Perceptions and experiences of violence among secondary school students in urban Jamaica


Percepciones y experiencias en torno a la violencia en estudiantes de secundaria en la zona urbana de Jamaica



Julie Meeks GardnerI; Christine A. PowellI; Joan A.ThomasI; Doreen MillardII

IUniversity of the West Indies, Mona, Tropical Medicine Research Institute, Epidemiology Research Unit, Mona, Kingston, Jamaica
IIUniversity of the West Indies, Mona, Department of Obstetrics, Gynaecology and Child Health, Kingston, Jamaica





OBJECTIVE: To obtain information on the perceptions and experiences of violence among secondary school students in Kingston, Jamaica, and its environs.
METHODS: Data collection was carried out from September through December 1998. Two researchers administered questionnaires in 11 randomly selected secondary schools, to a total of 1 710 students who were in either grade 7 or grade 9 and who were aged 9–17 years old (mean of 13.2 years). Frequency distributions of the responses were compared by gender, age, grade level, socioeconomic status, and school type.
RESULTS: Seventy-five percent of the students thought that someone who was reluctant to fight would be "picked on" more, 89% thought it generally wrong to hit other people, and 91% thought it wrong to insult other people. Eighty-four percent knew of students who carried knives or blades from such items as a scalpel or a utility knife to school, and 89% were worried about violence at school. Thirty-three percent had been victims of violence, and 60% had a family member who had been a victim of violence. Eighty-two percent thought that violent television shows could increase aggressive behavior. Factor analysis of selected responses was carried out, yielding five factors: neighborhood violence, school violence, perceptions of acceptable behaviors, level of concern about violence, and general experiences and perceptions of violence. The factors varied with gender, age, grade level, socioeconomic status, and school type.
CONCLUSIONS: These results will help focus interventions aimed at reducing violence, provide a baseline for later comparisons of perceptions and experiences of violence, and offer a basis for comparing the experiences of young people in urban Jamaica with those of young persons elsewhere.

Key words: Violence, adolescent, child, students, Jamaica.


OBJETIVO: Obtener información acerca de cuáles son las percepciones y experiencias en torno a la violencia de los estudiantes de secundaria en Kingston, Jamaica, y sus alrededores.
MÉTIDOS: La recolección de datos tuvo lugar de septiembre a diciembre de 1998. En 11 escuelas secundarias elegidas aleatoriamente, dos investigadores administraron cuestionarios a un total de 1 710 estudiantes de séptimo o noveno grado entre las edades de 9 y 17 años (media de edad: 13,2 años). Las distribuciones de frecuencias de las contestaciones se compararon en función del sexo, la edad, el grado escolar, el estrato socioeconómico y el tipo de escuela del encuestado.
RESULTADOS: Setenta y cinco por ciento de los estudiantes opinaban que si uno no quiere pelear es más probable que sus pares lo acosen o se burlen; a 89% les parecía condenable pegarles a los demás, y 91% consideraban que es reprobable insultar a otros. Ochenta y cuatro por ciento de los encuestados conocían a estudiantes que llevaban cuchillos o navajas y 89% se sentían preocupados por la violencia en la escuela. Treinta y tres por ciento habían sido víctimas de actos violentos y 60% tenían algún pariente que también lo había sido. Ochenta y dos por ciento opinaban que los programas de televisión pueden empeorar la tendencia a comportarse de forma agresiva. Se efectuó un análisis factorial a partir de algunas respuestas y los factores identificados fueron cinco: la violencia en el vecindario, la violencia en la escuela, la percepción de que determinadas conductas son admisibles, el grado de preocupación por la violencia y las experiencias y percepciones generales que se tienen en torno a la violencia. Estos factores variaron en función del sexo, la edad, el grado escolar, el estrato socioeconómico y el tipo de escuela del encuestado.
CONCLUSIONES: Los presentes resultados ayudarán a focalizar adecuadamente las intervenciones encaminadas a reducir la violencia, proporcionarán la base para futuras comparaciones de las percepciones y experiencias de los jóvenes en torno a la violencia, y servirán para comparar las experiencias de la juventud en la zona urbana de Jamaica con las de la juventud en otros lugares.



