that a higher percentage of Latino, African American, and American Indian/Alaska Native students reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property as compared with White and Asian American students (Dinkes et al., 2006). Ethnic minority students are also more likely to become the victims of racism or racial harassment, which could trigger a higher level of fear among them. The first hypothesis—that male students and ethnic minority students will report a higher level of fear of becoming victims of school violence, whereas students with highly educated parents and high academic achievement will report a lower level of fear—was supported by the data.


Figure 2. Individual characteristics of students who fear school violence

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click to enlarge

Note. Student responses were coded as 1= strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = agree, and 4 = strongly agree for five items on fear of school violence. Each bar represents the mean of the responses for each group.  All the differences were statistically significant. AIAN = American Indian/Alaska Native.


SCHOOL FACTORS ASSOCIATED WITH STUDENTS’ FEAR OF SCHOOL VIOLENCE


Before examining the relationship between school factors and students’ fear of school violence, the relationships among individual and school factors were examined using correlation analyses and t tests at the student level. The relationships among ordinal and continuous variables based on correlation are presented in Table 3. The strongest relationships were observed between clear and fair rules and student–teacher bonding (r = .43), between student–teacher bonding and perceived teacher support (r = .41), and between parental education level and school mean parental education level (r = .40). Students who reported a higher level of student–teacher bonding were more likely to report that their schools had clear and fair rules and that teachers supported student learning. The students with a lower level of parents’ education were more likely to go to a school with a low school mean of parental education.


The measures of school disorganization were negatively and significantly associated with most of the measures of sense of school community, showing that a higher level of school disorganization is associated with a lower level of sense of school community. The measures of school disorganization were only weakly associated with learning opportunities. None of the relationships presented in Table 3, however, was strong enough to cause a multicollinearity problem in the following HLM analysis.


The relationships between urban location and academic tracking and other variables were examined by t tests. The t values were covered to effect sizes to assess the strengths of the relationships. There was a large effect of urban location of school and fully certified teachers (ES = -.61). The urban schools were less likely to have fully certified teachers. The relationship between academic tracking and instructional support was also strong (ES = .71). The schools with academic tracking were more likely to report that they provide instructional support for low achievers and ELL students. All the other relationships measured by effect sizes ranged from -.36 to .28, smaller than medium effect of plus and minus .50 (Cohen, 1992).


Because of the strong relationship between some variables, the potential problem of multicollinearity was also tested with collinearity statistics using variance inflation factor (VIF) based on OLS multiple regression of all the independent variables at student level. The VIFs varied from 1.04 to 1.61, and none of them was higher than the cut-off point of VIF =10 for multicollinearity (Myers, 1990). Therefore, the variables measuring individual characteristics, school disorganization, sense of school community, and learning opportunities were entered simultaneously into an HLM model as hypothesized.  


Table 3. Correlation Among Predictors of Fear of School Violence


 

Individual

Characteristics

School Disorganization

Sense of School Community

Learning Opportunities

 

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

Individual Characteristics

          

1. Parent Education

1.0

         

2. Academic Achievement

.32**

1.0

        


School Disorganization

          

3. Classroom Disorder

-.04

-.12**

1.0

       

4. Clear and Fair Rules

-.00

.04

-.19**

1.0

      

5. School Mean Parents’ Education

.40**

.38**

-.03

-.01

1.0

     


Sense of School Community

          

6. Student Belonging

.11**

.13**

-.12**

.26**

.03

1.0

    

7. Student–Teacher Bonding

.07**

.18**

-.25**

.43**

.08**

.30**

1.0

   

8. Perceived Teacher Support

-.00

.03

-.18**

.26**

-.08**

.21**

.41**

1.0

  


Learning Opportunities

          

9. Instructional Support

-.10**

-.08**

-.05**

-.02

-.24**

.01

-.01

.05*

1.0

 

10. Fully Certified Teachers

.10**

.13**

.02

-.02

.25**

-.01

.03

-.07**

- .03

1.0

N = 2,787.

*p < .05. **p < .01. ***p < .001 (two-tailed tests).


Table 4 presents the result of the HLM analyses. First, the fully unconditional model was examined to understand the within-school and between-school variations in the dependent variable: fear of school violence. The intraclass correlation was .047, which shows that only about 5% of the total variation is between schools. A total of 95% of the variation in fear of school violence was within schools, which shows the importance of identifying individual characteristics and teacher and school-related experiences perceived by students.


