Celeste K. Hedequist


Department of Criminal Justice


Theories of Violence and Aggression


Lasell University




There is often a wide range of forces at work in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms which experience violent and aggressive behaviors. These forces are often subtle, unseen, and highly toxic. This proposal attempts to widen the focus to address aggression and violence in the classroom beyond overt acts of bullying and beyond the perpetrator-victim dyad, or aggressor-target-bystander triad. Many scholars recognize that classroom violence and aggression involve many participants, as well as both interactive and intra-active situations, and a host of other conditions, such as a hostile classroom environment. 

While efforts have been made to cast the net as widely as possible to tackle this multifaceted problem, current policies have failed to significantly reduce violence and aggression. One possible explanation for this is the reactive nature of many current school violence/ bullying intervention programs. Further, some current policies tend to attack the problem by using an all-school system approach, yet it’s done so indiscriminately and haphazardly. There is too little time and too few resources for in-depth evaluations to develop effective preventative strategies. Consequently, such efforts by schools result in form over substance interventions and fail to reduce school violence and aggression.  

Employing a catch-all approach to bullying can also arguably make the problem more elusive to solve because there is little ability to control for factors to determine which areas need improvement and which are working well. With so many variables at play, there is an abundance of paperwork which often requires checking off boxes, rather than insightful evaluation. Those employing current approaches can too easily resort to scapegoating when underlying aggression bubbles-up and manifests as overt acts of bullying. Typically, it’s a blatant incident of violence or aggression which triggers the bullying-reporting process, and this process is often emotionally reactive, and can often lead to retaliation, and escalate cycles of violence.

This proposal focuses on a broader understanding of violence and aggression in the classroom, looking at factors like shame, humiliation, stress, bias, and isolation as precursors to violence. This new approach concentrates heavily on leadership taking responsibility for outcomes over just tasks. It recommends implementing, among other things, a proactive system of checks and balances; a system of surveillance of leadership when necessary; upward reviews of leadership and self-reviews by leadership. The goal of this new policy is to prevent rather than punish violence and aggression in the classroom with a heavy focus on leadership. The new policy would require (1) using outcome determinative measurements of success; (2) learning and employing de-escalation strategies; (3) surveillance using cameras when necessary for the improvement of outcomes; and (4) whenever possible, creating a classroom environment free of factors that in theory cause or contribute to aggression and violence. 


Problem Statement 

While all 50 states require schools to have a bullying prevention policy, bullying persists and has increased in almost all forms during the last few years (DiVecha, 2019).  The effects of school violence are far-reaching and go beyond the immediate impact on those who are targeted or victimized (Finley, 2022). There are long term effects on victims, perpetrators, educators, parents and on those who witness the aggression and violence. It’s a pervasive problem that’s ubiquitous in nature and there are lifetime effects of experiencing an abusive relationship, such as a propensity to engage in more risky sexual behavior, substance abuse, disordered eating, and suicidal ideation (Finley, 2022). In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 60% of boys who were identified as bullies in middle school had at least one criminal conviction by the age of 24 (Manvell, 2012).

Bullying is often only addressed after there is an overt act of aggression or violence, and other types of serious and covert abuse or precursors to violence go often unnoticed. For example, female methods of inflicting violence are “the quiet and more socially accepted and ignored ways they gang up against each other” (Manvell, 2012, pg. 69). One scholar astutely pointed out that:

The target of female bullying loses the thing most precious to her – her relationships with her friends – without a voice being raised or a punch thrown (Manvell, 2012, pg. 69).

To complicate matters, the line between the bully and bullied are often blurred, and many bullied youths also bully others (Finley, 2022). This makes teasing out effective solutions even more difficult because there is the inherent risk that the action taken could revictimize someone who has been abused but who has been improperly labeled as the perpetrator by others including those in positions of authority at schools. 

Victims of bullying are also more likely to carry weapons to school which potentially escalates the level of violence and the risk that someone will be hurt or killed (Finley, 2022). “According to a report by the U.S. Secret Service, 71 percent of all high-profile school shooters had been bullied at school” (Finley, 2022, pg. 64).

Some bullying prevention programs focus on raising awareness about the problem and administering consequences, however, programs which rely on punishment and zero tolerance have not been shown to be effective in the U.S. (DiVecha, 2019). Also, “by-stander intervention even among adults, only works for some people – extroverts, empaths, and people with higher social status and moral engagement” (DiVecha, 2019, pg. 2).  Programs that rely on peer intervention place an undue responsibility on children to work out conflicts and often increase bullying (DiVecha, 2019). According to one researcher, “[a]dult victims of abuse are never asked to ‘work it out’ with their tormentor, and children have an additional legal right to protections due to their development status” (DiVecha, 2019, pg. 2). 

