Responding to Student Violence and Problem Behaviour: Engaging the Community
By Bryan Braun
SSTA Research Centre Report #01-04: 25 pages, $11
Table of Contents

Introduction

Part I
Types of School Violence and Problem Behaviour
Prevention and Intervention Measures for Schools

Part II
Methodology
Participants in Focus Groups

Part III
Data Analysis and Interpretation
Recommendations to School  Jurisdictions
Discussion

References

Overview

This report is a summary of a Master's project completed by Bryan Braun, University of Saskatchewan.  The increase in children’s antisocial, acting-out, and aggressive behaviour is especially challenging to schools.  Administrators and teachers struggle with the mounting problem of aggression, while the media broadcasts the perception that schools are unsafe. As a result there is a general consensus supporting immediate action to terminate the rise in aggression, which threatens to undermine the structure and quality of public schools. 

This study was designed to explore how a school jurisdiction could put into practice the African proverb “It takes an entire village to raise a child” in reducing violence and problem behaviour. In this qualitative study fourteen focus groups were consulted including staff members, students, parents, and community agencies.  The input from the focus groups as well as the review of the literature was the basis of the eleven recommendations that were made. The recommendations are a starting point for discussions and a means of responding to concerns regarding the influence of problematic student behaviour on the learning environment for students and staff.

This report provides a brief review of the literature, an overview of the structure and results of this research, and a discussion of the findings and their implications for administrative and board action.

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Introduction

How can the African proverb “It takes an entire village to raise a child” assist schools in responding to violence and problem behaviour in school? The apparent escalation and severity of violence perpetrated by and against young people is a common concern as evidenced in the media coverage of the school shootings at Littleton, Colorado and Taber, Alberta in the spring of 1999. Although the concept of a village raising a child is appealing, there is little evidence to demonstrate how to engage a community in addressing school violence and problem behaviour.

Responses to school violence vary greatly, and groups and organizations reacting to the problem of school violence have called for increased security for schools, zero tolerance policies, and tougher young offenders legislation. For example, in Taber, one answer to the violence that occurred at the school was for the resource officers to carry weapons. In Littleton, there were major changes to school policies and to the school facility. However, despite all the responses available to school officials they cannot respond in isolation from society. The purpose of the study was to examine the ways a school jurisdiction could utilize professional expertise and community involvement in a consultative process to address school violence and problem behaviour.

This document provides a summary of the research literature associated with school violence and problem behaviour. It also reports a case study (Braun, 2000) which examines a process taken by urban schools to engage the community in quelling violence and problem behaviour.  The data from fourteen focus groups is analyzed and interpreted to prepare recommendations for the respective school jurisdictions.

This document concludes with a discussion of the implications of the research and the study. The study provides a possible model for school jurisdictions to use for community consultations and produced three important observations on aspects of school violence and problem behaviour.


Contents


Part I

Types of School Violence and Problem Behaviour

Although there is disagreement as to the prevalence of school violence and problem behaviour, there is a general consensus that such behaviour can be categorized as one of a) behaviour disorders, b) bullying, c) criminal behaviour, or d) aggression against adults. Following is a brief overview of each of those common categories of violence and problem behaviour.

Behaviour disorders are the first and most prevalent form of aberrant student behaviour in schools. Research over the past three decades indicates that between 6% and 10% of children and youth have emotional or behavioural problems (Kauffman, J. M., Lloyd, J. W., Baker, J., & Riedel T.M. (1995). These problems impede students’ development and ability to function satisfactorily in school and in the community. Data also suggest that the majority of the students who require mental health services do not receive the appropriate care until their problems become severe. In school, many students with serious emotional or behavioural disorders remain in regular classes with little special help of any kind. For these students to function adequately in school and in the larger society they require intensive treatment and effective programs.

Bullying, a second common form of school violence, is also a problem in schools. Bullying is a term used to describe a variety of acts that can be inflicted by a single person or group with the intention of causing harm physically or psychologically to another person. Olweus (1993) has conducted international studies of school bullying and its effects on its victims. He suggests that one of the characteristics of bullying is the presence of a power imbalance between the victim and the perpetrator and repeated negative acts over time. Victims of bullying often are afraid of school, which inhibits their ability to concentrate and may affect academic performance (Bidewell 1995). Research also suggests that young people who bully are more likely to commit violent acts in later years (Oliver, Young, and LaSalle, 1994; Craig & Pepler, 1999).

