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Determinants of Verbal Aggression, Physical Violence and Vandalism in Schools

Walter Funk


Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, Ljubljana, September 17-20 1998

Gender differences

In every subpopulation identified in the Nuremberg Pupil Survey (7th, 8th and 9th grade junior secondary, general secondary and grammar school pupils), and for each of the violence indices, the average values were higher for boys than for girls. In other words, boys reported more often than girls that they had told lies, called people names, got into fights, committed acts of vandalism, threatened others with weapons, or sexually harassed them (see Funk 1995b: 61).

Differences based on Grade or Age

In the literature the problem of violence in schools is thought to be particularly prevalent in the highest classes of primary school and lowest secondary school classes (for example, see Feltes 1990: 327). Fuchs et al. (1996: 102) detect a decrease in verbal violence in schools as pupils grow older, and in this connection they refer to a „transient problem". On the other hand, there are no interpretable age differences in the case of other forms of violence (see also Funk 1995b: 63). Fuchs et al. (1996: 103) see 13 to 15-year-olds as being the most violent in junior secondary schools, and 13 to 18-year-olds in general secondary schools. There are no age-related differences in grammar schools or vocational schools. Holtappels and Schubarth (1996: 17) report the highest levels of violence as occurring in the 12-14 age group in Hesse, and in the 12-13 age group in Saxony.

Differences between types of schools

In Nuremberg, lying and name-calling were admitted more or less equally often by pupils of general secondary schools (82.5%), junior secondary schools (82.3%) and grammar schools (81.4%). Personal involvement in fights with other pupils was reported least often by grammar school pupils (22.8%) and most often by pupils of junior secondary schools (49.1 %) (for general secondary schools the figure was 31.5%). On the other hand, personal acts of vandalism were admitted least often by general secondary school pupils (44.6%) and most often by pupils of grammar schools (59.5%) (the figure for junior secondary schools was 49.6%) (Funk 1995b: 63). Fuchs et al. (1996: 102) report (solely with reference to general types of schooling) that pupils of junior secondary schools displayed the highest levels of verbal, psychological (at the same level as general secondary school pupils) and physical forms of violence violence. Only acts of vandalism were admitted more often by general secondary school pupils in Fuchs' study. Holtappels and Schubarth (1996: 17), Von Spaun (1996: 31), Greszik et al. (1995: 273ff .) and Dettenborn and Lautsch (1993) likewise show violence to be a particular problem in junior secondary schools and - to the extent that these were investigated - special schools.(1)

Differences between the former FRG and GDR

As regards aggressive and dissocial behaviour, Döpfner et al. (1996: 21) detect no difference between children and adolescents in the former FRG and GDR. In a comparative survey of head teachers in the western Land of Hesse and the eastern Land of Saxony, Meier et al. conclude: „In general, violence and abnormal behaviour are (clearly) more in evidence in Hesse than in Saxony, in every dimension investigated and also when the various types of schools are compared" (1995: 172). In a corresponding survey of pupils, Holtappels and Schubarth (1996: 17) report largely similar frequencies and types of violence in the former FRG and GDR. However, they did detect a tendency towards somewhat lower levels of violence in Saxony, especially „more extreme" types of violence. On the other hand, pupils in Saxony displayed more markedly authoritarian and nationalistic attitudes than their counterparts in Hesse (for a further comparison between East and West, see Dettenborn and Lautsch 1993).

Differences between German pupils and pupils from ethnic minorities

As regards lying, verbal abuse and name-calling, involvement in fights, vandalism, threats involving weapons and sexual harassment, no statistically significant differences were found between German pupils and pupils from ethnic minorities in Nuremberg (Funk 1995b: 62). While German pupils (83.1 %) in the Nuremberg Pupil Study mentioned verbal Aggression more frequently than their counterparts from ethnic minorities (78.7%) and also committed acts of vandalism more often (German 52.4%, ethnic minorities 49.3%), pupils from ethnic minorities were involved in fights more often than German children (German 34.1 %, ethnic minorities 43.0%) and also threatened others with weapons or sexually harassed them more often (German 6.3%, ethnic minorities 11.0%). Fuchs et al. (1996: 107) report more vandalism and more physical and mental violence among pupils from ethnic minorities; only in the case of verbal violence were no differences detected on the basis of nationality (see also Fuchs 1996a: 65; 1996b).

