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Witnessing school violence can harm students

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Portrait of students smiling and looking at camera. Photo by Dragon Images/Shutterstock

By HealthDay News

For middle school students, witnessing school violence can be as bad as being bullied, new research suggests.

An international team of researchers found that young witnesses face many of the same challenges later on as those who are direct victims of campus violence. Notably, eighth-grade witnesses are at higher risk for social and academic problems by the time they're high school sophomores.

"It is clear that approaches to prevention and intervention should include witnesses as well victims and perpetrators and target all forms of school violence," said study leader Michel Janosz. He's director of the School of Psycho-Education at the University of Montreal.

Janosz said supportive family and community relationships help young people cope after they're exposed to these traumatic events. "These also prevent emotional desensitization to violence which also contributes to aggressive behavior in youth," he said in a university news release.

The study involved nearly 4,000 students in Quebec. The researchers wanted to know how witnessing violence at age 13 affected their social and academic behavior. The study looked at students' use of drugs, delinquency and school performance, as well as their emotional well-being two years later.

The researchers also compared the long-term effects of witnessing violence with those experiencing violence directly.

The study, published recently in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, found most students had observed violence at school.

Those who had seen physical assaults or someone carrying weapons in the eighth grade had a higher risk of drug use and delinquency later on, the study found. The same was also true for those who had witnessed thefts and vandalism, which the researchers described as hidden or veiled violence.

In addition, exposure to less serious acts such as threats and insults was associated with increased drug use, social anxiety, symptoms of depression and less involvement at school, the researchers noted. But only an association rather than a cause-and-effect link was observed.

Study co-author Linda Pagani is also a professor at the School of Psycho-Education. "There were several take-home messages. First, witnessing school violence in Grade 8 predicted later impairment at Grade 10. Second, bystander effects were very similar to being victimized by violence directly," she said in the news release.

The research team said post-violence interventions should encourage concern for others and intolerance for disrespect.

"Nobody should feel powerless," Janosz said. "Schools should seek to empower bystander students who are not directly involved in acts of school violence, rather than giving them messages to stay uninvolved."

More information
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides more information on school violence.

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