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Elementary and Middle School Students' Perceptions of Violence-Prone School Subcontexts

Author(s): Ron Avi Astor, Heather Ann Meyer and Ronald O. Pitner
Source: The Elementary School Journal, Vol. 101, No. 5 (May, 2001), pp. 511-528
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1002121
Accessed: 19-01-2017 13:39 UTC

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The Elementary School Journal

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Elementary and Abstract

Middle School This study examined the views of 377 students


(grades 2, 4, 6, and 8) from 5 elementary and 2

Students' Perceptions
middle schools in 2 urban areas regarding
violence-prone subcontexts in their schools. We
of Violence-Prone explored context in several ways including con-
trasts (1) between elementary and middle
schools, (2) among grade levels, and (3) among
School Subcontexts subcontexts within schools (e.g., hallways, cafe-
terias, playgrounds, classrooms). Variation in
student perceptions of school safety between
sixth graders in elementary schools and sixth
Ron Avi Astor graders in middle schools was examined to bet-
ter understand the relative influence of devel-
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor opment and school organization on student per-
ceptions. Findings suggested that middle school
students were far more likely than elementary
Heather Ann Meyer students to perceive danger in multiple and spe-
cific school subcontexts. Sixth graders in elemen-
Wellesley College Center for Research on Women
tary schools tended to view dangerous school
contexts in a manner similar to second and
Ronald O. Pitner fourth graders, whereas the views of sixth gr
ers in middle schools were similar to those of
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
eighth graders. Thus, the organization and social
dynamics of the middle school likely influenced
students' perceptions of safety. Results also sug-
gested that students in different grades within
elementary and middle schools perceived dan-
ger differently in some subcontexts (cafeteria
and hallways). Implications for research, theory,
and practice are discussed.

Studies from criminology, architecture, en-


vironmental psychology, and urban plan-
ning have documented that certain public
locations tend to be more prone to violence
than others. Researchers have found strong
correlations between violence and specific
physical environments in housing projects,
prisons, and college campuses (e.g., Day,
1994; Fisher & Nasar, 1992; Greenberg,
The Elementary School Journal Rohe, & Williams, 1982; Megargee, 1977;
Volume 101, Number 5
Nacci, Teitelbaum, & Prather, 1977; New-
? 2001 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
0013-5984/2001/10105-0002$02.00 man, 1973; Perkins, Meeks, & Taylor, 1992;

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512 THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL JOURNAL

lence in some school


Stokols, 1995). Community spaces and notal
violence in
tends to occur at certain locations and times.
others? (See Astor, Meyer, & Behre, 1999;
Furthermore, types of violence (e.g., rape, Behre, Astor, & Meyer, 1999; and Meyer
assault, gang violence, armed robbery) tend 2000, for teachers' views on this issue.)
to vary by location and time. Several recent The concept of territoriality and the role
community intervention programs designed of aggression in human social contexts have
to reduce rape, crime, assault, and drug been explored in other physical environ
trade have targeted specific physical loca- ments such as housing projects (Edney,
tions and organized community members, 1976). A number of studies have been con-
police, and other groups to take ownershipducted based on the successes and failures
of violence-prone locations (see Bragg, 1995;of many of the large-scale housing projects
Herbert, 1997; Walsh, 1997). Many politi-built in the 1950s and 1960s. One project in
cians and analysts credit this approach withparticular, Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, Missouri,
recent reductions in an array of types of ur- has provided some insights into transac-
ban violence (Cisnernos, 1995). tions between the individual and the physi-
Although there are ample data on cal environment. Pruitt-Igoe was a large
violence-prone locations in urban com- housing development with almost 3,000 in-
munities, few researchers have explored dividual apartments. It was plagued by
students' perceptions of why violence ap- crime, drugs, and vandalism that resulted
pears to occur in predictable locationsin the physical deterioration of the build-
within school settings. Moreover, there are ings. Architects and urban planners such as
few empirical data on students' percep- Yancey (1976) proposed that Pruitt-Igoe
tions of these issues in elementary and had been designed without consideration
middle schools. The overarching goal offor the development of a sense of commu-
this study was to better understand hownity or communal spaces. According to
students in different grade levels in ele-Yancey, problems that plagued the projects
mentary and middle schools perceivedwere due in part to the lack of informal
safety and danger within physical subcon- spaces that could facilitate interpersonal in-
texts of their schools. teraction (these areas are often referred to
as "sociopetal" spaces [see Hall, 1976]).
Yancey (1976) suggested that without these
Related Theory and Research informal public areas, residents retreated
Territoriality into a personal and defensive mode called
Territoriality is an important theoretical "atomization." This meant that they consid-
concept that may help to explain why ered the physical area of their apartments
school violence clusters at certain locations their personal territory, and they had little
and times. According to Proshansky, Ittel- interaction in jointly shared areas (i.e., pub-
lic/transition areas such as hallways) and
son, and Rivlin (1970, p. 180), "territoriality
in humans [is] defined as achieving and felt ex- little responsibility to care for these areas.
erting control over a particular segment ofYancey reviewed research conducted in
space." How groups perceive their roles other in housing projects that were designed to
physical contexts could be related to how facilitate interpersonal interaction by pro-
they behave in those contexts. This applies viding semipublic or common spaces for in-
to schools in that teachers' and students' formal social interaction. For example, in
perceptions of territoriality appear to apartments
influ- with shared space where chil-
ence the social dynamics of school violence. dren could play while their parent or
For example, why do school staff and guardian
stu- could still monitor them, an "in-
dents tend to believe it is their personal/ creased amount of neighboring, visiting,
professional role to deal with school andvio-
mutual aid was found" (Yancey, 1976,