„Defensive objects"/weapons in schools

15% of Nuremberg pupils admitted bringing „defensive objects" to school. Boys answered „yes" to this question more than twice as often (19.7%) as girls (9.7%), a statistically significant difference (see Funk 1995b; 65). No statistical differences were detected between types of schools, grades or nationalities (see Funk 1995b: 65ff.). In Berlin, 26% of pupils reported carrying defensive objects on their person (see Dettenborn and Lautsch 1993: 760). Schwind et al. (1996: 11) reported that 24.5% of pupils in the city of Bochum had brought a weapon to school at least once. In a Land-wide survey of Bavarian pupils, a similar admission was elicited

from some 30% of respondents (see Fuchs et al. 1996: 123). Von Spaun, on the other hand, reports only very few instances of weapons being used in schools (Von Spaun 1996: 42f.), and the Bavarian Ministry of Education describes the possession of weapons as „not a real problem in Bavarian schools to date" (BaySUKWK 1994: 14). Finally, in a survey held in Kassel, Greszik et al. (1995: 273) report „peak levels" of weapon-carrying as high as 47% of boys and 44% of girls in junior secondary schools and 41 % of boys in general secondary schools.

There is some evidence to suggest that pupils who carry „defensive objects" also lie about other pupils, call them names or beat them up more often, commit more acts of vandalism, and admit more frequently to threatening or sexually harassing others than pupils who do not carry such objects. Pupils who carry arms are also more significantly more often victims of verbal and non-verbal violence (Funk 1995b: 68). Once again, a single survey of pupils cannot be used to draw conclusions about causal links. However, the link between weapon-carrying and pupil violence is identified as a problem by Fuchs et al. (1996: 121), Funk (1995b: 6), Greszik et al. (1995: 8) and Dettenborn and Lautsch (1993: 763).


1.4 Statistical links and causal determinants of violence in schools

Personality traits

On the basis of the Nuremberg Pupil Study, the following observations can be made. The more isolated pupils feel, the more they are involved in fights. The greater a pupils' need for stimulation, the more they lie, call other pupils names, get into fights, commit acts of vandalism, threaten others with weapons or sexually harass them. Conversely, the more conscientious pupils are, the less they are involved in verbal or physical violence, vandalism, or threatening or sexist behaviour.


Upbringing which is perceived to be domineering and strict goes hand in hand with higher levels of violence (telling lies, name-calling, fighting, vandalism, threats, harassment). The more supportive the parents' approach to upbringing or the better young people's social contact with their parents is perceived to be, the less they lie, call others names, commit acts of vandalism, or threaten or harass others (see Funk 1995c, 1996a; Rojek 1995). Funk (1996a: 16) did not detect any differences between pupils from single-parent and two-parent families when it came to lying, name-calling, fighting, vandalism, threats or harassment. On the other hand, girls from single-parent families were considered by others, and considered themselves, more aggressive, and their parents considered them more dissocial, than girls from two-parent families. Pupils with both parents, or the lone parent, working full-time were more frequently involved in fights and committed more acts of vandalism than those from households with a different parental employment pattern. In contrast, no relationship could be demonstrated between parental unemployment and pupils' affinity to violence (Funk 1996a: 18ff.).

Neighbourhood/local community

In the Nuremberg data, the only significant link between violence among pupils and their perception of their neighbourhood was in relation to vandalism: the more positive pupils' assessment of their neighbourhood or community, the fewer acts of vandalism they committed in the school setting (Funk 1996c: 143ff.).

Peer group

Acts of vandalism were significantly more common among pupils whose leisure time was primarily spent in informal groups than among those who were mainly involved in formal club activities (Nasa and Weigl 1995; see also Fuchs et al. 1996: 326ff.). Funk (1996b) has found a clear positive correlation between the perception of a pupil's own peer group as violent and the acts of violence committed by that pupil in the school setting.