Violence is now acknowledged to be a major public health problem in the Americas (1). In particular, the issue of violence among youth is of importance because youth tend to be both the most likely victims and the most likely perpetrators of violence; this is true both in Jamaica (2) and elsewhere in the Americas (3, 4). Furthermore, intervention efforts are most effective if they are targeted at younger age groups (5). Studies among adults in different countries have shown that different factors are associated with aggressive behaviors (6) and that the likelihood of being a victim of different types of violence also varies from country to country and from city to city within a country (7). However, a recent review pointed out that "almost no formal comparative studies of cultural and social variables" were available regarding juvenile violence within the different subregions or nations of the Americas (4). Jamaica is one of the most violent countries in the world (8), and the impact of this problem on Jamaican youth should be instructive for all concerned with the issue of juvenile violence.

Experiences and perceptions of violence are crucial variables that underlie violent actions. In El Salvador, for example, past exposure to violence was shown to be related to more justification or approval of violence and to the increased use of aggression and weapons among the victims. Attitudes are also related to violent actions. The large Multicenter Study: Cultural Norms and Attitudes Toward Violence in Selected Cities of Latin America and Spain (Project ACTIVA) had as one of its primary objectives an assessment of attitudes that can influence whether a person chooses to behave violently (6, 9). However, that study focused on adults rather than youth.

Prevention programs to reduce violence often include components to promote nonviolent attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors (4). These are considered more malleable targets than are such social environmental risk factors for violence as economic development, changes in law enforcement, and firearms control. Before attempting to address the issue of violence in a particular population, it is important to understand the current attitudes and beliefs within the cultural context of the target population.

An earlier study on health, nutrition, and school failure among adolescent Jamaican girls used private interviews that included some questions on those adolescents' experiences of violence and fights as well as physical punishment by parents or teachers for disobedience, being rude, or other infractions (10). That research found a negative relationship between aggression and school performance. Another study among older Jamaican school students used a self-report questionnaire (11), but it is well known that literacy levels in Jamaican schools vary widely. Surveys among less literate populations generally depend on person-to-person communication, e.g., face-to-face or telephone interviews. We piloted a method of presenting a questionnaire in a group setting that combined the advantages of a highly structured interview with those of a self-administered questionnaire (12).

We carried out our study in order to assess the experiences and perceptions of youth in urban Jamaica. The specific aims were to: (1) determine the perceptions and experiences of violence among a representative sample of students attending secondary schools in Kingston and its environs and (2) relate these perceptions and experiences to school type, neighborhood violence, age, gender, school grade, and socioeconomic status.

The parish of Kingston is the capital city of Jamaica. Kingston and its surrounding urban environs in the parish of St. Andrew are together known as the Kingston Metropolitan Area (KMA) (13). These two parishes, Kingston and St. Andrew, had an estimated population of 706 110 persons in 1998 (13).




The participants in our study were students from 11 secondary schools in the KMA. We selected the 11 schools from 61 secondary schools in the KMA following stratified random sampling so as to have a proportional representation of the five types of secondary schools that then existed in the KMA. These five types were: (1) comprehensive high schools (grades 7–13 with both academic subjects and vocational subjects, e.g., woodwork and home economics), (2) technical high schools (also grades 7–13 with academic and vocational subjects; the difference between comprehensive and technical high schools was only in the name), (3) all-age schools (with grades 1–9), (4) junior high schools (grades 7–9 only), and (5) secondary high schools (grades 7–13 with an academic syllabus) (14). This study was conducted in 1998, and since then the Government of Jamaica has reduced the number of types of secondary schools from five to three, by combining comprehensive high schools and technical high schools and by combining all-age schools with junior high schools. Our analyses are conducted using these three categories: (1) technical high schools and comprehensive high schools, (2) all-age schools and junior high schools, and (3) secondary high schools.


A 73-item questionnaire was designed based on findings from a qualitative pilot study in Jamaica1 and from work conducted in the United States of America (15). There were questions on demographics, attitudes toward and perceptions of violence, and experiences of violence. The instrument was piloted among grade 7 and grade 9 students in two schools that were not among those selected for study. Test-retest reliability for the items was at least 0.78.