All individual characteristics and two measures of school disorganization (classroom disorder, clear and fair rules) and three measures of sense of school community (student belonging, student–teacher bond, and perceived teacher support) were analyzed as level 1 variables. Two measures of school disorganization (urban location, school mean parents’ education) and three measures of learning opportunities (academic tracking, instructional support, and fully certified teachers) were analyzed at level 2 because these factors are school-level characteristics. A dummy variable of rural location of schools was entered as a control variable.


Table 4. School-Related Characteristics Associated With Students’ Fear of School Violence


Constructs

Variables

Unstandardized

Coefficient (SE)

Standardized

Coefficienta

Effect sizeb

Level 1 (Student)

    

Individual Characteristics

Gender

.034(.020)

.031

.062

 

Black

-.058(.038)

-.037

-.074

 

Latino

-.035(.037)

-.026

-.052

 

Asian

-.001(.052)

.000

.000

 

American Indian/Alaska Native

-.006(.031)

-.002

-.004

 

Parent education

.007(.009)

.018

.036

 

Academic Achievement

-.001(.000)***

-.232

-.477

School Disorganization

Classroom disorder

.052(.015)***

.065

.130

 

Clear and fair rules

-.017(.030)

-.015

-.030

Sense of School Community

Student belonging

-.377(.024)***

-.347

-.740

Student–teacher bonding

-.081(.030)**

-.081

-.163

Perceived teacher Support

-.016(.021)

-.018

-.036

Level 2 (School)

    
 

Intercept

1.481(.027)**

  

School Disorganization

Urban location

-.014(.026)

-.013

-.026

 

School mean

Parents’ education

.071(.021)***

-.074

-.148

Learning Opportunities

Academic tracking

.049(.024)*

.038

.076

 

Instructional support

.010(.001)

.026

.052

 

Fully certified Teachers

-003(.013)

-.003

-.006

Control Variable

Rural location

-.068(.028)*

-.060

-.120


Variance Components

Fully unconditional

Level 1 variation

.26

 

Level 2 intercept

.01

Conditional

Level 1 variation

.20

 

Level 2 intercept

.00

R2

Level 1

.23

 

Level 2

.85

Note. The dependent variable is the mean of five items on fear of school violence coded from 1 = strongly disagree to 4 = strongly agree.

a Standardized coefficients are based on ordinal least squares (OLS) multiple regression at student level.

b The standardized coefficients in multiple regression were converted to effect sizes using Friedman’s (1968, p. 246) formula #6: d = 2 (r) / (1 - r2).5.


* p < .05. ** p < .01. *** p <.001 (two-tailed tests).


Table 4 shows that two measures of school disorganization, two measures of school integration, and one measure of learning opportunities were significantly associated with students’ fear of school violence. Students who perceived that their classrooms were disorderly and students in a school with a low mean parental education were more likely to report greater fear of school violence. Clarity and fairness of school rules and urban location of the school were not significantly related to students’ fear of school violence.


Students with a strong sense of belonging to school and a strong student–teacher bonding reported a significantly lower level of fear of school violence. However, perceived teacher support of student learning was not a significant predictor of students’ fear of school violence. Out of the three measures of students’ learning opportunities, only one variable was significantly associated with students’ fear. The existence of academic tracking was a moderate yet significant factor associated with a higher level of fear of school violence among students. In the school with academic tracking, students were more likely to report fear of school violence than were students in the school without academic tracking. The number of instructional support services for students and availability of fully certified teachers were independent of students’ fear of school violence.  


After all the student- and school-level factors were entered into the model, all the individual background characteristics except academic achievement became nonsignificant. Students with lower achievement than the others reported a significantly greater fear of school violence. In addition, a school’s rural location was significantly and negatively associated with students’ fear of school violence, indicating that students in suburban schools (reference group) and urban schools reported a significantly higher level of fear of school violence than students in rural schools.


To compare the relative size of the relationship between student fear of school violence and each independent variable, standardized coefficients and effect sizes computed based on OLS multiple regression at the student level were also reported in Table 4. OLS multiple regression was used because the hierarchical nature of the data in the HLM does not allow the direct comparison of level 1 coefficients and level 2 coefficients. The effect sizes show that the relationship between student belonging and fear of school violence was the strongest among all the predictors. The effect size was -.740, showing a large effect of students’ sense of belonging to school on student fear of becoming victims of school violence. The second strongest relationship was between academic achievement and student fear. The effect size of -.477 shows a medium to large effect of student achievement on their fear of school violence. The effect sizes of other statistically significant factors were small. The effect sizes were .130 for classroom disorder, -.163 for student–teacher bonding, -.148 for school mean parents’ education, and .076 for academic tracking. Although these factors were significantly associated with student fear of school violence, the effects of these factors are minimal compared with the effects of students’ sense of belonging and student academic achievement.  