Criminal violence is a third phenomenon present in schools. Although data on the prevalence of youth criminal violence are limited, there are some studies that help provide insight to the phenomenon. It has been reported that 90% of youth in Canada reported committing some delinquent acts during adolescence. These behaviours included: swearing, fighting, shoplifting, truancy, drinking and experimenting with drugs (Day, D.M., Golench, C.A., MacDougall, J. & Beals-Gonzalez, C.A. (1995). In the United States Loeber (1987) reported that as many as 50% of elementary school children engaged in theft and 37% of elementary boys were involved in physical assaults. On the other hand, Dolmage (1999) and others have argued that, in Canada, the issue is largely one created by the media and that in fact there is less youth crime than in years past. Others have reported that, in a population of offenders, only 6-7% of adolescents are responsible for committing the majority of violent crimes (Tracey, Wolfgang, & Figlio, 1990). The data indicate that the majority of youth are good citizens and that, out of the 3-8% of youth who are involved in crime, even fewer actually perpetrate violent acts.

A final form of violence involves acts of aggression against adults (teachers, paraprofessionals and others). There is some evidence that this a growing problem, however it has not been well studied. One survey of the abuse of teachers completed in 1994 indicated that 66% of the teacher-respondents experienced some type of abuse by students. (Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation, 1994).

In general, the effects of violence go beyond simple acts; violence reduces self-esteem, confidence, self-worth and self-dignity, and inhibits learning. While it is impossible to eliminate violence and problem behaviour completely from schools, there is a need to examine the continuum of prevention and intervention strategies available to reduce the effect on students and on society in general (Sylwester, 1997; Wallach, 1993).


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Prevention and Intervention Measures for Schools

Typically school personnel have two general types of reactions to violence and problem behaviour. First, proactive response such as social skills programs and second one of three reactive responses: a) policy development, b) school codes of conduct and c) community involvement, including parent education and agency collaboration. Following is a brief overview of each.


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Social Skills Programs

A variety of violence prevention and social skills training programs have been developed in North America in the recent past (Bickmore, 1999; Benson & Lipsett, 1999; Webster, 1993; Zammit, 1999). These programs have taken two different approaches. In the first approach, programs are taught as a part of the curriculum, as a separate class, or as integrated concepts woven into other subjects. In the second approach to teaching social skills, the focus is on leadership skills such as peer mediation (Shulman, 1996). Typically this would be achieved through an extra-curricular program aimed at developing skills such as decision-making, conflict resolution, or dealing with aggression.

The goal of both types of social skills programs is to empower youth with appropriate skills in peer helping relationships, mediation and conflict resolution, so that students may be able to prevent problems from escalating. Whether teaching social skills and infusing social skills is a curricular and extra-curricular program, it should be part of a whole-school approach. Although there may be some disagreement as to whether social skills programs are of the role of the school such programs have become part of educators’ response to school violence and problem behaviour.


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Policy Development

Experts in the field of educational policy development believe that a well constructed policy can serve as the first step in the prevention of violence in schools: “The development of clear, concise policies and procedures with widely known and accepted definitions…can serve as powerful…. preventive interventions” (Roher, 1997 p. 36). Good policy utilizes input from all stakeholders, and includes a description of the problem, desired outcomes, strategies for implementation, evaluation of implementation, and a review process to ensure policy effectiveness.

The process of policy development can heighten awareness of school personnel and the community. (Stephens, 1995). Policies that formally address and identify violence and problem behaviour will assist school personnel in responding. When an incident occurs at school, good policy will dictate the course of action to be followed by administration and teachers, and specify the range of consequences for the student. Application of a violence policy in a consistent manner demonstrates a jurisdiction’s commitment to dealing with violence and diligence for ensuring that the duty of care owed to students is provided.