For the data collection, two researchers visited each school and administered the questionnaires to all grade 7 and grade 9 students who were present. Students were each given a questionnaire while seated in a group in a quiet classroom. Questions and answers were read out loud by one researcher. Any student who had a query raised a hand, and the second researcher answered him or her privately. A class usually completed the questionnaire within 40 minutes. The data collection was carried out in October and November of 1998.


The study was approved by the Ethical Committee of the University of the West Indies and also by the Ministry of Education of Jamaica. We did not request approval from the students' parents, as names or other identifiers were not recorded for this study.


The data were analyzed using SPSS for Windows version 6.0 software (SPSS Inc., Chicago, Illinois, United States). Frequency distributions of the responses were compared using chi-square tests for gender, age (up to age 13 or older than 13), grade level (7 or 9), socioeconomic status as indicated by the number of specific household possessions out of a list of seven items (scored as either 5 and fewer or 6 and more), and school type (technical high schools or comprehensive high schools; all-age schools or junior high schools; or secondary high schools). In order to reduce the data and identify underlying constructs, a factor analysis of selected responses was carried out using principal components extraction with varimax rotation (16). For the factor analysis, missing data were filled with the mean. Five factor scores, with eigenvalues > 1.5, were also compared by gender, age, grade level, socioeconomic status (by t tests), and school type (using analysis of variance).



As mentioned earlier, out of the sampling frame of 61 schools in the KMA, we selected 11 of them (18%), successfully representing all five types of schools. All 11 schools that were selected and all students approached agreed to participate. However, in some cases a student omitted the response to one item, or occasionally more. Of the 73 items, 40 had at least one missing response, though overall less than 1% of the data were missing.


A total of 1 710 students were interviewed, with 99 to 233 (mean 155) from each school. Sample characteristics are shown in Table 1. The mean age of the overall sample was 13.2 yr (standard deviation (SD) 1.3; range 9– 17). The mean age of the grade 7 students was 12.0 yr (SD 0.7; range 9–15), and that of the grade 9 students was 14.2 yr (SD 0.8; range 11–17). There were significant differences among the three groups of schools, with the technical/comprehensive high school students and the all-age school/junior high school students both being significantly older than the students in the secondary high schools. In comparison to the students in the latter, the students in the first two groups came from poorer homes, as indicated by fewer of them having electricity, piped water, or flush toilets at home and by their having fewer home possessions (Table 1).



What constitutes "violence"

In terms of what the students labeled as "violence," 36% of them included insults in that categorization, 86% said that about child abuse, and 38% said that for hurting someone in self-defense. More grade 7 than grade 9 students said that insults were violence (chi-square, P < 0.001), but fewer grade 7 than grade 9 students said that child abuse constituted violence (chi-square, P < 0.001).

Perceptions of normal behavior

With respect to "normal" behavior, 53% of the students thought it was okay to kick a dog, and 40% thought it all right to hurt a cat. Only 10% thought that someone who walked away from a fight should be considered a coward, though 75% thought someone who was reluctant to fight would be "picked on." Most students thought it was wrong to hit a boy (88%) or a girl (86%) who said something bad to them. However, if a boy or girl hit them first, 39% of the students said it was acceptable to hit the boy and 41% said it was okay to hit the girl. Most respondents thought it was generally wrong to hit other people (89%), to say hurtful things (88%), to push and shove someone when angry (93%), and to insult others (91%).

Fights and safety at school

In terms of safety at school, 84% of the respondents knew of students who carried knives or blades from such things as scalpels, sharpeners, and utility knives to school. The common reasons for carrying a weapon were protection (64%), to gain respect (50%), or to threaten or hurt other students (66%). Most students (71%) said that the students in their class fought "often or sometimes." While 89% of the students said they were worried about violence at their school, 85% reported that there were activities at school to reduce violence, and 76% said that these activities were at least sometimes effective.