The variance components section of Table 4 shows that the level 1 variables as a group explained 23% of within-school variation. Because 95% of total variation resides at the individual level, the student-level measures of individual characteristics, school disorganization, and sense of school community are important predictors of student fear of school violence. Of 5% of the total variation explained by between-school factors, the school-level variables examined here accounted for 85% of school-level variation. This means that 4.25% of total variation of student fear of school violence was explained by the school-level measures of school disorganization and learning opportunities and rural location of schools. The HLM analysis showed the importance of paying attention to individual-level factors, especially students’ sense of belonging at school and academic achievement.


In summary, the second hypothesis, on the relationship between school disorganization and student fear, was partially supported, and the third hypothesis, on the relationship between sense of school community and student fear, was supported. However, our data did not support our fourth hypothesis, on the relationship between learning opportunities and student fear.   


DISCUSSION


This study identified individual and school factors associated with students’ fear of school violence using data from a nationally representative sample of 15-year-old students and their principals. Students’ gender, ethnicity, parental education level, and academic achievement were examined as individual predictors of students’ fear of becoming victims of school violence. In addition, three school characteristics—school disorganization, sense of school community, and student learning opportunities—were developed based on fear of crime theories and past studies on school violence and bullying, and analyzed using HLM.


The data showed that on average, a few students in a classroom of 20–30 students (10%) are spending time at school in fear of potential violent victimization. This percentage was higher than the percentage of students who fear violent victimization on the way to or from school. Considering that the level of adult supervision at school is generally higher than on the way to or from school, educators need to seriously reexamine the school environment that produces students’ fear. Moreover, on average, one student in every classroom (4%–5%) avoided extracurricular activities, particular classes, or going to school because of their fear of violent victimization at school. It is important to be aware that the unsafe school environment is depriving students of learning opportunities at school.


The analyses of individual characteristics showed that male students, low achievers, ethnic minority students, and students with less educated parents fear violent victimization more than the other students as hypothesized. However, once all the individual and school factors were examined simultaneously in the HLM model, student achievement was the only significant predictor of student fear of school violence. The relationship between race/ethnicity or parental education level and student fear of school violence is likely mediated by the level of academic achievement. Because of the cross-sectional nature of the data, the causal relationship between student achievement and fear of school violence is unknown. Although low achievement is likely to characterize vulnerability for violence victimization that causes fear, it is also likely that fear makes students unable to learn effectively and affects their academic achievement.


Schwartz et al. (2005) investigated the reciprocal relationship between peer victimization and academic achievement based on longitudinal data from 199 third- and fourth graders in two elementary schools in Los Angeles. They compared two models using structural equation modeling (SEM): the first model on low achievement that causes peer victimization, and the second model on peer victimization that causes lower achievement. They found that low academic achievement measured by GRA and SAT-9 scores did not predict the later peer victimization. However, peer victimization in the 1st year significantly predicted low academic achievement in the 2nd year, mediated by a higher level of depression. If peer victimization is causing low academic achievement, it is likely that students’ fear of becoming victims of school violence also leads to lower academic achievement, rather than low achievement being a predictor of student fear. This causal relationship needs to be empirically investigated in future studies on students’ fear. However, if this causal relationship between student’s fear and academic achievement holds true, the relatively strong relationship (ES = .477) between these factors found in this study is alarming. It is critical to pay attention to the negative impact of fear on student learning and later future prospects as a consequence of academic success.


The analyses of school predictors of student fear of school violence provided evidence that school disorganization and sense of school community are important factors associated with students’ fear of school violence. Students who perceived that their classrooms were disorderly and filled with noise and uncontrollable students, as well as students in schools with a low mean parental education level, reported greater fear of school violence. A lack of teacher control of classroom environment, which may also indicate a lack of control of violent students, seems to be causing heightened fear of potential victimization among students. School mean parental education level—a strong predictor of a community’s poverty level—was also significantly associated with students’ fear of school violence. School mean parents’ education level can also predict the level of school resources. The signs of community’s poverty or lack of school resources characterized by deteriorating buildings, broken windows, or old learning materials may be perceived by students as representing a lack of school safety and trigger fear among them.     


