Dangerous Minds

In Yeshiva College Course, Students Examine Trends in School Violence From Multiple Perspectives

Schools are supposed to be safe places, where children learn, grow and acquire the skills and knowledge they need to build successful lives. But what happens when they aren’t? In the last decade, news stories about violent outbreaks and bullying in school settings have brought this question and others to the forefront of American awareness. How are our children and institutions impacted when violence—whether in harder-to-spot forms like bullying or more alarming behaviors like muggings or assaults—becomes pervasive in our school systems? And, more importantly, how do we prevent it from happening?

Violence and Education class
Students gave a group presentation on the impact of school violence on teacher turnover.

At Yeshiva College, students in Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology Daniel Kimmel’s “Violence, Schools and Education” course are seeking answers.

“Issues like bullying have really come to light in the American public eye in the last 10 to 15 years, but even then people tend to notice only the really spectacular instances, the ones that lead to rampage shootings or highly public suicides—which are tragic, but don’t convey the scope of the problem,” said Kimmel. “Studies estimate that as many as a quarter of all students experience persistent bullying for a year or more during their school careers. There are so many kids who are suffering, but their suffering never reaches the point where the public eye notices them.”

In Kimmel’s class, that suffering is anything but invisible. Students look not only at the different ways violence can manifest in school settings, but also the long-term consequences for those affected by it—academically, emotionally, physically and beyond. The course was designed to fulfill the Human Behaviors and Social Institutions requirement in Yeshiva College’s innovative new Core Curriculum, which heavily emphasizes a multidisciplinary approach to education that enhances students’ capacity to solve problems creatively and intuitively.

“Unlike more traditional intro courses which students still take for their majors, Professor Kimmel’s course allows them to engage deeply within a specific area of focus, as they learn how sociologists, psychologists and political scientists would approach this shared set of questions and issues,” said Dr. Rachel Mesch, director of the Yeshiva College Core Curriculum. “What they learn from this kind of class goes far beyond a specific body of knowledge—they learn new ways of thinking and understanding the world around them. These kinds of Core classes not only help students choose their specific area of study, but also provide them with enduring skills for their careers and their adult lives as engaged citizens.”

Violence and Education class
Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology Daniel Kimmel

Context is king in Kimmel’s course, which takes students first through individuals’ experiences with school violence and broadens into a conversation about violence on a school and community level. Students explore the relationships between violence and differing social statuses, psychological characteristics, institutional policies and long-term health outcomes. “The goal is for students to see who the different stakeholders are in a major problem like this and to see how different vantage points can lead to different proposed solutions, different explanations for the behaviors we see, and ultimately different answers to our critical questions, ‘Where does school violence come from and what should we do about it?’ ” said Kimmel.

Kimmel, whose research in the field at the University of Chicago focused on constructing a process model of violence in schools, encourages his class to propose their own suggested answers to those questions. However, he stresses that for now, the problem of school violence is too complicated to fix with one simple, universal solution. “The clearest thing is that when you put in the methodological heavy lifting and try to see if there are stark negative causal effects of this kind of violence, the same way that you’d see an effect on students exposed to drugs, they do seem to exist,” Kimmel said. “It’s a big problem.”

Danny Poritz, a sophomore majoring in mathematics, found the course’s psychological insights especially intriguing. “We talk about questions like, ‘What causes students to adopt a violent mindset?’ ” he said. “It’s fascinating just how many variables can contribute to school violence, from parenting down to the very culture of each school. Every facet must be explored in-depth to piece together the whole picture—the sheer complexity of this problem leaves us with so many questions and teaches us to challenge our assumptions.”

“The course deals with a melting pot of current issues and understanding its scope is crucial for any educated person that wants to know more about the world we live in,” said Benjamin Kohane, a junior double-majoring in mathematics and economics. “Its immersive style—detailed presentations and class discussions, interacting with all the sources from books and academic journals that Professor Kimmel provides us with—really helps me appreciate the field of sociology in a new light.”