MAY 2001

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PERCEPTIONS 513

p. 457). These Goldstein,


findings1994; Greenberg et al., 1982;
could
tant applications Newman & Franck, and 1982; Perkins et al.,
raise i
search questions 1992). about violen
Are some school locations more violence However, current interventions go be-
prone because of a lack of perceived per-
yond just designing spaces in a way that
promotes ownership or monitoring in a
sonal, communal, or professional responsi-
bility by both students and teachers? passive
Are sense. New community-based in-
classroom spaces in some schools similar to tend to focus on the process and
terventions
individual residences in that teachers anddynamics of individuals participating in de-
students retreat into classrooms to feel safe,
fining or defending that space (see Feins,
Epstein, & Widom, 1997). More specifically,
thus avoiding other spaces, such as the hall-
way, playground, or lunchroom? Are chil- current theory emphasizes physical designs
that encourage social behaviors such as
dren's perceptions of school territories simi-
lar to adults'? monitoring potentially dangerous spaces.
For example, according to Feins et al. (1997,
Undefined Public Spaces p. 71), "properly designed spaces encour-
age or allow the expression of a sense of
The concept of territoriality does not by
territoriality among the users of the space
itself explain many common behaviors in
by providing the opportunity for crime pre-
schools. For example, there are many spaces
vention."
in schools, such as auditoriums, play-
Similarly, theories on territoriality (e.g.,
grounds, and lunchrooms, where both staff
Routine Activity Theory; see Taylor, 1997,
and students congregate. However, because
for a discussion) suggest that crime and vi-
of the social hierarchy, mission, and profes-
olence can be reduced in undefined areas if
sional roles/structure of schools, these
place managers (e.g., a doorman or security
spaces may not foster informal interactions
guard) are assigned to monitor a particular
among students or between students and
location. The type of monitoring an individ-
staff. Furthermore, professionals in schools
ual who is responsible for the space uses is
may not believe it is their role to interact
often based on the level of responsibility
with students in these spaces unless admin-
that individual is given. Taylor (1997, p.
istrators have assigned them to monitor
16) noted that "the stronger the responsi-
those times/spaces.
bility, the more likely the place manager
Consequently, we believe another im-will do something about a crime that is
portant concept that should be used with about to happen, or that has already taken
territoriality is undefined public spaceplace."
(Newman, 1973, 1995; Newman & Franck,
Schools are complex social and organi-
1982). This concept asserts that within any zational systems that differ from housing
community there are physical areas thatprojects or apartment buildings in scope,
may not be seen as anyone's responsibilitymission, and procedures. Nevertheless, the
to monitor or maintain (see Cisnernos, concepts of territoriality and undefined
1995). In his early studies of housing proj-space could have theoretical and practical
ects, Newman (1973, 1995) found that most
implications for school-related spaces such
criminal activity occurred in semipublic,as hallways, cafeterias, playgrounds, or
"undefined" areas of buildings (e.g., lob-routes to and from school. One obvious and
bies, stairwells, halls, and elevators). Over important strategy implied by this ap-
the past 25 years, numerous studies haveproach is to identify these locations and
documented undefined community loca-work with members of the community to
tions that are seen as dangerous or violence"reclaim" them. Once again, these concepts
prone (e.g., Day, 1994; Fisher & Nasar, 1992;raise important questions about school

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514 THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL JOURNAL