Urban location of the school and clarity and fairness of school rules were not significantly associated with fear of school violence. Students seem not to directly link urban environment and perception of safety. It may be that a majority of students are accustomed to the urban environment in their community and thus the urban location itself does not trigger students’ fear of school violence. Several past studies found that clarity and fairness of school rules were associated with a higher level of school violence victimization (Gottfredson & Gottfredson, 1985; Gottfredson et al., 2005; Ma, 2001; Mayer & Leone, 1999). Unclear and unfair school rules may send inconsistent messages to students about their behaviors, leading to prevalence of school violence. However, from the perspective of students with a high risk of victimization, the disciplinary norm regarding how teachers and schools handle students’ violent behaviors may matter more than the official school rules, which may or may not be followed. This may be the reason why classroom disorganization predicted a higher level of fear, but not the clarity and fairness of school rules. In sum, the hypothesis that school disorganization is associated with a higher level of student fear was partially supported. It is important, however, to know that the effect sizes of the measures of school disorganization were smaller than those of measures of sense of school community.


Students’ sense of belonging, student–teacher bonding, and perceived teacher support of student learning were examined as measures of a sense of school community. Students with a stronger sense of belonging to school and stronger student–teacher bonding reported a significantly lower level of fear of school violence. These students are likely to trust their teachers and administrators and believe that school staff can control potential violence and create a safe environment. The relationship between students’ sense of belonging and student fear was especially strong, as shown with the effect size of -.74.


However, student report of teacher support of student learning was not significantly associated with student fear of school violence. Even if students perceived that their teachers had high academic expectations for them and supported their learning, it did not make a difference in their fear of becoming victims of school violence. This may show that instructional support is not perceived by students as teacher support for ensuring a safe school environment. The teachers who are effective instructors may not necessarily be effective in classroom management or handling violent students in classroom.


These findings show that students’ sense of school community is an important predictor of students’ fear of school violence as hypothesized. However, the measures on students’ closeness to teachers and school, measured by students’ sense of belonging and student–teacher bonding, are more important than the measure that captures instructional support only. Students’ sense of school community can be developed only through a holistic approach to address both academic and social aspects. Students’ trust in teachers and school administrators and how close they feel to them matter most in predicting student fear of school violence, probably because these students feel that they can be protected by teachers and principals when violence occurs.


Our hypothesis on the relationship between learning opportunities and fear of school violence was not supported by our data. Only one of the three measures of learning opportunity, academic tracking, was significantly associated with a higher level of students’ fear of school violence. This finding can be explained by the previous studies on tracking that found that the existence of academic tracking is associated with a higher level of delinquency among students placed in lower tracks (Jenkins, 1995; Kilgore, 1991; Polk, 1982). The unequal learning opportunities provided to students through academic tracking may be perceived by students as causing a potential resistance among low-achieving students, which contributes to fear of school violence among them. However, the size of the relationship was small, as shown in the effect size of .076.    


The lack of a significant relationship between two measures of learning opportunities—instructional support for low achievers and fully certified teachers—and students’ fear of school violence may explain that the instructional support that schools and teachers provide to students is not sufficient for students to feel secure about their own safety at school. Students can be in a school where every learning need is met through individual tutoring and homework assistance and feel that their teachers care about their learning and provide support to help them improve achievement. Yet, students may not feel that they can trust teachers to resolve their anxiety toward violent incidents no matter how much learning support they receive by well-qualified teachers. Instead, students’ perception of closeness to teachers and administrators and their care for students’ well-being are the factors directly associated with student fear of school violence.   


It is also important to note, however, that the relationship between learning support and student fear may be indirect. Previous studies have empirically shown that students with violent behaviors are likely to be low achievers (Gottfredson, 1981; Hawkins & Lishner, 1987; Maguin & Loeber, 1996; Silberberg & Silberberg, 1971), and the schools with a support system for student learning would likely have low rates of school violence. This would lead to lower rates of violence victimization and a lower level of fear among students. This indirect relationship between learning support and student fear of school violence mediated by student achievement and violence victimization needs to be examined before we draw a conclusion about an impact of learning support on school safety.