Threats and attacks on teachers

Thirty-nine percent of the respondents indicated that students sometimes or often threatened teachers with physical violence, 21% said that students actually had attacked teachers at their school, and 38% reported that parents or friends of students had also threatened or attacked teachers.

Threats and attacks on students

Threats and attacks on students at school were common: 50% of the students had been threatened with physical violence there, 22% had been victims of violence "once or sometimes," and 11% said they were "often" victims of violence. In addition, 47% indicated that there were fights over "turf" or territory at the school.

Neighborhood violence

With respect to neighborhood violence or safety, 28% of the students described their home neighborhoods as very safe, while the remainder said their homes were in areas that were a little safe (36%), a little unsafe (22%), or very unsafe (14%). Only a few students thought that it was safe to travel by bus (5%); most thought such travel was a little (38%) or very (23%) unsafe. Traveling by taxi was considered safe by only 7%, as a little unsafe by 31%, and as very unsafe by 23%.

Fifty percent of the students sometimes witnessed violent acts in their neighborhood, and 19% said they often saw such acts. Eighty-five percent were worried about violence in general, and 78% worried about their safety in going to and from school. Neighborhood fights were reportedly mostly about revenge (81%), relationships between men and women (54%), or territorial disputes (50%), while problems with access to water (23%) were also mentioned (e.g., access to community standpipes might be limited to supporters of a particular gang, or persons who wished to access a community source of water might be threatened). Illegal drugs as an issue for neighborhood violence was less common (13%).

Experience of violence outside of school

In terms of violence outside school, 34% of the students had been victims of violence themselves at least once, while 60% had at least one family member who had been a victim of violence. Thirty-seven percent of the students had had a family member killed as a result of violence, and 67% either knew someone (well enough to talk to) who had been a victim of violence or had known someone who was killed.

Attributed causes of fights

Many of the students thought that victims were responsible for bringing violence on themselves sometimes (60%) or often (20%). Eighty-eight percent thought bystanders encourage fights, while 90% thought the person most responsible was the person who "threw the first punch." Ninety-four percent thought that "little things" sometimes lead up to big fights, and hunger (59%) was also thought to be a contributory factor.

Influence of the media

Ninety percent of the children watched television sometimes or often. Seventy-five percent thought that violent television shows were bad for children to watch, and 82% thought such shows make children more violent.

Forty-seven percent of the respondents thought that music could encourage people to be more violent. Seventy-five percent thought that the lyrics were responsible for provoking violence, and 16% thought that the "rhythm" encouraged violence. Two types of Jamaican popular music were considered the most likely to encourage violence: "DJ" (47%) and dancehall (41%). Hip hop or rap music was also considered important (37%).

Factor analysis

A factor analysis was carried out of the variables describing perceptions and experiences of violence. As shown in Table 2, this analysis yielded five factors: neighborhood violence, school violence, perceptions of acceptable behaviors, level of concern about violence, and a more general factor on experiences and perceptions of violence.



The means of the factor scores by gender, age, grade level, socioeconomic status, and school type are shown in Table 3. Factor scores are composite measures of each factor that are computed for each subject and that are standardized to a mean of zero and a standard deviation of 1. Higher scores indicate "more violence" for four of the factors: neighborhood violence, perceptions of acceptable behavior, experiences and perceptions of violence, and concern about violence. For the remaining factor, school violence, lower scores indicate "more violence."



Neighborhood violence and school violence factors both varied significantly. For neighborhood violence, boys, older students, and those with poorer socioeconomic status reported higher violence, as shown by the higher mean factor scores in Table 3. More school violence was also reported by boys (as indicated by a lower school violence factor score). However, in contrast with the neighborhood violence scores, students from higher socioeconomic levels reported more school violence. Students from all-age schools/junior high schools reported higher neighborhood and school violence as compared with students from technical high schools/comprehensive high schools. In turn, those students from technical high schools/comprehensive high schools reported significantly more neighborhood and school violence than did students attending secondary high schools. The perceptions of acceptable behavior factor appeared to be very consistent; the scores did not vary significantly by gender, age, grade, socioeconomic status, or school type.