spaces. Are certain school


students spaces
nor teachers thought thatviolenc
monitor-
prone due to a lack ing
of those areas was their personal
perceived or pro-
student o
adult responsibility for
fessional them? (Astor,
role/responsibility If so,Meyer, ca
these spaces be reclaimed by
& Behre, 1999; Behre students/
et al., 1999; Meyer,
2000).
teachers simply by identifying them and de-
veloping strategies Many researchersthe
around have not asked stu-
behavio
that occur in those dents spaces?
to explain in Because
detail why they elemen
perceive
tary, middle, and high certain areas in their schools to
schools arebe unsafe or
designe
to serve children at whydifferent ages,
they avoid or fear them. Findingsand
from in
struction in these settings recent studies suggestis that
based undefined onspacedif
ferent philosophiesandregarding territoriality are helpful concepts when w
learning,
believe it is likely that applied to theissuesdynamics
of school violence (Astor
of te
ritoriality are more & Meyer,
complex in press; Astor,
and Meyer, & Behre, so
more
cially proscribed than 1999; Astor,behavior
Meyer, & Pitner, 1999; inAstor,othe
community settings. Vargas, Pitner, & Meyer, 1999; Meyer,
2000). And, exploring these issues from stu-
Evidence for Undefined and
dents' perspectives builds on earlier school
violence research, which only identified lo-
Dangerous Areas in Schools
cations that were prone to violence.
Previous studies on school violence
Additionally, several empirical and con-
have suggested that violent events occur ceptualre-issues raised by the Astor, Meyer,
peatedly in specific places in andand around
Behre (1999) study are addressed in the
schools (American Association of Univer-
current study. First, the Astor et al. study
sity Women, 1993; Arnette & Walsleben,
was conducted in high schools and there-
1998; Astor & Meyer, 1999; Astor, Meyer,fore
& does not reflect the potentially different
Behre, 1999; Carnegie Council on Adoles-
relationships in territoriality/undefined
cent Development, 1993; Chandler, Chap-
space and violent events between elemen-
man, Rand, & Taylor, 1998; Goldstein, 1994;
tary and middle schools. Elementary and
Lockwood, 1997; National Institute of Edu-middle schools are organized differently
cation & U.S. Department of Health, Edu- from high schools, students are at different
cation, and Welfare, 1978). Some studies in
developmental stages, and teachers are
the United States and abroad have sug- trained differently for each setting. Thus,
gested that students who attend urban the current inquiry builds on Astor, Meyer,
schools report fear as the leading reason and Behre (1999) by exploring potential dif-
they avoid particular areas in and around ferences between the middle and elemen-
their school (e.g., Benbenishty, Astor,tary & schools. Knowing how elementary and
Zeira, 1998; Benbenishty, Zeira, & Astor, middle school students perceive danger in
1999; Chandler et al., 1998). Astor, Meyer,
school contexts could contribute to the de-
and Behre (1999) found that violence-pronevelopmental psychology literature. Al-
areas in high schools were also "unde-though extensive research has been con-
fined" and "unowned" by members of the ducted on youth violence (see Alexander &
school community (i.e., students, teachers,
Curtis, 1995; Cairns & Cairns, 1991; Dodge,
staff, and parents). Students and teachers1991; Guerra & Tolan, 1994; Olweus, 1991;
voiced concerns about personal/profes- Slaby, Barham, Eron, & Wilcox, 1994), that
sional responsibility and safety in specific
literature does not explore students' under-
violence-prone locations such as hallways,standings of violence in different school
bathrooms, and playgrounds. Even though contexts and at different ages (see Devine,
most individuals in the school community 1996, for a postmodern qualitative analysis
were aware of these locations, neither theof school violence and contexts).

MAY 2001

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PERCEPTIONS 515

Other Context size and Issues:


the school social environment.
School
Student Social Development
Thus, larger schools and classrooms were
related to students'
Eccles and her colleagues negative perceptions of h
the school social
ined how the transition from environment.
school to junior Schools with fewer students
high have been
affects
found to
velopment of adolescents have fewer disciplinary problems
(Ec
and fewerMidgley,
ley, 1989; Eccles, acts of vandalism (Huber, & 1983). W
Midgley, Parental involvement
Eccles, in the school (e.g.,
& Feldlaufer
field & Eccles,school events) appearsThis
1994). to be related resea
to bet-
ter student behavior, whichsocial
that some school-based could also af- p
fect students' sense of mental
motivation, students' feeling safe in school h
(Griffith, 1996). The quality
rates) once associated of interpersonal
primarily
opmental issuesrelationshipsinin the classroom
early and the or-
ado
ganization of the
greatly influenced by school have
the also been
int
tween the typefound ofto be related
schoolto students' sense of
cont
alienation, satisfaction,
tion, community issues, and level of conflict
and s
grade (Duncan level
with others (Griffith, & Raude
1995). Additionally,
Midgley researchers who1998).
Edelin, &have looked at school cli-
This research mate have consistently found that schools
strongly sup
proposition that
with higher it is
academic the
achievement rela
are per-
ceived by both students and parents asneed
the child's developmental be-
cial organizational structure
ing safer (e.g., Hoy, Tarter, & Bliss, 1990; see o
Astor, Vargas,
that exacerbates or etreduces al., 1999; and Astor &soc
Hence, ratherMeyer,
than in press, for a review of school-
focusing o
related contextual variables
dren, interventions aimed associated withat
school violence). or philosoph
social organization
to better fit children's emotional and social
needs could more effectively reduce a host Objectives of the Study
of social problems. There is a lack of re- Given the findings presented in this over-
search on the relation between student age/ view, an objective of the current study was
grade level and school safety, particularly to examine how elementary and middle
as students move from elementary to mid- school students perceive school spaces. Fur-
dle school settings. It is possible that in ad- thermore, we proposed that in addition to
dition to students' developmental stages, school type, students in different grade lev-
the organizational structure, size, or differ-els in the same school might experience
ent philosophies of middle or elementaryschool subcontexts differently. For example,
schools influence students' perceptions of fifth graders may be more likely than first
school safety. graders to perceive the playground as a
Other researchers have examined school dangerous place (this, of course, could vary
organization. For example, some studies onbetween schools and over time within a
the structure of school environments (e.g., school). School violence researchers have
Griffith, 1997) have considered how school-rarely examined how development and
level characteristics are associated with stu- grade level influence students' perceptions
dents' achievement and sense of well-being.of their school environments.
According to Griffith (1997), a number of Additionally, because schools tend to be
school characteristics affect how students organized both by grade level and type, dif-
perceive their school, particularly in rela- ferences in the way students view school
tion to safety. Griffith found negative rela-subcontexts may be a function of both de-
tionships between school and classroomvelopment (e.g., grade level/age) and type