A Multisite Violence Prevention Project (2008) evaluated the impact of a universal school-based violence prevention program on social-cognitive factors associated with aggression. These programs were based on research suggesting that altering beliefs, attitudes, skills, and information processing deficits in youth displaying high levels aggression would subsequently reduce youth violence (Multisite Violence Prevention Project, 2008). The results of the project indicated that while the high-risk group benefited from universal programming (versus interventions which segregate high-risk and low risk youth), the low-risk group did not, and the effects were surprisingly in the opposite direction for the low-risk group (Multisite Violence Prevention Project, 2008). There is debate over whether gains to one group (high-risk) offsets and justifies the potential negative effects to other groups (such as the low-risk group) in the context of universal strategies (Multisite Violence Prevention Project, 2008). However, commonsense would dictate that any effective intervention for reducing violence should not pose an additional risk to any youth group. 

Most victims of violence and aggression want prevention (Jones, 2020). Studies amongst adults in prison demonstrate that people mistakenly believe that harsher punishments will have a deterrent effect, however, they do little to prevent future crime (Jones, 2020). Bullying programs which rely on expulsion, and suspensions, can prevent the perpetrator from inflicting further harm in the short term but likely increase the risk that the bully or aggressor will reoffend when they return to school or transfer to another school. Punishment can be counterproductive for many reasons, though it’s certainly true when the lines between the aggressor and the victim are blurred as they often are with respect to school violence. 

Pursuant to most state anti-bullying laws, the definition of bullying includes bullying by members of a school staff, such an educator, coach, custodian, administrator, etc.(FindLaw, 2017; M.G.L. c. 71, § 37O). These laws require that school districts adopt anti-bullying policies, but they may not authorize lawsuits against the school district. Also, in most cases school officials would be immune from civil liability (FindLaw, 2017). 

However, in 1999, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that:

 when school officials act with “deliberate indifference” to known acts of student-on-student harassment that is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity,” they may be held liable. (FindLaw, 2017; citing Davis v. Monroe County Bd. of Ed., 526 U.S. 629 (1999)).

Remarkably, when victims are not members of a protected class lawsuits pursuant to Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, and under Davis v. Monroe County Bd. of Ed, often face an uphill battle. However, some jurisdictions recognize that a constitutional duty is imposed on the state to protect students, and this can give rise to liability when negligence can be proven (FindLaw, 2017).

Not all jurisdictions recognize a public school’s custodial duty to students, and thus there is no Constitutional duty imposed to protect them in such situations (FindLaw, 2017). In these jurisdictions, liability arises only where (1) the school actively enters into a custodial relationship; or (2) the school creates or exacerbates the risks of bullying (FindLaw, 2017). Typically, in these situations, a plaintiff would pursue a Section 1983 claim in a civil action for the deprivation of rights (42 U.S.C. §1983).

The law is complex and determining liability for acts of bullying is an arduous and financially burdensome route for the victims/plaintiffs and the school if a cause of action is instituted against it for bullying, civil rights violations, negligence, etc. Preventative measures and surveillance as suggested below offer alternatives for accountability of leadership that are less burdensome, less costly and would likely diminish retaliation and better ensure safety for all members of the school community.  

Further, lengthy anti-bullying procedures, and high-conflict investigations and litigations can ironically cause bullying to be swept under a rug instead of exposed and mitigated. The current policies can arguably vitiate the anti-bullying laws and create additional cycles of violence and aggression between students and staff which can escalate into harmful, even deadly events. For the reasons stated above, this new policy proposal should guide new prevention and intervention plans pursuant to each state’s respective anti-bullying laws. This new policy approach would allow for transparency and accountability of leadership and better protect students from violence and aggression in the classroom.  

Theoretical Foundations

The new policy for reducing violence and aggression in the classroom is firmly rooted in theories of violence and aggression. Physical anthropologists have explained that aggression and competition are inherent traits, and that violence is just one of the tools that has served an evolutionary function to helping species to survive and thrive (Accomazzo, 2012). Anthropologist David Riches (1986) “proposed a theory of rational preemption to explain why violence is utilized; in essence, perpetrators of violence always have choices, but they pick violence because it secures an advantage over an opponent . . . violence is a performance in that it communicate a message to all involved  . . .” (Accomazzo, 2012, pg. 545). Scholars that study violence and aggression know that “violence is violence” whether it occurs in the home, on the street, in schools or in the workplace (Riedel & Welsh, 2011, pg. 185).  

