The National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center defines youth fighting as “two or more teens who have chosen to use physical force to resolve a conflict or argument.” But for Vanya Jones, PhD, an assistant professor in the Bloomberg School of Public Health, there’s a whole lot more going on in school fights than conflict resolution.
Jones, who is an associated faculty member of the School of Education’s Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, last month presented “Fighting in Schools as a Form of Youth Violence” as the third installment of the center’s inaugural five-part lecture series.
“My work in Baltimore City has begun to get me thinking about fighting not just as a reason for conflict,” she says, “but as a way that young people are coping, dealing with decision-making and the impact of stress.”
She argues that understanding the nature of fights in schools is of critical importance, particularly during the middle school years. In the sixth through eighth grades, there tends to be a significant spike in school-related violence as students adjust behaviors to peer influences, moving from childhood to early adulthood. That spike can be understood holistically as a pattern of adolescent development—but it can also be red-flagged for statewide reform measures, sometimes with detrimental effects to schools and communities.
What’s most effective in reducing fighting in schools? Jones finds that consistent parental engagement, including involvement in their children’s schoolwork, has a strong positive correlation to improved academic outcomes, including fewer instances of fighting. On the other hand, peer behavior is also predictive of individual behavior toward fighting—particularly when students perceive that many of their friends are engaging in fights. Students without strong parental and community supports are more at risk.
Jones was part of a team that developed Steppin’ Up, an in-school group-mentoring intervention for schools on probation for a “persistently dangerous” designation, as well as Supporting Our Students, a multisector partnership, administered by the Baltimore City Health Department, that works to reduce youth violence through skill building, community mentors, resources for nonviolence, and primary prevention.
Her lecture was the third in the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools lecture series, which is woven into the coursework for all students in counseling, teaching preparation, special education, and school administration. In total, the five lectures are the core teaching units of the School of Education’s safe and healthy schools curriculum.
One key message for this unit, which focuses on student risk and behaviors, is that school leaders, teachers, communities, and families all need a better understanding of the role of adolescent development as a factor in school violence. Jones advocates an “ecological” approach to the issue. School violence must be understood on multiple levels of influence, she argues, beginning with the individual child and extending out through family, community, and broader cultural factors.
As with all School of Education efforts, there is a key emphasis on the effective use of data to improve health and safety. In the first installment, Jonathan Links, John Hopkins’ vice provost and chief risk and compliance officer, presented his research on the COPEWELL community resilience model, which the center is now adapting for the public school setting as SchoolWell.
Other scheduled events include a recent January talk by School of Education professor and former police officer Sheldon Greenberg on the impact of school resource officers on school violence and an upcoming February 20 lecture by Assistant Professor Richard Lofton on race, place, and systemic inequalities.