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516 THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL JOURNAL

middle schools
of school attended (e.g., (N = 155) located or
elementary in twomid-
dle). Consequently, in this study we N
urban areas in the Midwest (total = 377).
com-
pared perceptions of Thedanger
physical designbetween
and the structure sixth
of the
graders in elementary and middle
five elementary schools were schools.
similar. Like-
wise, thegraders
We expected that sixth two middle schools
in were similar
middle
schools would perceive
in designmore unsafe
and structure. areas
Table 1 describes
than sixth graders the inoverall
elementary schools
student population from each
school by gender, (e.g.,
due to the physical structure ethnicity, smaller,
and free/
larger) and social dynamics
reduced-price lunchofstatus.
the middle
Students were
school setting. selected from grades 2, 4, 6, and 8. Of the
sixth graders,
From a methodological 51 attended elementary
perspective this
inquiry builds on theschools Astor,
and 54 attendedMeyer,
middle schools. and
Behre (1999) study in The several
overall sampleways.
of studentsFirst,
interviewed
the Astor et al. studyfrom wasthese small scale
seven schools and
was approxi-
mately the
qualitative. In contrast, 67% male and 33% female.
current study About
half were quantitative/qual-
employed a larger-scale, African American (51%), 40%
were white,
itative approach. Second, this and approximately
study is 5%awere log-
ical extension of theLatino(a).
methodsAlmost 82% ofand
the students were
findings
of Astor et al. to middle
receiving free and elementary
or reduced-price lunch.
schools. Third, the interviews with
Students in both types the
of schools stu-
were
dents in this study were
selected onconducted individ-
the basis of the aggressiveness
ually rather than in of focus groups.
their behavior at school, grade level, gen-
In summary, the primary der, and ethnicity.goal of
Of the 443 this
students, 85%
inquiry was to examine: (1) parental
(N = 381) received howconsent students
to par-
in elementary and ticipate middle schools
in the study. Four students(grades
who re-
2, 4, 6, and 8) perceived unsafe
ceived parental consent school sub-
chose not to par-
contexts, (2) how students' ticipate. We collected
grade detailed
leveldata onin-
fluenced their views of school
students' safety,
level of aggression and
in the school.
(3) how sixth graders in
More elementary
specifically, schools
we used both teacher and
versus sixth graders principal in middle ratings of schools from
aggression combined
the same communities viewed violence- with school records of physical fights in or-
derex-
prone school subcontexts. In general, we to determine whether there were differ-
pected more middle than elementary school
ences between the perceptions of students
students to perceive unsafe subcontexts.
who were frequently involved in aggres-
Nevertheless, within each school typesionwe
and those who were not.
expected that there would be variation inWe believed that this data gathering was
the way students at different grade levels
important because it was possible that stu-
perceived dangerous locations. Even so, we who exhibited aggressive behavior in-
dents
predicted that the organization and context
teracted differently with school spaces than
of the school (i.e., middle school vs. elemen-
students who were infrequently aggressive.
tary school) would influence students'For per-
example, students who participate in
ception more than development alone-es-
fights frequently may not perceive areas
pecially with our sixth-grade comparison
where fights occur as dangerous, whereas
groups. students who tend not to engage in fights
Method may perceive those spaces as potentially
dangerous and avoid them. If this were the
Participants case, it could influence the interpretation
The students in this study were selected
and practical use of our findings. Analyses
from five elementary (N = 222) and showed
two that there were no differences be-

MAY 2001

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518 THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL JOURNAL

makes them
tween students with "unsafe"?; (c) Who is this
aggressive and area no
aggressive histories
dangerouson perceptions
for (boys/girls, big kids/little o
school safety and school
kids, and so on)?;
spaces.
(d) Is there aThere
time of day we
also no gender differences. Thus,
when this area is dangerous the ana
or unsafe?
yses reported in this article focus on pote
Analyses
tial differences between students in differ-
ent grades and those in elementary andEach student's map and interview were
middle schools. Overall, the sample was
individually coded. This process entailed
documenting the location(s) that each stu-
comprised of approximately 10% of the to-
tal population of all seven schools. dent identified as unsafe or dangerous.
Afterwards, a list of all identified spaces
The seven schools were part of a larger
was constructed and then entered into a
project (funded by the National Institutes
for Mental Health, National Academy database.
of The following are examples of
Education/Spencer Foundation) that ex- some of the categories that were created
amined school violence. Data from this from the list: the gymnasium is unsaf
study showed that the selected schools (agree/disagree),
and the cafeteria is unsafe
surrounding neighborhoods had high and rates
the bathroom is unsafe. The codes from
of school and community violence, high ra-
the students' individual maps were then en-
tios of student/family poverty, andtered severe
into the database in order to compile
neighborhood physical deterioration information
(tab- related to the areas that were
ulated from census track data, localnominated
police as unsafe. The analyses closely
data, observational methods, and school paralleled our research questions and de-
records). sign. Our first set of analyses explored how
students in middle and elementary schools
Instruments and Procedure
viewed specific violence-prone subcontexts
Maps and interviews. Students were (bathrooms, cafeterias, playgrounds, and so
given a map (simplified school blueprint) on). In those analyses we were interested in
detailing the internal and external areas examining
of (1) if middle schools had more
"dangerous" subcontexts (the overall num-
their school (see Astor, Vargas, et al., 1999,
for a detailed description of the mapping ber of subcontexts) and (2) if more specific
procedure). We suspected that students
subcontexts in middle schools were per-
avoided some areas because of fear, even ceived to be dangerous than in elementary
though they may not have knowledge of a schools. For these sets of analyses an array
particular violent event that had occurred of nonparametric statistical analyses (i.e.,
there. We asked students the following chi-squares, Fisher exact tests, and Mann-
question: "Some kids have told us that there Whitney tests) were performed on the sub-
are places in or around their school that contexts that were nominated in middle
they think are unsafe or dangerous. Can and elementary schools.
you show me on your map the places in We also used qualitative methods to bet-
your school that you think are unsafe or ter understand the themes and reasonin
dangerous?" Trained interviewers who students used when nominating the sub
were not aware of the hypotheses of the contexts. Two researchers, both familiar
study explored characteristics of the iden- with the theoretical framework of this study
tified spaces as well as the reasons why stu- (but not familiar with the relevant hypoth-
dents believed these areas were dangerous. eses of the study), independently read the
Examples of follow-up questions included: students' transcripts and calculated the
(a) Are there any areas in your school where most common themes that students men-
kids tend to get into fights (why or why tioned. For these analyses we used Kvale's
not)?; (b) What is it about these areas that (1996) meaning categorization method. We