All aggression is instrumental behavior. Aggressive behavior has a purpose in that people will use aggression to achieve an outcome they value if the costs are not too high (Reidel & Welsh, 2011, pg. 185).

It’s easy to see how the school environment might be ripe for aggressive acts, as academic, social, and athletic achievement are often the mutual goals of students all of whom are vying at some level for recognition by their peers, family and/or faculty. While aggressive acts might be instrumental to achieving these goals, and acceptable at some level, leadership should recognize that punishing harshly aggressive or competitive behavior will likely only escalate aggression. 

Although frequently used to understand violence in the workplace, the routine activities theory posits that transgressions occur when there is a “conjunction of suitable targets and likely offenders, and the absence of suitable guardians” (Reidel & Welsh, 2011, pg. 183). This theory would equally apply to classroom environments as the number of students can vastly outnumber capable guardians. It’s in the absence of such surveillance or monitoring by a protector that a perpetrator will exploit the situation where there are suitable targets. Schools encourage mainstreaming children of all abilities, and schools include children of many ages creating plenty of opportunity for those who wish to target others due to lack of social status, disability, perceived weaknesses, etc. 

In combination with these theories, some researchers have stated that:

self-regulatory deficits in emotion and mood regulation, behavior regulation, cognitive regulation, and interpersonal regulation are potential causal mechanisms for development of and/or relapse of sex-offending behaviors (King, 2012, pg.563).

Additionally, Baumeister and Vohs (2004) propose self-control as a fifth cause to their “Four Roots of Evil” theory (King, 2012). This cause is a breakdown of self-control or capacity for self-regulation which minimizes reactivity and allows for appropriate and pro-social behavior (King, 2012). Young children, even teens struggle with self-control because the prefrontal cortex of the brain is still forming. As a result, children and some teens may rely on the part of the brain called the amygdala which is associated with impulsive and aggressive behavior to respond to problems more than they would if they were adults. Given that schools are full of young people who biologically may not have the capacity to respond in pro-social ways, it’s critical that teachers and others in leadership positions in the schools compensate for such deficiency. They may do so by demonstrating self-control and creating a less stressful environment which fosters more time to react.

Other theories that support this new policy proposal include the ecological theory of violence which is akin to the systems theory (Lawson, 2012). The ecological and systems approach focus on the complex and interrelated networks of systems that influence behavior including aggression and violence (Lawson, 2012). In addition, the social strain theory explains that strain or frustration results when individuals experience a gap between “culturally emphasized goals (success, wealth, material possessions) and legitimate means available to achieve those goals (e.g., access to higher-quality education, participation in social networks” (Riedel & Welsh, 2011, pg. 135). Both explain how a focus on leadership to deescalate and interact with students in ways which decrease frustration would likely also reduce bullying.

Finally, the social learning theory dictates that leadership should behave in responsible ways and demonstrate neutrality towards specific groups. Biases, stereotypes, animosity and hostility towards others and groups is learned and often demonstrated by adults in the community including those at schools. Further, scholar, have theorized that shame is “fundamentally relational, and bypassed or unacknowledged shame that is largely unconscious can be particularly destructive and can lead to . . . ‘humiliated fury” (King, 2012, pg. 564). One scholar identifies shame “not as just a trigger to aggression but as the primary cause of violence” (King, 2012, pg. 565). Demonstrating ways to appropriate handle shame (and pride) while also refraining from shaming students will foster a healthier classroom environment. 


New Policy Proposal and Plan

Some say fish rot from the head down to describe organizations which become toxic. It’s the same with schools, only more so as children are still developing and can lack self-control (a popular theoretical explanation for violence and crime). When it comes to schools, our children deserve the highest level of competence to ensure healthy social-emotional development and undoubtedly deserve a physically and emotionally safe environment, so that they can grow and learn. This new policy attempts to achieve this end by proposing that the classroom environment and situational factors are within the control of leadership, and leadership play a key role in modeling behavior and diffusing violent and aggressive tendencies.

 As mentioned above, the new policy would require the following:

 (1) using outcome determinative measurements of success; 

(2) learning and employing de-escalation strategies:

(3) using in-class cameras when necessary for the improvement of outcomes; and 

(4) whenever possible, creating a classroom environment free of factors that in theory cause or contribute to aggression and violence. 