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Codes of Conduct

Authorities who have studied school climate indicate that the leadership of the school is pivotal in determining the climate. Studies of effective schools show that students will achieve greater academic success in a school where the climate is collegial, collaborative, and fosters a sense of community. The principal is the one individual who has the greatest influence in fostering a sense of community (Hill & Hill, 1994). The development of a school code of conduct is one way that the principal can nurture a sense of community. It is an overt opportunity for a community to begin discussions on school violence and problem behaviour. Codes of conduct are best developed collaboratively among administrators, teachers, parents and students. Included in these codes should be the fundamental beliefs under which the code has been formed and the consequences for dealing with students who are in violation of the code (Ainsworth, 1995; Noonan, Tunney, Fogal, & Sarich, 1999).


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Community Involvement

One of the most consistent findings on school based violence prevention programs is that they are products of community partnerships (MacDougall, 1993; U.S. Department of Education, 1990; Steinberg, 1996; Roher, 1997; Hill & Hill, 1994). A safe school is a community effort. Partners in the campaign should include: educators, parents, students, police, government officials, social service workers, mental health workers, medical professionals, and other community agencies with an interest in youth. Pooling this experience, skill, expertise, and talent is the most effective means and best use of resources available.

Community involvement begins with jurisdiction and school based responses to violence and problem behaviour. When parents have input and understand behavioural expectations and consequences, they are able to support school limits and consequences at home (Steinberg, 1996). This involvement and support also facilitates communication between school staff and parents about children who are experiencing difficulties. Renihan and Renihan (1995) view this type of partnership as a psychological contract in which professionals and parents clarify their expectations and develop the means to achieve their goals. Noonan et. al (1999) have reported on an example of such a psychological contract in a community consultation process. In summary, research suggests that successful community collaboration consist of three components, staff development and awareness, community involvement, and student programs (Sudermann, Jaffe, & Schieck, 1993; Alexander et. al., 1998).


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Part II

Methodology

Given the purpose of the study the most appropriate research design was a case study. Case study research is a form of qualitative research designed for in-depth examination of specific individuals or processes in order to illustrate important principles that might be overlooked when examining group data (Ventry & Schiavetti, 1986). Yin (1984) describes the case study as being an, "empirical study of a contemporary phenomenon with a real-life context using multiple sources of evidence" (p.23). However, because case studies are limited in the number of subjects or situations studied, it may not be possible to generalise to other contexts.

The study was conducted in a small urban center in Western Canada, a city with three school jurisdictions, a public, a denominational, and a comprehensive school, which shared the same central office personnel. The eight schools include students from kindergarten to grade twelve in the urban center plus all the students from grades ten to twelve from the rural area surrounding the urban center. Prior to the development of the research study, the schools had established a representative committee to examine school violence and problem behaviour in the community. The committee was comprised of central office personnel, school administrators, teachers and support staff. The primary mandate of the committee was to organize a consultation process and to advise the school jurisdictions on ways to respond to school violence and problem behaviour. This study was an analysis of one aspect of the work of that representative committee, that is, the community consultation process.

The primary method for data collection was focus group interviews. Focus groups have the advantage over surveys and other such techniques because they allow for interaction among participants, which encourages an in-depth look at a problem or issue (Krueger, 1994). In this study a total of 141 individuals (students, staff members, parents and community agencies) participated in the groups. Table 1 shows a summary of the participants in the fourteen focus groups. As shown approximately two thirds of the participants were school personnel or students while others were parents or community agency representatives. The representative committee was responsible for deciding what groups would be asked to participate in the focus groups. The student and school personnel were purposefully selected to ensure representation from elementary, middle and high school teachers and students. Some parents were randomly selected to represent parents of each of elementary, middle and high school students and others were selected from those actively involved in parent-teacher associations. Local social service and mental health departments nominated the community agency representatives. The committee then prepared the six general questions that guided the focus group interviews. These questions related to a) perceptions of positive student behaviour b) perceptions of negative (problem) student behaviour, c) concerns about negative behaviour, d) nurturing positive behaviour (individually, at school, in the community), e) addressing negative behaviour (individually, at school, in the community) f) general comments and suggestions. An experienced, external facilitator who was also one of the researchers conducted the focus groups. Data were collected over a two-week period and written transcripts of the discussions were kept for the subsequent data analysis.


