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Last Updated: 06/14/2005
Schools as systems of violence
Kyoon Grace Mwuese

Violence perpetrated within schools or aided by school systems has become quite an issue of concern, not only for parents, school administrators and teachers, but also for peace advocates. Schools are institutions for learning, where knowledge is both brought in and taken out by students and as well as teachers (e.g., knowledge dissemination centers). Just as positive knowledge gets passed around, negative knowledge and experiences are distributed consciously or unconsciously as well.


This is based on the assumption that the students do not come to school with blank or empty minds waiting to be filled, but more often have acquired a significant amount of knowledge from interactions back home with parents, siblings, peers and possibly other members of their respective families. It stands to reason, therefore, that violent behavior observed from home is carried over into school.[1] By the time the average student arrives at college/university, he or she has had at least three levels of complex interactions informal learning through the family, kindergarten, elementary school, secondary school and other levels of education. Thus it is safe to say that students come to schools with a baggage of different experiences, attitudes, fears, backgrounds, hopes and aspirations, and there they meet others equally laden with baggage and a whole new web of interrelation is begun -- needless to say that given this scenario, there are bound to be emotional, intellectual, attitudinal and ideological conflicts with potential for degenerating into violence in the walls of any school. The question would be how well conflict is managed or transformed. As such, while schools have a powerful potential for positive mental, psychological, intellectual and social development, they can just as easily become incubators for conflicts and breeding grounds for violence.


Direct Violence

Schools may act as agents for violence evolving and promoting ideas that generate hate and intolerance among students.[2] An example of this is the mono religious institutions in Nigeria where patterns of education are structured after religious inclinations, e.g.  Christian schools (these are mostly situated in the southern parts of the country), or Quranic schools (mostly in the northern part of the country, following colonial demarcations).[3] These schools have syllabi drawn up to educate based on the tenets of particular religious norms and beliefs that may not necessarily encourage tolerance between religious sects because there is constant othering that is a psychological system of esteeming one religion as the only true way while denigrating other religious sects and overtly encouraging intolerance of other religions.


On several occasions within the country, fighting has broken out between the sects on school campuses resulting in brutal killings, maiming and wanton destruction of property as a direct result of harmful positions taken by students from the two religions.[4]


Schools are also fertile grounds for growing ideologies that culminate in violence;[5] an apt example is the Nazi philosophy in pre-World War II Germany which found expression in the minds of ambitious youth within school. It was fed by carefully designed systems of education and propagated by well indoctrinated teachers, obligated to behave in a prescribed manner toward the same end. [6] In the first place, this type of school system constitutes direct intellectual violence on the children being deprived of their rights to free thoughts and opinions. Structural violence in the long creates and enforces stereotypes, such as the idea that bad or impure other religions are only fit to be wiped out (as propagated by religious schools), or that the role of the man is as the superior king of the family who needs to display his male abilities through aggression and authoritarian rule, while the woman is inferior and an ardent supporter of the man, whose role is perpetually that of homemaking, as in the case of the Nazi regime.


Incidents of physical harm, fighting, shootings, rape and other forms of sexual assault, bullying (verbal inclusive) and suicide are on the increase in schools both in magnitude and sophistication. A report on sexual assault by the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA) indicates that most rape victims are younger than 18, implying that they will be of school age and most probably but not exclusively be raped in school, perhaps by someone they already know. The report also expressly states that 39% of girls reported being sexually harassed at school on a daily basis.[7] Another factor that reinforces violence in schools is the sad but real fact that in the United States, students have access to guns and other weapons with which violent acts are carried out; under that the Brady campaign to prevent gun violence, it was reported that the US has the highest death rate resulting from firearms in comparison to Japan, Great Britain, Germany France and Canada. Also teenagers are reported to commit impulse suicide owing to the easy access to guns owned by their parents or other adults.[8]


Meanwhile in developing countries like Nigeria, for instance, where guns may not be readily available to school children because they are too expensive either for them or their parents to afford, violence has found expression in cultism. Cults are unlawful and often brutal gangs or secret societies with diabolical motives sometime formed on university campuses in Nigeria and elsewhere; these are rampant and unleash terror on students, teachers and the community at large. Initiation processes into these diabolical cults have been alleged to be largely done among young persons in schools; sometimes parents have threatened to withdraw their children from schools[9], preferring to sacrifice their education rather than condone the transformation of their children into violent individuals should they be drafted into these cults. Schools in Nigeria, particularly tertiary institutions, are slowly becoming killing fields as cultists are gaining ground and recruiting new and vulnerable students. Sometimes, these cults come into conflict with school administration or law enforcement agents resulting in mutual attacks that are bloody and sometimes deadly because the administration has lacked capacity to transform the existing systems of violence and have attempted symptomatic approaches.