MAY 2001

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PERCEPTIONS 519

developed the main dimensions


tified violence-prone subcontexts within
ing the transcripts several schools that also had the characteristics
time of
main dimension of space.
"undefined" crowding).
Locations that students O
created, reexamined, perceived to be unsafe and
tended to agre
lack adult
dimensions, we reread
supervision the were
and monitoring, tranover-
eral times and crowded, created and bullying tended to occur
subcatego
the main dimensions (e.g.,
there. Table 2 presents with
common themes stu-
ing," we created dents mentioned regarding their percep-a
subcategories
contexts in the school). These themes and tions of why subcontexts in the school were
dimensions helped us understand why stu- unsafe. What resonated from the voices of
dents from elementary and middle schools the students was the notion that few, if any,
nominated certain violence-prone locations. adults tended to be situated in unsafe and
Our second set of analyses explored violence-prone areas. Table 2 shows that
how grade level was associated with themiddle school students often mentioned
nomination of violence-prone subcontexts. crowding as an explanation for why sub-
Most developmental studies on violence contexts were unsafe.
use age/grade level as a key variable (with- Overall, both elementary and middle
out always exploring school context). Con- school students consistently identified at
sequently, the grade-level analyses in this least one area in their school that they per-
study were coupled with a series of plannedceived as unsafe or violence prone, and this
and post-hoc pairwise contrasts between differed by school type (elementary/mid-
grade levels in elementary (e.g., second vs. dle). As illustrated in Table 3, middle school
fourth or sixth graders) and middle schools students were more likely than elementary
(e.g., sixth vs. eighth graders). school students to feel unsafe in their
The final set of chi-square analyses ex- schools, X2(1, 377) = 3.46, p < .05. It was
plored how students at the same grade/age important to further assess students' overall
level viewed specific school contexts. Oneperceptions of safety; thus, we examined
group of sixth graders attended the neigh- the total number of unsafe locations iden-
borhood middle school, whereas the other tified by middle and elementary school
group attended the local elementary school. students. A Mann-Whitney test revealed
This contrast kept grade level/age constant that, on average, middle school students
with only the social/organizational and (M = 209 vs. 175) identified many more
schools' physical context varying. This set unsafe and violence-prone areas than did
of analyses allowed us to more carefully ex- elementary students (z = -3.07, p < .01).
amine the relative contributions of school Middle school students interviewed in this
type versus grade level within each school study attributed aggression in dangerous
type. Thus, we were better able to examine places to lack of adult supervision and to
how sixth graders were similar to or differ-not knowing which adults to turn to when
ent from each other (between each school problems emerged in these locations. More-
type), and if sixth graders within each over, analyses of the responses of teachers
school type were similar or different from from the same schools suggested that mid-
students in other grades (within each school dle school teachers also reported experienc-
type). ing greater conflict regarding monitoring
Results violence-prone areas than did elementary
school teachers (Behre et al., 1999; Meyer,
All students were asked, "Are there areas
2000). Taken together, these results sug-
within your school that you perceive asgested
un- that violence in unowned and un-
safe or dangerous?" In response, both ele-
defined spaces in school was perceived by
mentary and middle school students iden-
both students and teachers to be more of a

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PERCEPTIONS 521

TABLE 3. Percentage of Element

Elementary School Middle School


Area (n = 222) (n = 155) X2
Any unsafe area 75 83 3.46*
Halls 14 41 33.32***
Outside 20 24 .89
Classroom 18 20 .24
Bathroom 10 21 9.49**
Cafeteria 6 19 15.08***
Playground 23 1 36.44***
Gym 10 12 .32
Parking lot 7 10 1.06
Stairs 6 8 .52
Basement 9 4 3.24
Locker room 1 12 25.33***
Other areas 12 7 2.92