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Participants in Focus Groups by Category
 
STUDENTS No. of Participants PARENTS No. of Participants
1. Elementary 12 1. Group 1 8
2. Middle Years 12 2. Group 2 8
3. High School  12  3. Group 3 11
4. Alternative School 10 COMMUNITY  
STAFF   1. Advisory 8
1. Elementary 12 2. Agencies 8
2. Middle Years 11    
3. High School 10    
4. Support Staff  12    
5. Counselors 7    
Total No. of Participants 141    


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Part III

Data Analysis and Interpretation

The data from this study were analyzed inductively. One of the difficulties with such a process is that researcher bias may affect the analysis and there is the danger that some of the meaning of the discussions in the focus groups is lost. One way to reduce that problem is to involve others in the data processing. Thus rather than the researchers alone analyzing the data, an interpretation panel assisted in the process. The interpretation panel was composed of individuals from the committee that organized the consultation process. Because they were involved in establishing the consultative process, it was felt that those individuals could offer a deeper understanding of the focus group discussions.

Once all the focus groups were completed the notes from each of the fourteen groups were collected for analysis and synthesis, a process that involved two stages. First, the researchers summarized information from each of the fourteen focus group for each question. Care was taken to include as much of the transcript of each focus group as possible. Second, the summaries were given to the interpretation panel, which, as a group, coded the data according to themes or categories. Thus information from the fourteen focus groups was synthesized to identify the issues and themes that the community and professional groups viewed as important for future consideration by the representative school committee and ultimately the school jurisdictions.

This synthesis produced several important themes that are representative of the views of the different response groups. As may be expected with a large number of individuals involved in the fourteen groups there were not only recurring themes but also many specific comments made by perhaps only one person, or a small number of people. The interpretation panel was sensitive to such ideas or comments if they were viewed as having merit even though they may not have represented a consensus among or within a group. Following is a summary of the four major themes that emerged from the responses to the six questions posed to each of the fourteen focus groups.

First, there was strong agreement across the response groups that a large majority of students in schools display positive behaviour.  Individual student behaviour was described as  “…respectful, honest, compassionate, and responsible”.  In school, students exhibit positive relationships with others, including students and staff; they are involved in peer support groups, and extracurricular activities such as sports and the SRC.  Students were described as involved in their community as volunteers for a wide array of activities (e.g. SADD, cadets, fundraising, sports, etc.) and showed leadership in community groups (e.g. senior’s visits, Helping Hands).  As one parent group commented  “...for the most part most kids are great!”.

The focus groups described a large number of negative or problem behaviours witnessed at school and in the community.  The interpretation panel examined the list and identified four general themes, which seemed to capture most of the negative behaviours.  These include problems related to:

  1. Bullying/harassment: that is, behaviour that creates a cycle of victimization, intimidation physical aggression, verbal aggression and exclusion. As one group commented “…there is an attitude out there that to be harassed is almost normal…It’s almost your fault if you’re a victim”.

  2. - Defiance: behaviour that was characterized as uncooperative, disobedient, or disrespectful in what students say or how they act toward adults and includes: talking back, refusing, total non compliance and negative body language or gestures.
  3. Vandalism: abuse of property was seen as a problem in school and in the community and included a range of issues such as lack of concern about personal or school property, extensive littering, and graffiti.
In addition to these three categories of negative behaviour there were other negative behaviours noted by one or two groups.  This fourth category was characterized as self-destructive behaviour included: drug and alcohol abuse, as well as personal and self-esteem issues such as self-mutilation, eating disorders and suicide.

Second, in discussing their perceptions of negative/problem student behaviour, in the focus group participants expressed a general concern that such behaviour was becoming ‘normalized’ in our society, particularly in the media.  Specifically, the focus group participants identified the following general concerns about students’ negative behaviour: the physical and emotional safety of students, the effects of negative classroom behaviour on students and teachers, concern about parent support for school. In addition to these general concerns across groups there also were a number of specific concerns raised within specific groups.  These included, but are not limited to, lack of consistency among staff in expectations of students, inadequate consequences for negative behaviour, teacher skills in managing student behaviour and desensitizing of violence in the media.