Successful reduction of violence and aggression would be based upon outcomes, rather than adequately filed bullying reports. Those in leadership roles, such as a teacher or a coach must take ownership of any aggressive or violent act which occurs on their watch. The staff and school are accountable “to do no harm and to allow no harm to be done (Manvell, 2012, pg. 119). Upward performance review of teachers by students plus the number of aggressive or violent incidents tallied for any teacher, coach etc., would determine whether surveillance (cameras in the classroom) would be a necessary next step to improve outcomes. 

Teachers, coaches, and other staff would also be required to learn and employ de-escalation techniques. Further, they would be required to self-evaluate on issues of de-escalation of aggression, and the management of frustration, stress, and bias in their respective classrooms. 

The upward performance reviews by students would create an opportunity for anonymous feedback about the classroom environment. As social human beings, the threat of feeling shunned or humiliated by a teacher is so destructive to the learning process (Manvell, 2012). “To the student, this amounts to deliberate cruelty by persons in positions of authority” (Manvell, 2012, pg. 118). The new policy would require upward performance reviews to evaluate teachers and others on precursors to violence such as levels of stress in the classroom, levels of shaming, humiliation, exclusion, bias, etc. Decreasing the levels of these precursors would be an overarching goal for leadership. Using self-evaluation and cameras to monitor classrooms when levels were elevated would hold leadership accountable in more proactive ways, by potentially decreasing litigation, reducing retaliation and ultimately eliminating ratcheting levels violence. 


Obstacles and Implementation Challenges

One of the more obvious challenges to implementation is that it requires a paradigm shift that takes the spotlight off the perpetrator and the victim for any act of aggression and/or violence and puts it on leadership. It’s like strict liability in tort law, in that it imposes accountability or liability without a finding of actual fault on the part of leadership. Arguably, it will be challenged by some as unfair, however, if there is unfairness in a classroom it should fall on the shoulders of those in charge. 

Also, there is the potential that those who bully or act aggressively will escape consequences for their behavior. This is an unintended consequence that may need to be addressed in the future if the implementation of the policy does not yield the intended results. One can assume that if the number of aggressive and/or violent incidents is reduced, and the level of precursors to violence (which are equally as toxic and even qualify as aggression in many cases) drop then punishment was unnecessary to achieve the goal. It requires radical acceptance to believe that bullying can be prevented without punishing the bully.  However, research shows that bullies can be the victims of trauma, and so punishing a bully often only compounds and escalates the problem of school violence. A more appropriate goal is to foster a safe and pro-social classroom, where the level of oversight by teachers, guardians, and in-class monitors/cameras (if necessary) help ensure less opportunity for bullies to exploit suitable targets.  

Another foreseeable but not so obvious challenge is possibly encountering the Hawthorne effect. The Hawthorne effect is a term referring to the tendency of some people to work harder and perform better when they are participants in an experiment or are being watched (Cherry, 2020). Using cameras in the classroom might only temporarily improve results. However, even temporary improvement might encourage leaders because they have learned that change is possible. Witnessing a reduction in violence and aggression should motivate good leaders to strive for consistency once they know its achievable. By focusing on leadership and the environment this will allow teachers to take ownership over outcomes and ultimately instill a sense of empowerment for tackling what has become one of the most pervasive public health concerns for the U.S. and other countries in many decades.




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Cherry, K. (2020, October 13). The Hawthorne Effect and Behavioral Studies. Verywell Mind.

DiVecha, D. (2019, October 29). What are best ways to prevent bullying in schools? Great Good Magazine. 

FindLaw (2017). Bullying at School: Who is Liable? (Last updated May 15, 2017).

Finley, L. L. (printed on 02/28/2022). School Violence: A Reference Handbook, 2nd. ed. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost).

Jones, A. (2020, April). Reforms without results: why states should stop excluding violent offenses from criminal justice reforms. Prison Policy Initiatives.

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Manvell, E.C. (2012). The Violence Continuum. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Multisite Violence Prevention Project (2008). The multisite violence prevention project: impact of a universal school-based violence prevention program on social-cognitive outcomes. Prevention Science: Journal of the Society for Prevention Research, 9(4), 231–244.

Riedel, M. & Welsh, W. (2011). Criminal Violence: Patterns, Causes, and Prevention. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


42 U.S.C. §1983

M.G.L. c. 71, § 370 (School Bullying Prohibited: Bullying Prevention Plans)