Violence in unowned places

A recent study reveals that high school violence occurs at predictable locations and times in and around schools. Students, teachers and administrators in these schools are aware of when and where certain groups of students are prone to violence. Every violent event reported in this study occurred in places where few or no teachers were present. All the dangerous areas were locations that most teachers believed were outside their responsibility. These “unowned” spaces included halls, cafeterias, locker rooms, and parking lots. Despite staff awareness and significant security measures, violence continues to be a problem in these areas.

Security guards, police, video cameras, and metal detectors appear to be effective only if they are perceived to be part of an integrated response of all the adults in the school. The most effective violence intervention described by students, teachers and administrators was the physical presence of a teacher who knew the students and was willing to intervene, coupled with a clear, consistent policy on violence.

Previous studies have found that 80 percent of school violence occurs during regular school hours — 32 percent between class periods and 26 percent during lunch. There is research indicating that poor teacher/student relationships and large, impersonal school settings are associated with school violence.

Five high schools studied

University of Michigan researchers Ron Avi Astor, Heather Ann Meyer and William J. Behre selected high schools for variability in size, socioeconomic status, ethnicity/race and location. Five mid-western high schools participated in the study. These schools included a large inner-city public school with over 1000 students and a Catholic school with 155 students. Both of these schools were in high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods, and their students were African American.

Two other schools were more suburban and racially and economically diverse. One of the faculties matched the diversity of the student body, while the other did not. The fifth school was very large (2000 students) and was located in a wealthy, suburban university town. Three-quarters of the students in this school were European-American.

Astor et al. interviewed students, teachers, administrators and other staff members in all five schools. They selected a total of 78 students, representative of the student body and equally distributed among the four grades for interviews. The students were divided into younger and older classes and met in small focus groups. A total of 22 teachers were interviewed individually. Some were chosen specifically because faculty and students had identified them as “model teachers.”

Additional staff interviews included principals, assistant principals, hall monitors, cafeteria workers and security guards. Everyone participating in the study received two identical sets of maps that were simplified blueprints of their school and grounds. They were asked to identify the exact locations of three violent events that had occurred during the year. They were asked what time of day each had happened, the age and gender of those involved, and the school’s response to the incidents.

On the second map, they were asked to identify areas of the school they considered unsafe. Student focus-group discussions were tape-recorded and transcribed. Students were encouraged to discuss how the quality of student/teacher relationships, the school’s response, and race, class and gender affected violence in their school.

In addition to these questions, adults were asked what they felt their role was when violent events occurred in different areas. The researchers paid special attention to what interventions were seen as effective in violence-prone areas. Interviewers gave every participant the freedom to discuss or elaborate on any issue related to violence that was not part of the structured interview.


Five researchers independently read and analyzed the transcribed interviews. They met over a 10-week period to discuss common themes such as types of violence, schools’ responses, teacher/child relationships, race/class issues, gender issues and interventions/solutions. Most remarkably, there was no variation between the schools on the location and time of violent events.

Violence in gym and parking lot

Almost all the events reported were severe and potentially lethal, including beatings, stabbings and rapes. Older students reported violent events in the gym or parking lots, while younger students reported more incidents in the lunchroom and hallways during transitions. All incidents happened in locations where there were students but few or no adults. Violence in the classrooms occurred only when a classroom was left unattended and unlocked.

In this study, teachers who had the best relationships with students and were seen as the most caring, knew a lot about their students’ lives. Caring teachers emphasized the importance of attendance, expected good work and had a clear, consistent response to violence. They intervened in violent incidents, regardless of time or place. They believed it was their moral obligation to do so, but they did not feel supported in their efforts by the administration.

Violence Among Girls

Girls identified many more dangerous areas throughout the school than boys did. Surprisingly, more than half of the violent events involved girls as both perpetrators and victims. The majority of students and adults in these schools agreed that girls were often the instigators as well as the victims of violent events. They risked sexual assault from males and physical fights and beatings from other girls.

There were no specific interventions within these schools to understand or prevent severe violence involving females. Staff, administrators and students were less likely to respond seriously to female-instigated violence, particularly when it was related to relationships or sexual issues.

Students believed that their race and socioeconomic class had a profound effect on their education and that they had little or no power to effect change. Adults reported a hopelessness among minority students from poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods. Students seemed to believe they could not escape, even if they followed the rules.

These schools used suspension and expulsion to deal with violent events. Students saw suspension as an unfair, generalized way of dealing with violence, and teachers saw expulsion as a revolving-door solution. Only administrators expressed confidence that these methods worked.

Both students and adults were ambivalent about the effectiveness of electronic monitoring. All the schools in this study had some kind of monitoring and, in most cases, hall monitors, security guards or metal detectors. Violence was still a problem, even in schools with state-of-the-art electronic security and video monitors in every hallway.

An underlying theme of all the interviews with students was connectedness with teachers. They believed that violence did not occur in the classrooms because teachers monitored these spaces and were more connected to students inside classrooms.


In all the schools studied, violence occurred at the same times and locations in and around school buildings. Teachers and students were aware of where and when violence occurred. There were no reports of classroom violence in the presence of a teacher. The common denominator of violence and dangerous places was school spaces with few or no teachers. All the dangerous areas were locations which most teachers perceived as outside their professional responsibility. The presence of other adults in these “unowned” spaces did not appear to reduce violence.

One-third of schools “unowned” by adults and students

About one-third of each school in this study was seen as unowned by adults and students, and all the violence reported occurred in those areas. These results imply that establishing ownership of these spaces has the potential to drastically reduce violence in schools. Merely placing a camera or an adult in these spaces would not create a sense of safety. The space must be personally secured by teachers and perhaps other adults known and trusted by the students, who know the proper procedure to follow when violence arises.

The conflict-management skills taught in many schools often do not address this issue of unowned space. These researchers believe that most of the violent conflicts described by students in this study require an adult and a set of established procedures. Students in this study were clear — they desired direct supervision and consistent consequences from teachers and administrators in all dangerous school spaces.

“Unowned Places and Times: Maps and Interviews about Violence in High Schools” American Educational Research Journal, Volume 36, number 1, Spring 1999, pp. 3-42.

Published in ERN October 1999 Volume 12 Number 7

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