Third, there was a consensus among the groups that it is important for everyone (students, staff, parents, community) to accept their responsibility as role models Encouraging mutual respect, providing appropriate positive feedback, and being a good listener were cited as ways to demonstrate positive behaviour. As well, community members, such as agencies, service groups, and the media, could be helpful in finding more and meaningful ways to publicly acknowledge student successes (particularly academic successes).

Finally, the most common suggestion with respect to responding to negative student behaviour was for each individual (student, parent, staff, and community) to accept personal responsibility to address problem behaviour.  This means that each individual must attend to negative behaviour and be prepared to act responsibly and quickly. In addition to the focus on individual, school, and community, the participants made a number of specific comments that do not fit easily into these categories.  These were comments related to the type of response to specific incidents of problem behaviour.  The suggestions included implementing zero tolerance policies, more immediate responses and feedback on problem behaviour.  At the same time it was emphasized that school personnel must be fair and consistent. As the elementary students put it “ listen, ask what happened, make a fair punishment.” The high school students said it somewhat differently “…kids want boundaries so they know they are cared for…”.

Upon completion of the data collection and interpretation process the results were returned to the representative committee. Subsequently the committee used that information to prepare recommendations for the respective school jurisdictions.


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Recommendations to School Jurisdictions

The following recommendations are a starting point for discussion within school Jurisdictions. They are a means of responding to concerns regarding the influence of problematic student behaviour on the learning environment for students and staff.

It is recognized that these recommendations will need to be reviewed within the context of the overall realities of specific school Jurisdictions. It is acknowledged that there are constraints on resources but the pressures are also real. The recommendations are to be incorporated into the short term and long term discussions, planning and decision-making involved in meeting challenging behaviours in schools.

  1. a system policy, K-12, be developed which would outline the general expected behaviours of students as well as guidelines for staff and parents in responding to issues related to school violence and problem behaviour.

  2.  

     
     
     

    Rationale:

  3. each school develop a Code of Conduct which is reflective of the system policy.  The Code of Conduct should be developed in consultation with the stakeholders of the school.

  4.  

     

    Rationale:

  5. a full time Educational Support Counsellor/Youth Worker/Behavioural Specialist be hired for each school

  6.  

     
     
     

    Rationale:

  7. lower class size for classrooms beginning at the elementary level and a commitment to reduce class size in the future at the middle and high school levels.

  8.  

     

    Rationale:

  9. individual schools continue to promote safe, caring schools with a positive school climate.  Our schools should focus on:

  10. - high expectations for students
    - parental involvement
    - rich, meaningful curriculum
    - student involvement in co-curricular activities
    - prosocial skills integrated into curriculum
    - recognition of positive behaviour

    Rationale:

  11. the system develop an early intervention process to identify and intervene with students having emotional, social and behavioural concerns. Intervention for these students needs to begin as early as possible.

  12.  

     

    Rationale:

  13. segregated classes be established for the most severe behaviourally challenged  students.

  14.  

     
     
     

    Rationale:

  15. continued and focused staff development on issues related to student violent and negative behaviour.

  16.  

     

    Rationale:

  17. future facility planning should include consideration for counselling rooms, small group instruction, use by agencies and student isolation, if necessary

  18.  

     

    Rationale:

  19. School Jurisdictions lobby the government for changes to the Education Act to provide effective consequences for parents who neglect or abandon their responsibilities in providing support for their child’s educational needs.

  20.  

     

    Rationale:

  21. School Jurisdictions lobby universities for extensive behavioural management training in the Bachelor of Education.

  22.  

     

    Rationale:


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Discussion

The results of the case study provided information on school violence and problem behaviour from two perspectives. First, the results demonstrated a process to engage community consultation and, second, the results offered specific suggestions for school personnel. The process used in this study facilitated the involvement of a wide range of groups and individuals in the consultative process. Representatives of community agencies and groups willingly offered their time and opinions on ways to address school violence and problem behaviour. Roher (1997), Hill and Hill (1994) and others have found community involvement to be central to addressing school violence and problem behaviour (Noonan et.al. 1999). Although there were differences between community representatives and school personnel on some questions, there was a general consensus on what needed to be done to address school violence and problem behaviour in the eight schools.

