Physical aggression among high school students in New Zealand
Recent New Zealand (NZ) research found rates of physical fighting and weapon carrying among high school students in Dunedin were equal to that of rates for the United States (US). The NZ Government has identified violence as a priority health issue. However, NZ is lacking information on the prevalence of the problem, and the identification of factors which may provide clues for prevention. The current understanding of the social context in which physical aggression takes place, has focused on risk factors that are present in the adolescents' ecological frame. Emerging protective factors are increasingly being recognised as major determinants that can moderate the adverse effects of risk factors. However, little research into protective factors has been conducted in NZ. The aim of this thesis was to investigate physical aggression among adolescents in NZ. This was explored through four in-depth studies: i) a national survey of secondary school principals and counsellors ii) focus groups with students in Otago; iii) an online survey with students in Otago and iv) a survey with teachers in Otago. The national survey of secondary school principals and counsellors points to a degree of concern about physical violence in NZ. One in ten reported fights occurred frequently, and over a quarter of principals and over one third of counsellors reported that at least one student at their school had been caught carrying a weapon. Focus groups with Otago adolescents indicated that fights often began as verbal disagreements escalating to physical fights, that a fight should be defined as serious as opposed to a play fight; and differences were also found between fighting at school and outside of school. Participants suggested that items may be reported as weapons, even though they are not being carried for such purposes. Previous estimates of aggressive behaviours may have been unjustifiably high and possibly hid signifcant differences in the nature of the aggression being reported. A quantitative cross-sectional online survey was undertaken with Otago secondary school students, and confirmed that physical aggression among NZ adolescents is a significant problem. Mutivariate analyses identified the school as an important factor in the social system of adolescents; in particular feeling safe, not feeling alienated and being treated fairly. The results highlighted the need to concentrate on strategies that improve students' positive engagement with school as a means to reduce physical aggression. The final study of Otago secondary school teachers showed that while teachers did not consider physical aggression as a major problem in their schools, they did report frequent occurrences of physical fighting. Respondents also reported some teachers experienced significant physical aggression from students. Physical aggression among NZ adolescents is a significant public health problem that needs addressing. This behaviour impacts directly on the education offered to students, the safety of the environment in which learning takes place, and the stress of the work place for teachers. This thesis has identified school engagement as the most promising protective factors for young people against involvement in physical aggression.
Advisor: McGee, Rob; Nada-Raja, Shyamala
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Dunedin School of Medicine
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: high school students; attitudes; aggressiveness in adolescence; New Zealand
Research Type: Thesis