Brainstorming with students about making school environment safer

10.08.21 SLE ORIENTATION WEEK- MENTOR GROUP MEETINGStudents know things about their school environment that could help prevent school violence and create a safer environment.

A recent study in the Journal of School Health describes one approach to learning about those secrets with the use of concept mapping. Researchers worked with Baltimore students from 2 after-school programs in a brainstorming session to get their input about how school environments contributed to school violence or helped prevent it.

Concept maps are graphical tools for organizing and representing knowledge. In this study, they were used to visually represent the perceptions and ideas from the brainstorming sessions of 2 groups of Baltimore high school students.

132 statements generated

Students generated a total of 132 statements on school environment factors relating to school violence, 77 from one group and 55 from the other. The students arranged the statements in 8 general clusters.

“To our knowledge, this study is the first to ask students for their understanding of the school environment’s influence on school violence,” the authors write.

Students were asked to “generate a list of items that describe characteristics of your school environment that could relate in any way, good or bad, to a student’s experience of violence.” Environment referred to both the physical and social characteristics of the school.

The 27 students who participated in the study were from 2 after-school programs that had the broad-based mission of providing academic and personal enrichment for students. More females (67%) than males participated in the research project. The majority of participants (92% in one group and 60% in other) said they averaged A’s and B’s in their coursework. Students were paid $10 each at the end of each session for their participation.

3 brainstorming sessions

Each group of students met with researchers for 3 sessions. In session 1, the researchers described the process of concept mapping to the students and collected demographic information from them. Violence could include any behavior intended to harm others physically and emotionally, students were told. It could include harm to property, threats with or without a weapon, fighting, stealing, ringing or using a weapon at school and gender violence. Students were asked to generate statements about their school environment based on the guidelines they were provided.

In session 2, students were given flash cards with their group’s statements. The researchers asked them to sort their cards into piles based on statements’ similarity. Participants then individually rated each statement on a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high) for its importance in the initiation, cessation, and severity of school violence.

The sort and rate information from the 2 groups of students was input into Concept Systems, a licensed software program that facilitates the concept mapping process. Using statistical techniques like multi-dimensional scaling, the system locates each idea as a separate point on the map. Statements that are closer to each other on this map have been grouped together more frequently by the participants.

Another statistical technique, hierarchical cluster analysis, delineates where it makes sense to draw boundaries around groups of ideas, to make them into conceptual “clusters.” Larger clusters can be thought to represent more diverse ideas. Ratings were then averaged for each idea and each cluster of ideas.

In session 3, students looked at the different clusters and, through group dialogue, chose the most representative. Once a cluster was selected, participants were asked to choose cluster labels that best represented the collection of items in each cluster.

Of the 132 statements, 68 were rated as highly important for the initiation, cessation, and/or severity of school violence. Statements that were rated high for the initiation of violence also tended to be rated high for the severity of violence.

Older high school students in one group (see box) created 8 clusters for their statements, with 5 of the clusters comprising largely negative statements and 3 comprising largely positive statements. The second group of younger high school students created a second group of 8 clusters.

This study provides support from students for the role of the school environment in school violence prevention, particularly in preventing the initiation and reducing the severity of school violence,” the researchers write. “Schools can utilize the information presented in this article to begin discussions with students and staff about prioritizing school environment changes to reduce school violence.

“Prioritizing the School Environment in School Violence Prevention Efforts,” by Sarah Lindstrom Johnson et al., Journal of School Health, June 2011, Volume 81, Number 6, pps. 331-340.

Aspects of school environment that relate to student’s experience of violence Group 1 (older high school students)Bullying—e.g. older students thinking younger students are vulnerable, peer pressure to act violently, crowds gathering around fights and encouraging fights.Relationships—e.g. rumors, popularity jealousy, gossip, poor communication. School Security—e.g. presence of school police, school police who are aware, security cameras.School disruption—e.g. lack of supervision in some places, teachers disrespect towards students.Concerned grownups—e.g. teachers who advise students about appropriate behavior, an involved principal, school rules ”are clear and fair.Frightful environment—e.g. a culture of “no snitching;” homophobia, students rapping.

Important activity—e.g. programs that teach students how to better handle potentially violent students, students and staff focused on learning, student participation in decision-making

Violence all over—e.g. students disrespect toward each other, gang graffiti, putdowns.

Group 2 (younger high school students)

Student’s conduct—e.g. students’ disrespect to each other, teachers and staff, students flashing gang signs and posing at being in a gang.

School pride—e.g. school not having a reputation (a new school), student achievements highlighted around school.

Problem starters—e.g. presence of gangs, peer pressure to be bad, trash talking/taunting/name-calling.

School trust—e.g.discrimination by school police, school rules too harsh, an involved principal.

Lack of security—e.g. deterioration of facility, teachers judging students. Community problems—e.g. racism in neighborhood, no respect for the school environment.

Staff—e.g. teachers caring about watching students grow and graduate, teachers leaving, teachers looking inappropriately at students.

School issues—e.g. multiple schools in the same building, people judging your school by the schools in your building, areas where students can get away with violence.

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