NOTE.--The category
room, other buildings
mentioned them.
*p < .05.
**p < .01.
***p < .001.

problem in middle schools than in elemen- "Uh, the locker rooms 'cause there
don't need to be no one in there but the
tary schools.
kids and no cameras, no nothing, just the
Table 3 also presents the percentage of kids. And that's when kids fight, and no-
elementary and middle school students body really find out unless you go and
who perceived specific subcontexts within tell, and ain't nobody gonna break it up."
the school to be unsafe. Middle school stu- (Sixth-grade middle school student)
dents were significantly more likely than el-
ementary students to label specific schoolMore elementary than middle school
locations as unsafe. More middle school students nominated the playground as dan-
students identified hallways, bathrooms,The following is a representative re-
gerous.
cafeterias, and locker rooms as unsafe sponse
com- of elementary school students about
pared to elementary students. The follow- playground is unsafe: "Lots of
why the
ing quotations typified the responseskids, lots of kids like to pick on people there
of stu-
while everybody else plays football, and
dents regarding the connection between
violence and subcontexts: they just beat up other people." However,
it should be noted that the middle school
did not have recess and did not use the
"'Cause, there just, everybody beats up
on all kinds of little kids all in the bath- playground area (partially due to a history
room." (Sixth-grade elementary school of violent student behavior during recess).
student)
The findings in Table 4 suggest that
"The place where it would happen
grade level, as a context, also affects stu-
most (a fight) would probably be the big
lunch-the big cafeteria. Most of them dents' perceptions of violence-prone loca-
happen after lunch.... Yeah, when tions within schools. A series of pairwise
everybody can get in a big fight." post-hoc contrasts demonstrated that de-
(Eighth-grade student) pending on the subcontext, students in dif-
"In that hallway. Yeah. 'Cause
ferent grades viewed these areas in dispa-
they-all the kids is in that hallway. Kids
coming from lunch-all the fights start rate ways. For example, eighth graders
coming from lunch." (Fourth-grade stu- were more likely than students in other
dent) grades to nominate cafeterias and hallways

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522 THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL JOURNAL

Table 5 compares
as unsafe. Another series of how school type
pairwise con
trasts were conducted to determine whether (middle/elementary) was related to sixth
graders' perceptions of violence-prone loca-
the results indicated effects of school type or
grade level. Whereas three contextual effectstions within the school. Results suggested
that sixth graders in middle schools were
(bathrooms, locker rooms, and playgrounds)
were a result of school type, four (basement,more likely to nominate bathrooms, cafete-
cafeteria, halls, and outside) were a result rias,
of and locker rooms as unsafe areas. By
grade level. contrast, sixth graders in elementary schools

TABLE 4. Percentage of Students Nominating Unsafe Areas in School by Grade

Grades

Second Fourth Sixth Eighth Significant Pairwise


Area (n = 82) (n = 89) (n = 105) (n = 101) X2 Grade Comparisons

Any unsafe area 74 79 74 86 5.42


Halls 17 12 18 51 47.76*** Eighth vs. other grades***
Classroom 16 23 17 20 1.51 N.S.
Outside 13 27 16 29 9.62* Eighth vs. second
Fourth vs. second*
Playground 20 23 15 2 19.23"** Middle eighth and sixth vs.
elementary second, fourth, an
sixth***
Bathroom 7 11 20 18 7.60* Second vs. middle sixth and
eighth graders*
Cafeteria 9 8 4 25 23.66*** Eighth vs. other grades**
Gym 10 9 10 16 3.12 N.S.
Parking lot 6 9 7 10 1.28 N.S.
Basement 12 3 9 3 8.45* Second vs. eighth graders*
Second vs. fourth graders
Stairs 6 2 8 10 4.71 N.S.
Locker room 0 0 9 11 18.08"** Middle eighth and sixth graders
vs. elementary second, fourth,
and sixth graders**
Other areas 12 12 9 6 3.12 N.S.

NOTE.-The significant probability for "lo


an expected frequency less than five. The
*p < .05.
**p < .01.
***p < .001.

TABLE 5. Percentage of Sixth Graders in Elementary and Middle Schools


Nominating Specific Areas as Unsafe

Elementary School Middle School


Area (n = 51) (n = 54) X2

Any unsafe area 71 78 .71


Bathrooms 12 28 4.20*
Playground 31 0 19.99***
Locker room 2 15 5.30*
Cafeteria 0 9 4.96*

NOTE.-The Fisher exact


room."
*p < .05.
***p < .001.

