Jan. 14, 2000
Contact: Carey Hoffman


Cincinnati -- America's current ongoing nightmare, school violence, can be curtailed more successfully, UC graduate student Stephen Haas says. Recent research by Haas strongly suggests he has found a tool that can make it happen.

Haas, a December doctoral graduate in criminal justice, made school violence the subject of his dissertation, "High School Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis." Built upon five years of research and a sampling of nearly 2,000 California high school students, Haas' work has led him to a solution more effective in identifying and organizing factors associated with school violence than any other approach or theory that has been studied.

His success came with a modified version of Albert Bandura's social learning theory (SLT) of aggression. "This is significant because no other study has explained more about violence and aggression in the school context using a single theoretical paradigm," Haas says. "If we know the explanations, then we can set up programs and strategies to prevent these behaviors in schools and we can intervene more effectively with youth who are at high risk."

The study suggests strategies for reducing school violence can be developed by using SLT as a framework for identifying and understanding known factors of adolescent aggression and school violence.

Bandura's SLT has three components:

  • how people learn aggressive behavior.
  • factors that instigate or facilitate aggressive behavior.
  • factors that maintain or regulate aggressive behavior over time (e.g., why people who behave aggressively continue to behave aggressively).
  • To those, Haas also added a component that looked at personality. "When we took the factors identified by SLT into account, we were able to predict and explain these behaviors very well, particularly school violence and school aggression," Haas said. "Those students who engage in these behaviors in school can be identified by SLT."

    Haas' research -- finished under the guidance of dissertation adviser Patricia Van Voorhis, professor of criminal justice -- illuminates many aspects of the school violence problem.

    The study looked at 1,974 high school students from two California school districts, a central California district drawing from a suburban/rural population and a southern California urban district. Despite popular perceptions, results from the two districts were comparable when it came to issues of school violence.

    When surveyed, approximately three-fourths of the students responding reported committing some act of school violence in the past two years.

    But most reported infrequent involvement and participation in only the least serious forms of behavior surveyed, such as verbally insulting other students (65.9 percent) or teachers (23.2 percent), threatening to hit other students (38.7 percent), pushing other students (38.6 percent) or throwing a punch at another student in school (23.9 percent).

    The numbers were much lower when it came to serious acts of violence. Only a small percentage of students reported hitting teachers (1.3 percent) or threatening to hit teachers (4.1 percent). Numbers were higher when it came to sexual assault (6.9 percent).

    The pattern was similar when it came to the most serious overall category surveyed -- instrumental school aggression, defined as directing aggression to achieve a goal. The most common practice in this category was students picking on other students to look good in front of their friends (39.1 percent). Fewer students engage in spreading lies about other students to look good (12.2 percent) or using threats and intimidation to get money from other students in school (8.5 percent).

    In examining the issue, Haas has found the causes of school violence to be intertwined. As might be expected, no one root cause exists. But some factors are more important than others.

    "Factors that appear to be more important are learning factors, situational factors from school including reinforcements found in the school, and individual thinking patterns and predispositions such as personality," Haas says.

    Using this information, Haas hopes to help school policy-makers look at school violence in a different light. "I believe school officials need to recognize social learning theory as a general framework essential for understanding school violence and aggression in many different types of school districts," Haas says.

    Specifically, Haas recommends school officials need to act on several fronts. Attention needs to be paid, he says, to students who have learned aggressive behavior or exhibit personality traits that could lead to aggressive behavior. In recognizing and trying to counteract these factors, school officials need to look not only at the individual, but at the influence of his peers, broader family and neighborhood influences and the influence of conditions in the school.

    "School officials need to be aware that the way in which schools are governed and the nature of punishments for fighting in school are important in this problem," Haas says.

    That relates to the overall factor of frustration, another key point for school officials. Haas recommends that schools develop strategies to enhance the ability of students to cope with frustration and that school officials use SLT to identify high-risk students, particularly those in an environment with high levels of generalized frustration.

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