Other forms of violence within school systems are the psychological tortures meted out by biased teachers that tend to favor bright students usually from the top echelons of society, as against the average or not-too-bright category; sometimes they simply look the other way when students bully others they have made into helpless victims (in this case teachers acting as bystander) thereby encouraging physical and psychological violence, a situation that has led many a student to commit either murder or suicide.[10] These attitudes on the part of teachers build such frustration in the students that the entire idea of school becomes unbearable, and may result in marginalized students seeking solace or identity in joining violent gangs, engaging in vandalism and committing crimes within the community. This is evident in the observable prevalence of gangs in poor urban areas and among low academically performing children [11]


Structural Violence

Governments and even schools bureaucratic systems can make legislation and set standards that adversely affect teachers and invariably students, generating violent responses. For instance, underemployment, underpayment of teaching staff and deteriorating conditions of service may result in passivity and lack of commitment on the part of teachers that may in turn affect the quality of education received. In some cases, these problems have led to mass strike actions, shutting down schools for long periods, enhancing a sense of chaos, and encouraging violent behavior in such countries as South Africa[12]


A school may also decide exclusively to admit students of a certain racial descent or social class, thereby building walls of exclusion against those that do not belong or are regarded as undeserving . This act can plant seeds of resentment and alienation in the hearts of those excluded such that they seek violent ways to get revenge. Affirmative Action , a set of noble policies that were made to eliminate discrimination, has generated heated controversy on university campuses in the United States, further deepening the already existing racial divide.[13] Discrimination or exclusivist policies and attitudes of any form within educational institutions, directly instructs learners in violence and strengthens systems of violence within schools.


Acts of omission can equally constitute structural violence. Half baked schools with inadequate infrastructure, poor academic administration, deficient academic curriculum and no perceived academic or career development potential can stir feelings of dissatisfaction, leading to nonchalant or violent responses from the students. Such non-aggressive but never the less violent acts include arson and vandalism.[14]


Schools are vehicles for educational reproduction, but can also present stages for violence. While schools can be powerful tools for building peace, violent trends are also inherent in, nurtured by and encouraged through school systems. Such trends fester within schools, but may eventually filter into the community where crimes shootings, sexual assault, burglary, etc. are committed that may have been difficult to carry out within the school premises. The call therefore would be to transform schools into positive Systems of Peace .

[1] D. & B Hamburg (2004) Learning to Live Together: Preventing Hathred and Violence in Child and adolescent Development. Oxford University Press P 121

[2] Ibid. P 49.

[5]  D. & B Hamburg (2004) Learning to Live Together: Preventing Hathred and Violence in Child and adolescent Development. Oxford University Press P 50-56

[6] Ibid

[9] ¨In the northern Nigerian state of Taraba, for instance, some parents have been threatening to withdraw their children from school. According to them, children attending nursery, primary and even secondary schools, are being initiated into witchcraft and cultism. They say that the practice is not acceptable to them and that it is "safer to have an illiterate child than one deeply engrossed in witchcraft". And, this is a typical scenario in virtually all the 36 states of Nigeria. Every day new stories related to witches and witchcraft emerge ¨ 12 June 2005

[10] B. Coloroso (2004) The Bully, the Bullied or the Bystander. HarperCollinsPublishers P 3-72

[11] T.G. Moeller (2001) Youth Agression and Violence: A Psychological Approach. Lawrence earlbaum Associates Publishers. P267-280

[13] <A href="

Kyoon Grace Mwuese is a Masters candidate at the University for Peace, studying International Peace Studies. She is from Nigeria.