MAY 2001

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PERCEPTIONS 523

were more likely to and


ronments to elementary nomina
middle schools
settings as unsafe.
(e.g., Astor, Meyer, However,
& Behre, 1999; Behre et
before, the middle school
al., 1999). More specifically, stu
students' views
have recess or
of safety access
in elementary, middle,to th
and high
Administrators in the middle schools indi-
schools appear to be related to the school
cated that the elimination of recess and re-
organization and to students' perceptions
striction to the playground were policies
of teacher-student social dynamics within
developed mainly because of concerns
subcontexts.
about violence in those areas. These analy- The contrast of sixth graders in elemen-
ses imply that the social and physical con-tary school with sixth graders in middle
text of the middle school setting (rather school provides further evidence that stu-
than development alone) influenced how dents' perceptions of danger and violence
students in the same grade perceived dan-are related to social, organizational, and
ger within their schools. physical issues embedded in the context
rather than to their grade level alone. Sixth
Discussion
graders' perceptions of danger in elemen-
The findings indicate that studentstary schools were more similar to those
in ele-
mentary and middle schools (like students of students in other elementary grades,
in high schools) have detailed beliefs aboutthe perceptions of sixth graders in
whereas
subcontexts where violence occurs in their middle schools were more similar to sev-
schools. Students' nominations of danger-enth and eighth graders' perceptions. Our
ous spaces and perceptions of territoriality,
findings suggest the reverse of what would
undefined spaces, and dangerous locationsbe predicted by hypotheses based on social
in schools appear to be related to the school
hierarchies or differences in size/strength
organization, age/grade differences within between younger and older students (e.g.,
schools, and beliefs about potential dangereighth graders perceived more danger
associated with the specific subcontexts. than
In sixth graders in middle schools). Even
both elementary and middle schools, many so, future studies should examine this
students identified subcontexts that were plausible alternative by comparing middle
violence prone. Our results suggest that un-
school sixth graders with those who are in
defined locations in schools share common K-8 and K-6 schools.
characteristics with other undefined com- Griffith (1997) found that smaller
munity locations (Newman, 1973, 1995;
schools and classrooms with fewer students
Yancey, 1976), especially around the impor-
had fewer disciplinary problems. Therefore,
tance and role of monitoring and how it is also possible that the greater physical
school constituents use undefined spaces.size and number of students in middle
However, there are important differences schools
as lead to more undefined space, is-
well.
sues of territoriality, and fewer responsible
Elementary students described far fewer monitors than in elementary schools. Fu-
internal spaces as dangerous than did mid- ture studies could explore this by compar-
dle school students. However, many of the ing middle and elementary schools similar
spaces they described had the characteris- in physical size and number of students.
tics of undefined space (mainly the school These types of studies would help research-
playground). Elementary students' descrip- ers separate effects of school philosophy
tions of adult supervision were similar tofrom those of the physical size of the school
on students' perceptions of undefined
those of middle school students (e.g., a lack
of supervision and follow-through, number spaces and dangerous locations.
of monitors). These results complement and We propose that the physical contexts of
extend prior findings on high school envi- middle schools have more violence-prone,

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524 THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL JOURNAL

undefined areas than elementary


experience some school subcontexts schools
in dis-
primarily due to thetinctive
social ways. organization, and
also to the different viewpoints of teachers
in elementary/middle Implications
schools for Practice about their
One potential implication about
role in discipline, particularly for practice that
which
could be drawn
school spaces/areas they arefrom the community re- for
responsible
monitoring. Based search
on (e.g.,
other studies
Feins et al., 1997; Taylor, 1997) con-
ducted with teachers (Astor,
on territoriality and undefined Meyer,
space is that &
certain undefined
Behre, 1999; Behre, 1998; Behre spaces, dangerous
et al., loca-1999;
tions, and crime on
Meyer, 2000), and research hot spots should be iden-
territoriality
tified and
(e.g., Yancey, 1976), we propose examined by grade levelthat
within the
schools. Then,
number of undefined spaces and danger-monitoring strategies and in-
ous contexts in middleterventions
and targeting
high locationsschools
and safety is
issues associated with
closely related to whether certain grade levels per-
teachers
ceive monitoring the couldentire
be developed. Teachers,
school students, ad-
facility
as part of their professional role. ministrators, and parents could discuss
Data collected from the students in this context-specific monitoring strategies that
study and from teachers in the Behre et al. could be employed in their school given the
(1999) investigation support this hypothe-human resources available (see Astor, Var-
sis. Elementary teachers tended to feel pro- gas, et al., 1999, for details on how to use
fessional and personal responsibility for theschool maps and interviews with students
whole building and all students regardless identify undefined and dangerous areas
to
of the school subcontext. Middle school in schools).

teachers, in contrast, defined their primary Students in the upper grades could be
recruited
responsibility as within the classroom and to be monitors or conflict manag-
ers to increase the oversight in violence-
perceived their role as teachers to be closely
prone areas. Furthermore, parent and com-
related to their subject specialty. This could
munity volunteers could assist teachers in
be a partial explanation for why elementary
order to better monitor school spaces and
students perceive fewer dangerous subcon-areas that children fear. Teachers could be
texts than do students in middle schools.
assigned to monitor specific areas and co-
Students in elementary schools appear to be
ordinate volunteers with an eye toward
aware of this social dynamic, and their be-
preventing victimization of groups who are
havior may reflect this knowledge. How-
particularly vulnerable within grade levels.
ever, these ideas are preliminary and should
Direct conversations based on the mapping
be explored in future research.
data with the victim and perpetrator groups
Our overall findings suggest that most
on issues such as who to turn to, which pro-
grade-related differences can be explained
cedures to follow, and potential conse-
by school type (elementary/middle) and
quences for harm inflicted in those areas
not by grade level alone. However, there
could also be helpful (Olweus, 1993).
were a few grade-related differences in theMonitoring does not need to take on a
ways students viewed school subcontexts."security" or policing style. We have ob-
Within each setting, a limited set of sub-
served many schools that have created
contexts (in this study cafeterias during
monitoring strategies that improve relation-
lunch and hallways during transitions) ships among students. For example, in one
were differentially perceived by students
school, hallway behavior between transi-
in different grades in elementary and mid-
tions was a problem. To reduce undefined
dle schools. This finding suggests that it is in hallways, teachers agreed to stand
space
possible for students in different grades
into
the doorways of their classrooms and to