According to Döpfner et al. (1996: 21 and Figure 26a), some 20% of conspicuously aggressive children and adolescents - four times as many as those who were inconspicuous in this regard (5.3%) - had previously had to repeat a year. The rate for conspicuously dissocial pupils (12%), though lower, was still over twice as high as for pupils who were not conspicuously dissocial (5.1%).

The Nuremberg Pupil Study revealed clear links between self-assessment of school performance and reports of lying, name-calling, fighting and vandalism: pupils who considered themselves to be doing well were less violent than those who did not. Higher rates of violence among pupils who had to repeat a year were particularly evident in the case of vandalism, threats involving weapons and sexual harassment. No links were found between assessments of pupil-pupil relationships or subjectively perceived problems at school and the four categories of violence. On the other hand, the better the teacher-pupil relationship was felt to be, or the greater pupils considered their scope for influencing the way things were done at school, the fewer acts of violence they reported (see Keiling and Funk 1995).


There is clear evidence of positive links between exposure to „action" or horror films and violence in schools. The more pupils are exposed to such films, the more they indulge in lying, name-calling, fighting, vandalism, threats or sexual harassment (Kreuzinger and Maschke 1995).

In the Nuremberg Pupil Study, causal analyses (multiple linear regressions) were used to identify the reasons for lying, name-calling, fighting and vandalism among pupils, with the help of determinants from every suspected determinative context. This revealed the following influences: being male, having a greater need for stimulation and belonging to a violent peer group increased the levels of all three types of violence, whereas a good teacher-pupil reiationship tended to reduce these levels. Having parents with full-time jobs increased the levels of both verbal violence and vandalism, whereas good social contact with one's parents reduced them. Greater conscientiousness among pupils, and perceived greater scope for influencing the way things were done at school, also reduced levels of vandalism. Older pupils got into fewer fights, and pupils from ethnic minorities indulged in less verbal violence. Pupils who were exposed to horror films and those who attended a grammar school committed more vandalism, whereas those who attended a junior secondary school were more often involved in fights (see Funk 1996a: 29ff.; 1996b: 29ff.).

There was only very patchy evidence of class-related or school-related factors influencing violence among pupils. For example, the proportion of boys in the class increased the prevalence of individual lying, name-calling and fighting. On the other hand, an increasing proportion of pupils from ethnic minorities in the class reduced individual involvement in fights. Increasing school size tended to foster vandalism among pupils, whereas a favourable teacher-pupil ratio (i.e. fewer pupils per teacher) reduced levels of vandalism (see Funk and Passenberger 1996).


1.5 Overall social processes affecting violence among pupils

An overall social factor which encourages violence among young people, and thus violence in schools, is the observable increase among young people (as a result of social change) in the subjective importance of peer groups and the media, at the expense of traditional social relationships such as family, neighbourhood, clubs and churches. This individualisation and pluralisation of lifestyles is accompanied by a loss of homogeneous value systems and sense of meaning; in some young people this leads to disintegration processes which, if „disintegration is experienced and perceived as the loss of a sense of belonging, loss of scope for involvement or agreement" (Heitmeyer 1992: 109; see also BMFSFJ 1995: 18), may manifest themselves in acts of violence. Against this background, the call for schools to fulfil a renewed role in children's upbringing is understandable - a role which at least complements, but in practice may often replace, the crumbling influence of the parental home. Similar calls for facilities ranging from extracurricular supervision to all-day schools, though they may vary in content according to their political slant, have been heard not only from politicians (see BaySUKWK 1994: 34f.; Schnoor 1993: 36), but also from groups representing teachers' interests (see Kraus 1995: 43) and teachers themselves (for example, see Schul- und Kulturreferat der Stadt Nürnberg 1992: 1 5ff.).


1. Because the type of organisation in vocational schools and the type of pupils attending special schools were atypical, these types of schools were not regularly included in surveys.

This document was added to the Education-line database 23 November 1998