This study differs from others that use focus groups as the primary form of data gathering. By involving fairly large numbers of students, school personnel, parents and community agencies many viewpoints were heard in the focus groups and, interestingly, there was a strong consensus among the groups. For example, parents were very aware of the types of problem behaviour that teachers dealt with during a school day and expressed support for additional resources to assist teachers in their job. Another difference in this approach to focus groups was in the number of the groups. Often a relatively small number of focus groups (e.g four to six) are used in the data gathering process. In this case there were fourteen groups, which presumably improved the reliability of the results. The study also demonstrated the role and value of interpretation panels in qualitative research. Involving others to assist researchers in interpreting narrative data has the potential to enhance the ecological validity of educational research. Data interpretations that are grounded in experience help to make those interpretations more meaningful. One of the observations arising from the consultative process was the importance of leadership and organization. In this study the representative committee provided these functions by identifying the target groups for participation in the focus groups and arranging for the participants to be invited for each session. Clearly, any project that seeks broad-based community involvement requires strong leadership and organization. As well the process takes time and energy that not all teachers or school jurisdictions may be prepared to invest.

In addition to demonstrating a possible model for community consultation, the study produced three important observations on aspects of school violence and problem behaviour. It should be emphasized that these are not new, although that fact alone confirms that there is a need to further address the problem. First, it was noted that the media seemed to exert a desensitizing effect on students. Popular media (e.g. television, music) present extreme behaviour as an acceptable social and personal expression. Some television shows such as some cartoons, televised wrestling, and certain situation comedies can have an influence on students, particularly young students and playground behaviour at school. Associated with the influence of the media is the apparent ‘normalizing ‘ of extreme or negative behaviour such as, concern about the apparent lack of civility in some personal relationships in our society.

The second observation was the importance of developing positive relationships with students. All focus groups supported the value of teachers and administrators knowing students on a personal level, of ‘bonding’ among staff and students at all grades. Professional educators in particular were frustrated by the time absorbed in dealing with problem behaviour in the classroom. Teaching, it was noted, has become characterized by increasing intensity and stressfulness that is often associated with students’ behaviour problems. The third observation was the importance of community-school partnerships. Parent involvement is expected in contemporary schools; however, there is a need to be clear as to some of the different types of such involvement. Problem behaviour is one of those issues that may need to be addressed on several types and levels of parent involvement.

The results of the study also identified several important issues that could form the basis for school jurisdiction response to violence and problem behaviour, which was an important purpose of the consultation process. Based on the results of the consultative process, the representative committee made eleven specific suggestions to their school jurisdictions. These included, but were not limited to, recommendations that each school develop a code of conduct, that teachers be given special training to deal with problem behaviour, and that segregated classes be established for students with severe problem behaviour. It will be the responsibility of school jurisdictions to ensure that community expectations, as revealed in this process, are translated into policy and practice at the school level. School administrators and teaching staffs need to have confidence that their programs and policies will have the support of key interest groups – parents, community agencies and students. A follow-up study to examine the extent to which the community expectations have been implemented would be of interest.

In conclusion, the results of this case study provide directions for further research on the type and nature of community involvement in school violence and problem behaviour. Some topics for future study include: a) the effect of parenting skills on the incidence of violence and problem behaviour, b) the impact of student violence and problem behaviour on the school life of other students and c) the effect of resource allocation (funding, staff selection and training) on the incidence of violence and problem behaviour in schools. The reduction of student violence and problem behaviours requires the involvement of all stakeholders in open dialogue where problems can be discussed.  Building safe, caring schools requires increased parental and community involvement in school activities. Schools and students need parental and community input to help address the issues related to violence and challenging student behaviours. Given the magnitude and nature of this problem, its solution lies in a collaborative, co-operative effort by all stakeholders. Schools must affirm their commitment to student safety and seek to understand the nature and extent of school violence and problem behaviour. Communities cannot afford to ignore or minimize the magnitude of the problem for schools and the implications for the larger society. Perhaps this form of community involvement can be one way that a ‘village can raise a child’.


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