MAY 2001

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PERCEPTIONS 525

say are more


ashello effective than those
many to in middle
studen
trying schools in keeping aggressionof
the to
names use low (except
stu
sible during the transition.
for the playground areas). If middle schools
students claimed
could emulatethat
the behavior ofthis
elementaryw
form of monitoring that
school teachers and maintain ever
a similar per-
The approach is on
spective similar to
monitoring all school spaces,in
that have been successful in other commu- we predict that there would be fewer un-
nity settings (see Cisnernos, 1995). Like- defined locations that students feared in
wise, other schools have instituted struc- middle schools. Likewise, in elementary
tured, monitored, and adult-led activities schools, extending teachers' effective moni-
on the playground that have increased toring of classroom behavior to the play-
monitoring and responsibility by teachers ground and cafeteria may be the best way
and students for certain areas and activities
to make students feel safer. This may entail
(Butcher, 1999). political processes such as working with
Finally, Hall's (1976) notion of "socio-unions but may also be a function of how
petal" areas can be applied to undefined students and teachers see their role in re-
spaces in school in order to enhance socialcess, lunch, transitions, and the times before
interactions between students and facultyand after school. More discussions with
in areas that were previously undefined. Inpreservice teachers in schools of education
the current study, none of the schools hadcould help teachers have a greater appre-
such places. However, one school we know ciation or understanding of how their pro-
of created a teacher and student lunch- fessional roles affect overall levels of school
room, a playground, and recess areasviolence.
that
were monitored jointly by students Students'
and understanding of school vio-
teachers, as well as other informallence
spacesis complex and is influenced by both
from areas that were previously school
unde-type and grade level. In order to gain
fined. These strategies appear to increase
a fuller understanding of the school context,
the number of adults and monitoring in
violence-prone areas, and undefined space,
undefined spaces but in a less formal
it way
will be necessary for future studies to ex-
and without the stigma of having security
plore the way students, teachers, and other
officers. school staff perceive and think about
Having a clear schoolwide policy of
violence-prone subcontexts. Readers are en-
roles and responsibilities for teachers and
couraged to interpret the findings in this
other staff in areas such as bathrooms, study
play- recognizing the following limitations:
grounds, and immediately in front of (a) the
there were only seven schools in the
building before and after school is impor-
study; (b) this was a purposeful and there-
tant. If elementary and middle schoolfore nonrandom sample of students; and
teach-
ers do not see monitoring these areas as
(c) differences may exist between students
their professional role, the areas are notschools with larger samples (e.g., us-
within
likely to be monitored. Smith anding
Sharp
hierarchical linear modeling). Future
(1994) and Olweus (1993) recommend teach- studies should attempt to rectify these
ing students and teachers how to monitor shortcomings when exploring student per-
and intervene during recess and in the caf- of school safety. Finally, it would
ceptions
eteria. Few teachers receive formal instruc- be useful to have case examples and studies
tion on how to be effective monitors in these of schools that have enlisted the help of stu-
locations. dents, parents, and community members to
In some ways, the results of our study reclaim "undefined" school subcontexts
suggest that teachers' philosophies and the(Sutton, 1996, provides examples from an
organization and size of elementary schools architectural perspective).

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526 THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL JOURNAL

Note
assessment, and recent practice innovations (pp.
139-171). Washington, DC: National Asso-
ciation of Social Workers Press.
This project and article were supported, inBehre, W. J. (1998). Elementary and middle school
part, by a National Institute of Mental Health teachers' reasoning about intervening in student
grant, a Fulbright Senior Scholar Fellowship, violence. Unpublished doctoral dissertation,
and a National Academy of Education/Spencer University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Foundation postdoctoral fellowship to the first
Behre, W., Astor, R. A., & Meyer, H. A. (1999,
author. We would like to thank the students
April). Elementary and middle school teachers'
who participated in this study. An earlier ver- reasoning about school violence. Paper pre-
sion of this article was presented at the annual sented at the annual meeting of the Ameri-
meeting of the American Educational Research can Educational Research Association, Mon-
Association, April 19-23, 1999, in Montreal, treal, Quebec, Canada.
Canada. Please send correspondence to Ron Benbenishty, R., Astor, R. A., & Zeira, A. (1998).
Avi Astor, 1080 South University, School of So- A national study of school violence in Israel: Fall
cial Work, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1998. Jerusalem: Israeli Ministry of Educa-
MI 48109, or e-mail to rastor@umich.edu tion.
Benbenishty, R., Zeira, A., & Astor, R. A. (1999).
A national study of school violence in Israel-
Wave II: Fall 1999. Jerusalem: Israeli Ministry
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