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"Moderate" physical violence occurred last year in over half of Israeli schools, while "serious" physical violence involving injury or threats took place in one out of every five schools.
Close to half of all students described the atmosphere in their school as violent, while. 27.2% said they felt unsafe at school. In addition, 3.7% of students reported carrying "cold weapons" such as knives to school, while 1.5% reported carrying firearms.
This and other data reflecting the deeply troubling pervasiveness of violence throughout the Israeli school system was reported in a new Education Ministry study of school violence, which was made public on Wednesday. Two earlier studies of its kind were similarly compiled in 1999 and 2002.
The comprehensive report was commissioned by the ministry and carried out by Hebrew University Professor Rami Benbenishty. It was based on testimonies given by 27,000 elementary, junior high, and high school students in grades four through eleven, as well as 1,800 teachers and 413 principals in a total of 526 schools.
Verbal violence among students emerged from the report as the most common form of school violence: at least one incident of such violence in the month preceding the study was reported by 96.4% of all principals. Approximately 25% of all principals also reported collective conflicts among different groups of students.
In addition, 21.6% of principals reported incidents of verbal sexual abuse among students on a weekly basis during the month preceding the study, while 8% also reported instances of physical sexual abuse in their schools.
High school students reported fewer incidents of moderate physical violence and verbal violence than schoolchildren in lower grades.
Over half of all students said they had acted violently towards another student, and 10.4% reported that they or their parents had been summoned by the principal during the month preceeding the study because of violent behavior.
Overall, the study revealed that boys were more exposed to violence than girls.
In state-run religious schools, reports of violence in general and sexual abuse in particular were lower than in secular state-run schools.
Principals also reported violence directed at students by teachers - 13.4% of the principals revealed incidents in which teachers pinched, pushed or slapped students.
The highest percentage of teacher violence was reported by students in the Bedouin sector, where 43% experienced such violence.
Yet teachers, the study indicated, were themselves far from immune to violence. 15.5% of the principals reported that a student in their school verbally threatened a teacher. 9.5% reported that students physically threatened their teachers with a chair, stone, or other objects. 2.8% reported students who bit, punched or kicked their teachers, and 1.6% reported teachers being injured or stabbed.
The number of parents who threatened teachers doubled since 1999, rising from 12.1% to 20.1%. 20% of the teachers who participated in the survey were worried about their personal security.
Professor Benbenishty, who conducted the survey together with Mona Khury-Kassabri, and with Ron Avi Astor from the University of Southern California, said he was not surprised by the results.
"I think the media exaggerates the degree of school violence, " Benbenishty told the Post. "It's certainly not a positive picture, and it requires change, but it isn't catastrophic."
Benbenishty also said that according to the data he collected, violence has not been on the rise in the past three years, and that this could be interpreted as a positive sign given the difficult problems with which Israeli society as a whole has been struggling.
Benbenishty did note, however, that the moderate and verbal violence in Israeli schools was higher than in other Western countries, although he did detect lower rates of extreme violence here.
"I think the exposure of a relatively large number of students to moderate violence is a rather Israeli phenomenon, and that is something we have to work on," he said. "This should be no less worrisome than the data concerning extreme cases - because it indicates that violence is pervading very large parts of society."
Benbenishty also noted that teachers and principals reported they felt a lack of support from the Education Ministry and local government. Nevertheless, he emphasized, the study also indicated that schools had the power to create an internal climate capable of bringing about change.
Ela Algrissy, who is responsible for violence prevention at the Education Ministry's Psychological Services department, said she was pleased to discover that there has not been a rise in school violence, despite the impression created by reports in the media.
"One has to understand that attempts to reduce violence take years," Algrissy told the Post. Algrissy also said that one of the most worrisome facts revealed by the report was the decrease in the sense of security felt by both students and teachers.
"Overall," she said, "there is growing cooperation between the education system and the police, and the more collaboration there is among different sources, the better we can treat the complex problem of violence."
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