The experiences and perceptions of violence factor score varied significantly by gender, age, grade level, and school type, but not by socioeconomic status. Girls, older children, those in higher grades, and those attending all-age schools/junior high schools were more likely to know victims of violence or to consider child abuse, insults, or self-defense as violence. The fifth factor, level of concern about violence, varied significantly by gender, with boys indicating that they worried more about violence than did girls. School type was also significantly different, with all-age school/junior high school students and technical high school/comprehensive high school students having significantly higher scores, indicating more worry about violence than was true for students from the secondary high schools.



This study describes the attitudes, perceptions, and experiences of a representative sample of Jamaican students attending secondary schools in the capital, Kingston, and its urban environs. The reliability of the instrument was good.

The students' ideas of what constitutes "violence"' were interesting. For some, for example, "violence" included verbal insults but not physically hurting someone in self-defense. These kinds of usages should be taken into account when discussions or interventions aimed at young Jamaicans are planned, and the use of terms should be explored before undertaking any interventions with youth. Hurting animals might reflect a lack of compassion for smaller and weaker creatures, which has been implicated in bullying (17). The results suggest that students did not consider someone who avoided fights as a coward, but assumed that others would do so. While these interpretations should be verified through in-depth qualitative interviews, it appears that appropriate responses to verbal insults need to be targeted in interventions.

There was a high level of reported violence in the schools and neighborhoods and among friends and relatives of the students. This may point to a need for increased counseling services to help students cope with this high level of exposure to violence. High levels of exposure to violence are harmful to students, according to studies conducted in various countries (18–20).

The factor analysis to reduce the data provided theoretically reasonable factors, which generally varied by gender, age, grade level, socioeconomic status, and school type. The differences point to three risk factors for greater exposure to violence in the neighborhood: being male, being older, and coming from a poorer socioeconomic background. Only one of those three risk factors, being male, was also linked to greater school violence. Being a student in an all-age school or junior high school was a greater risk for violence exposure than attending other types of high schools. Older students and those in higher grade levels were at greater risk of knowing victims of violence. Risk of worry about violence was greater for males than for females. These findings should help to focus future interventions. Programs or program modules could be emphasized differently for specific school types, grade levels, or gender.

One of the drawbacks of the study was that responses were not collected from absent students, who may have come from particularly violent neighborhoods or faced special difficulties getting to school. In addition, because we only sampled youngsters in schools, we did not capture the experiences and perceptions of those who had dropped out of school. In other countries it is well known that dropping out of school is both an indicator of and a risk factor for involvement in violent activities. Another limitation was that open-ended questions were avoided as these would have given the more literate students an advantage over their less capable classmates. However, this meant that some potentially important information was not collected, for example, details of which school programs to counter violence were considered the most successful.

In summary, there was a high level of reported experiences of violence. Perceptions generally varied by age and grade level, gender, and school type. Our findings confirm and expand ones previously reported for older school children in Jamaica (11). Future research to identify intervention strategies that improve coping mechanisms for youth affected by violence in the Jamaican context would be especially beneficial. These results will help to focus such interventions as well as provide a baseline for later studies on perceptions and experiences among Jamaican youth. In addition, our findings can be used to compare the experiences and perceptions of young people in urban Jamaica with those of young people in other countries.

Acknowledgments. This study was commissioned by the National Child Month Committee of Jamaica, with funding from UNICEF, Jamaica. We thank the Jamaican Ministry of Education for support; the principals, students, and teachers of the schools for their kind cooperation; Christine Thomas for data collection and data entry; and Dr. Susan Walker for assistance.



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Correspondence to
Julie Meeks Gardner
Epidemiology Research Unit, Tropical Medicine Research Institute, University of the West Indies
Mona, Kingston 7, Jamaica, West Indies
Telephone: (876) 927-2471; fax: (876) 927-2984

Manuscript received 29 August 2002
Revised version accepted for publication on 10 April 2003



1 Chambers C. Children's perceptions of violence: a school-based pilot assessment of the Jamaican situation. Report to the National Child Month Committee. Kingston, Jamaica; 1997.

Organización Panamericana de la Salud Washington - Washington - United States