School-based violence: the context and impacts

School-based violence: the context and impacts – Understand


School-based violence occurs on school premises either between or among learners, between learners and educators, or between educators and the principal (or between/among staff members).

School violence is defined (Mncube, 2013:3) as “any behaviour of learners, educators, administrators or non-school persons, attempting to inflict injury on another person or to damage school property”.

According to Duma (2013:5), school-based violence “denies those subjected to it their humanity to make a difference, either by reducing them from what they are or by limiting them from becoming what they might be”.

Du Plessis (2007) and Duma (2013) emphasise the importance to distinguish between political violence, gang violence, general criminal violence and violence in relationships. All forms of violence, in some way or another, affect many of our South African schools. 

School violence is prevalent across both developing and developed countries with localised and cultural factors influencing the perception and manifestation of this phenomenon in different contexts (United Nations, 2006).

When looking at this phenomenon, it is important to look at it from a broader social context.

Context of school violence

South Africa has approximately 12 million public schools with independent learners who attend close to 27 000 schools (Kollapan, 2006).  One has to acknowledge the fact that some of these schools are situated in areas and in communities that experience a great deal of crime and violence; thus they are exposed to violence on a frequent basis.

The reality of pupils carrying knives, guns and arriving and going to school under the influence of substances such as drugs and alcohol has become part of daily school life. Such incidences underline the extent of violence and crime that occur in our communities, which generally impacts negatively on education and what happens in the school in particular (Mncube & Harbor, 2013:1).

Scarpa (2003:2) refers to community violence as “violence that is experienced as a victim or witness in or near homes, schools and surrounding neighbourhoods.” The definition of community violence is more comprehensive in that it encompasses violence that occurs within and outside of the family or home (Mkhize, 2012).

Sadly, the normalisation of violence has made it seem as if violence is necessary in resolving conflict. Violence in schools may arise from different sources, occur in different forms, and involve different role players. It may also involve different actors at different times inside the school.

School violence in South Africa has become a significant problem with frequent reports appearing in the written and electronic media about shootings, stabbings, and other forms of violence that occurred in both public and private schools.

Prinsloo (2005:5) defines a safe school as “a school that is free of danger and where there is an absence of any possible harm; a place where non-educators, educators and learners may work, teach and learn without fear of ridicule, intimidation, harassment, humiliation, or violence.”

Comparison of Levels of Violence between ‘Advantaged’ and ‘Disadvantaged’ Schools 

The level of violence in advantaged and disadvantaged schools are not the same, as research has shown that geographic location has an impact on the level of violence that occurs in schools. 

Else (1995) argues that school violence is often the result of the spill-over of other forms of violence such as domestic violence and gangsterism, especially in impoverished areas.

This implies that learners from disadvantaged public schools are more likely to perpetrate violence against educators than learners from advantaged or ‘semi/private’ schools due to several factors, such as the following:  

  • Disadvantaged schools generally have larger learner enrolment than advantaged schools, which means that classrooms are more overcrowded and difficult to control.  
  • The communities in which disadvantaged schools are situated experience high levels of violence.  
  • Some learners in disadvantaged schools come from families that live in poverty, which has a negative effect on for example parents’ interest in and support of their children’s education. 
  • Disadvantaged schools lack adequate security measures which contributes to violence occurring within school premises. 
  • There is lack of support services from school psychologists or social workers in disadvantaged schools due to the lack of financial assistance from the Department of Education. 

Although the levels of violence in advantaged and disadvantaged schools vary, the main causes of violence in both categories are similar. According to the study conducted by Singh (2006), the findings indicated that the main cause of violence in both categories was a lack of discipline at home.

This implies that the family has a great influence on learners’ behaviour at school.   

Socio-Cultural Factors 

Some South African schools are viewed as the most dangerous places to be, as it is here where non-school persons intrude; and where learners victimise each other and educators, disrupt the culture of learning and the teaching process, and basically vandalise school property (Siegel & Senna, 1988:309).

Most of the offenders in schools are learners who are currently enrolled in schools or offenders, such as gang members, who trespass on school premises.

Some of these trespassers may once have been students at that particular school but have dropped out.

Socio-cultural factors determine what is socially accepted as being right or wrong in communities.

These socio-cultural structures include family, the church, communities, and the law. Unacceptable behaviour by learners includes theft, drug use, rape, murder and bullying, to mention a few. In a society where norms and values still apply, every illegal act perpetrated by the learners should be punished according to the law. 

Causes of school-based violence  

There is no single cause of violence, but there are a number of factors that contribute to the culture of violence in schools. 

Burton (2007:12) argues that “a series of interrelated factors impact on young people in different ways, one of which will be in the perpetrating of violent acts against other young people and society in general”. In order for one to understand the causes of violence, one needs to critically look at the broader context in which the school is situated, such as the community.

According to Singh’s (2006) study on the effects of violence on educators, the main causes of violence in schools were revealed to be academic tension, lack of consequences for poor behaviour, and violence modelled by society.

here is a strong relationship between academic underachievement and antisocial behaviour, particularly aggression (Keller & Tapasak, 2004).

Learners who underperform are more likely to be associated with violence than learners who do well at school and who are ‘top achievers’. Factors such as low educational ambition are also associated with violence in adolescence.   

