Survey reveals alarming violence in Israeli schools

One out of every five teachers and 10 percent of principals say they feel helpless in dealing with school violence, according to a recently released comprehensive Education Ministry-sponsored national survey of more than 1,500 teachers, 200 principals, and 16,000 students.

The study, conducted by Hebrew University Professors Rami Benbenishty and Anat Zeira and University of Michigan Professor Ron Astor, found high rates of fighting, bullying and other physical violence, as well as verbal abuse, such as insults and humiliation, in Israeli schools.

The survey asked a nationally representative sample of students in about 240 schools in the 1998-99 school year questions about how school violence impacted them personally.

Ten percent of students in middle and high schools said they had brought weapons to school within the last month, a quarter of whom said they had brought a gun. Arab students were twice as likely to report using weapons than Jewish students.

"The comparison between pupils in the various sectors of Israeli society indicates clear differences in dominant types of violence," Zeira said. "Among Arab students at all levels, there were strikingly more reports of extortion with threats, more cases of threatening with a knife, deliberately cutting with a knife or sharp object and seeing a gun at school. In contrast, among Jewish students, there were many more reports of physical fighting, cursing, mocking, insults, humiliation and vandalism."

Despite the statistics, not one school principal admitted their campus has an alarmingly large violence problem. The gap between principals' and students' perceptions of the problem was greatest in elementary schools, where 37 percent of pupils rated their school as having a large or very large violence problem, while only 6 percent of principals thought the problem in their school was that significant.

About 80 percent of elementary and junior high school students and two-thirds of high school students said that they had been cursed in the month before the survey, and roughly two-thirds of the younger students and half of the high school students reported that another student had mocked, insulted or humiliated them.

Physical violence was more frequent among younger students than older students. About 58 percent of elementary school students, half of middle school students and a third of high school students said that they had been grabbed or shoved by another student at least once in the month prior to the survey.

"Rates of violence for low-level acts, such as cursing and pushing, are very high and present in all age, religious, and ethnic groups," said Benbenishty, the study's lead author. "For these more prevalent kinds of low-level violence, there is an immediacy to act because they affect children's sense of safety and freedom in school."

The study found that the fear of violence has gotten to the point that students are deciding to stay at home rather than deal with threats of violence at school. Sixteen percent of elementary students, 10 percent of middle school students, and 5 percent of high school students said that they missed at least one day of school in the month preceding the survey for fear of violence either at school or on their routes to and from school.

Education Minister Yossi Sarid responded to the report by issuing a list of actions his ministry has taken to fight the problem, the first of which will be to issue lengthy questionnaires to help principals evaluate which anti-violence activities would meet their school's specific needs. Analysis of this information will be used to increase partnerships with local authorities, police and non-profit organizations that target youth violence. Sarid also said the department will train of 700 psychologists and counselors, 250 school inspectors and 300 principals.

"Violence does not have and will never have a place in the educational system," Sarid said. "We are fighting it non-stop, primarily by drafting and organizing all the members of communities around schools, with the youth themselves as the main partners in the struggle to eliminate the problem."

Knesset Education Committee chairman Zevulun Orlev criticized the minister for ignoring the recommendations of the governmental committee on school violence, chaired by Science Minister Matan Vilna'i. The groundbreaking committee composed of leading professors, school principals, Education Ministry officials, teachers' unions representatives, and police worked for 10 months to come up with a plan, which it presented to Sarid last September.

"He has a report that says what to do, but he's not paying attention to it," Orlev said. "Unfortunately, the Education Ministry is only dealing with violence in a virtual way, with fancy words from the minister, but no masterplan for actions."

A member of the committee, Bar-Ilan University Prof. Yossi Harel, principal investigator in Israel for a World Health Organization cross-national study that covers youth violence, said that after years of studies, no one should be surprised that Israel has a problem with school violence.

"Every time a study comes out, it says there's a problem with school violence and then the government says it's going to do something about it, but it never does," Harel said.