In summary, students’ weak sense of school community and low academic achievement were the strongest predictors of students’ fear of becoming victims of school violence. The fact that 95% of variation in student fear was explained at the individual level based on the HLM analysis showed the importance of paying attention to student perceptions and experiences at school. It is important to examine the reciprocal relationship between these two factors and student fear of school violence to identify how to effectively ensure a safe environment where students can learn without fear of school violence.  


IMPLICATIONS AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS


Before presenting implications of the findings from this study, it is important to note its limitations and directions for future studies. First, data on students’ violent behaviors and victimization were not available from the PISA and thus were not investigated in this study. Most relationships between school-related characteristics and students’ fear of school violence are likely to be mediated by students’ violent behaviors and victimization. In particular, victimization experiences should strongly predict the fear of school violence. Future studies that examine the relationships among students’ violent behaviors, victimization, and fear of school violence, and how school-related characteristics predict each of these factors, are needed.


Second, the data were limited to cross-sectional data. All the relationships found in this study should be interpreted as associations, not as causal relationships. One important relationship that needs special attention is the relationship between academic achievement and students’ fear of school violence. Future studies must use longitudinal data so that we can provide evidence on a causal relationship between achievement and fear of school violence, as well as school characteristics and students’ fear.


Third, data on schools’ disciplinary policy and practices and teachers’ classroom management practices were not available from the PISA. The disciplinary climates in our schools have changed over the past decade under the zero-tolerance policies promoted by federal legislation. Although intended to increase school safety by excluding violent students, many search and surveillance practices and tools, such as locker searches, metal detectors, and surveillance cameras, can increase fear among students. In addition, studies have revealed that students have been suspended or expelled because of minor incidents (Vavrus & Cole, 2002) and minority and male students are more likely to be suspended (Mendez, Knoff, & Ferron, 2002; Skiba & Peterson, 1999; Skiba, Michael, Nardo, & Peterson, 2002; Townsend, 2000; Vavrus & Cole). Visible unfairness in zero-tolerance practices can also cause students’ fear of school violence. These factors associated with schools’ disciplinary policy and practices and teachers’ classroom management practices need to be investigated as predictors of students’ fear of school violence.  


With these limitations in this study and directions for future studies in mind, several important implications can be presented based on the findings. First, educators and policy makers need to become aware of the level of students’ fear of violent victimization on school grounds. Although the major educational reforms under the No Child Left Behind Act direct schools’ attention to improving student achievement and teacher quality, it is important to pay attention to students’ fear as a major hindrance to effective learning. With a lack of evidence that zero-tolerance policies promoted by the No Child Left Behind Act ensures school safety, and potential negative consequences for students reported by the past studies, schools should not assume that zero-tolerance policies solve school safety problems.     


Instead, schools should focus on developing a sense of school community and maintaining orderly and effective classroom environments. Teachers play an important role in developing close and trusting relationships with students, providing meaningful learning and social activities for students to strengthen their sense of belonging to school, and developing caring and effective classroom environments. School administrators should provide support to teachers and develop a school climate for promoting a sense of school community among students through involving students and family members in important school decision-making processes. When schools support collaboration in which family members, students, and schools can work as partners to develop a positive school environment, students’ sense of school community will be enhanced.


Teachers and school administrators can play a major role in reducing students’ fear of school violence by paying attention to students’ perceptions and experiences at school. It is important for educators to know that students’ fear of school violence is mainly explained by school-related characteristics reported by students, rather than individual demographic or family background characteristics. This supports the importance and potential effectiveness of schools’ efforts to develop a sense of safety among students. Without schools’ efforts to reduce fear of school violence among students by improving the school environments, it is unlikely that schools can achieve the goal of promoting effective student learning and healthy social development.  


Note


1. Originally, clarity and fairness of school rules were measured separately with three items for clarity and two items for fairness. However, the internal consistency indices were small (alpha = .60 for clarity, and .29 for fairness) for these separate measures. Because of the increased internal consistency after combining both constructs, one index from the five variables was developed.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 112 Number 1, 2010, p. 68-102
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15769, Date Accessed: 10/22/2017 3:18:54 PM

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About the Author
  • Motoko Akiba
    University of Missouri
    E-mail Author
    MOTOKO AKIBA is assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Missouri. Dr. Akiba conducts policy research on teacher quality and learning, multicultural teacher education, and school safety using both U.S. and international data. Her recent publications include Improving teacher quality: The U.S. teaching force in global context (Teachers College Press) and “Predictors of student fear of school violence: A comparative study of eighth graders in 33 countries” in School Effectiveness and School Improvement.
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