Bezuidenhout and Joubert (2003:62) identify the following causes of crime which have a negative impact on the culture of teaching and learning in South African schools: 

  • Involvement in gang activities;   
  • Lack of transformation in schools;   
  • Negative perceptions of crime amongst black, coloured and white learners; 
  • The presence of guns and other weapons at school;  
  • The use of cannabis and other substances;   
  • A lack of counselling services;   
  • Intolerance towards learners of other races, religions and genders;  
  • Parental apathy and the hero-worshiping of criminals and gang leaders. 

The Root of Violence in Schools

Individual, biological, and demographic factors

Individuals who have a history of being abused either by family members or other members of society are likely to become violent towards others, more especially if they are teenagers. Substance abuse also contributes to persons becoming violent towards others. 

Relationship factors 

An individual’s family is a form of a relationship, thus a relationship that one has with one’s family contributes to whether one shows attributes of violence or not. For instance, teenagers who come from home environments that are abusive are more likely to become violent to others than teenagers who come from homes where they were nurtured and loved. 

Acceptability of violence 

If violence is accepted in the home as a behavioural norm, it implies that it is acceptable to use violence to mistreat others, to disrespect others in one way or another, and that it is okay to physically assault other individuals because it is what is done at home. 


The communities that we live in have become institutions of violence. In some neighbourhoods values are very low, which is not good for a child’s upbringing. Communities where there are high levels of crime and violence will have a negative effect on teenagers. In some of these communities teenagers are forced to become gang members and they get involved in illegal actives.  

Societal norms and values

Cultural acceptance of violence in today’s society has become common practice in many communities. We live in a society where the violence that takes place in communities is justified. This implies that people who are violent have a certain level of power over other community members.

Community violence 

Violence that occurs in the community spills over to schools which then turns schools into places for violence rather than being the safe havens we think they are.

Mkhize (2012) defines community violence as the “frequent and continual exposure to the use of guns, knives, drugs and random violence”.

Violent incidences at schools are reported from time to time and reflected in the media. These reports indicate the extent of violence in South Africa and how schools, educators and learners are exposed to violence.

Those learners who take weapons into schools are most likely engaged in outside activities related to violence and they then bring weapons to protect themselves or harm others.

Having a weapon on you at any time, whether it is within or outside the school premises, means you are ready to use it at any given moment, which poses a danger to other learners and educators in the school.

This has a negative effect on educators because they always have to be on guard about what their learners might do to them at school. The safety of learners as well as that of educators can no longer be guaranteed in our schools (Bucher & Manning, 2003). School violence presents educators with many challenges and is now a threat to teaching as a profession.

Smith (2007:53) notes the following: “Securing the school premises and being strict about who is admitted to the school grounds is a practical way of solving the problem that demands practical solutions”.

Easy access to schools by outsiders makes learners and educators easy victims of people who enter the premises unnoticed and leave after assaulting learners or educators.

Vally, Dolombisa and Porteus (2002:85) argue that the extensive violence against learners and school personnel has been omnipresent and disruptive and has severely hindered South African schools in their efforts of trying to improve education and address issues of equity in communities where it is most needed.   

Schools that are situated in areas that experience high levels of crime or gangsterism will have incidences where violence that occurs outside will spill over into the school. Crawage (2005) defines gangsterism as “the evolution of an urban identity determined along racial and economic lines”. 

Teenagers that associate themselves with gangs will state that the gang is like family to them and often these teenagers who form or become part of a gang come from poor communities.

Gang violence is often born out of need and a social disadvantaged situation (Donald et al., 2006) to which, due to the influence of a free market democracy, our schools might unwittingly be contributing.  


Bezuidenhout, C. & Joubert, S. (2003). Child and youth misbehaviour in South Africa: a holistic view.  Pretoria: Van Schaik

Buchner, K.T. & Manning, M.L. (2005). Creating safe schools. The Clearing House, 79, 5560. 

Crawage, M. (2005).  How resilient adolescence learners in a township school cope with school violence: a case study. Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Education, University of Johannesburg.

Du Plessis, A.H. (2008). Exploring secondary school educator experiences of school violence. Unpublished MA dissertation, University of Pretoria

Duma, S.I (2013) Dynamics of school violence and the role of school leadership in reducing it in two umlazi township school. University of KwaZulu-Natal

Else, N.P. (1995). Educators’ perception of physical violence in secondary schools of Port Elizabeth. Dissertation, Department of Sociology, University of Port Elizabeth.

Kollapan, J. (2006). School violence. Report for the Helen Suzman Foundation, South African Human Rights Commission.  

Mkhize, S. (2012) The Effects Of Community Violence On Learners In A Rural Context. University of  KwaZulu Natal

Mncube, V. & Harbor, C. (2013). Dynamics of violence in South African schools: report. Printed and published by the University of South Africa, Muckleneuk, Pretoria. 

Prinsloo, I.J. (2005). How safe are South African schools? South African Journal of Education, 25Singh, S.K. (2006). Violence in schools: a recipe for disaster. Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban (1), 5–10.

Scarpa, A. (2003). Community violence exposure in young adults. Trauma, Violence, Abuse, 4, 210.

Siegel, L. (2006). Criminology (9th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth. Available at Access date 12/11/16. 

Siegel, L.J & Senna, J.J. (1988).  Juvenile delinquency.  New York: West Publishing Company.