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Defining Campus Violence: A Phenomenological Analysis of Community Stakeholder Perspectives

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Abstract

The purpose of this study was to derive an empirically based understanding of campus violence. Grounded in a communication paradigm offered by sociolinguistic scholars, we adopted a phenomenological approach for conducting and analyzing 23 interviews from campus community stakeholders, including students, staff, faculty, administrators, and community experts in issues relating to violence. Participants were asked to describe campus violence; define “typical” victims and perpetrators of campus violence; explain the factors contributing to campus violence; and assess the current response of the university to campus violence. The perspectives of the community stakeholders were used to propose a description of the essence of campus violence. Implications for future research and policy development are addressed.
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Journal of College Student Development, Volume 52, Number 3, May-June
2011, pp. 253-269 (Article)
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DOI: 10.1353/csd.2011.0045
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M/J      253
Dening Campus Violence: A Phenomenological
Analysis of Community Stakeholder Perspectives
Matthew J. Mayhew Rebecca J. Caldwell Emily Grey Goldman
The purpose of this study was to derive an
empirically based understanding of campus
violence. Grounded in a communication para-
digm offered by sociolinguistic scholars, we adopted
a pheno menological approach for conducting and
analyzing 23 interviews from campus community
stake holders, including students, staff, faculty,
admini strators, and community experts in issues
relating to violence. Participants were asked to
describe campus violence; define “typical” victims
and perpetrators of campus violence; explain the
factors contributing to campus violence; and assess
the current response of the university to campus
violence. e perspectives of the community stake-
holders were used to propose a description of the
essence of campus violence. Implications for future
research and policy development are addressed.
In response to increasing rates of violence on
campus, both physical and verbal, colleges
and universities around the country are
struggling with how best to address all of
the issues surrounding campus violence. e
Violent Victimization of College Students report
(Baum & Klaus, 2005) stated that, in every
year between 1995 and 2002, approximately
479,000 college students ages 18–24 were
victims of violent crimes: rape/sexual assault,
robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault.
Although the statistics alone are staggering,
they are not the only concern for members of
the higher education community.
e numbers present a clear picture of
the extent to which campus violence impacts
today’s college students; however, the accuracy
of these numbers remains unclear due to
significant underreporting among victims
(Sloan, Fisher, & Cullen, 1997). Particularly
for students, confusion is common on most
campuses as to how campus violence is defined.
Students who experience campus violence may
be unaware that the act they experienced is,
in fact, an act of violence or may be fearful of
actually reporting a crime. Current research
has suggested several reasons that students
do not report crimes: belief that the crimes
were too minor, desire to keep the crime a
private matter, and uncertainty as to whether
or not the act was actually a crime (Carr,
2005). ese reasons are also combined with
underreporting due to other environmental
contexts, including individual factors and
institutional culture. ese issues of clarity
around the definition of campus violence,
along with underreporting by its victims,
present a challenge in understanding campus
violence, which in turns leads to a challenge
for campus administrators charged with
interventions for addressing and preventing
the violence itself.
In order to best understand the full picture
of the phenomenon of campus violence,
one needs to understand how institutional
stakeholders understand the essence of campus
Matthew J. Mayhew is Assistant Professor of Higher Education at New York University. Rebecca J. Caldwell is the
Director of Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention at the University of North Carolina–Wilmington. Emily Grey
Goldman is a recent graduate of the Higher and Postsecondary Education Doctoral Program at New York University.
e authors gratefully acknowledge the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools for
support in funding this project (PR Award #Q184H060040).
254 Journal of College Student Development
Mayhew, Caldwell, & Goldman
violence. This study aims to further this
understanding by examining how community
members at this institution ascribed meaning
to the phenomenon of campus violence.
How can a definition of campus violence
suggested by institutional stakeholders inform
programming and policy efforts designed to
reduce its occurrence on campus?
Purpose
These research questions are based on the
hypothesis that a common understanding
of campus violence would better equip
institutional stakeholders with the tools needed
to combat its occurrence and subsequent
effects. e purpose of this study is to explore
the phenomenon of campus violence through
interviews conducted with community stake-
holders at an institution recently struck
by two tragically violent events resulting
in the deaths of two of its students. We
adopted a phenomenological approach to
best understand campus violence, utilizing the
relationship between participants’ knowledge
of campus violence and their experiences
within the institutional context of this unique
environment. ere are a limited number of
studies, if any, aimed to define campus violence
using the voices of stakeholders, particularly in
this distinctive context. erefore this research,
and more specifically the definition of the
essence of campus violence produced by this
research, may serve as the foundation for future
policies and programs aimed to target campus
violence as effectively as possible.
This particular research relied on the
lived experiences of community stakeholders
who were not necessarily victims (i.e., those
members of the campus community who
suffered injury, loss, or death due to campus
violence episodes) but rather community
stakeholders who participated in the response
to the recent outbreak of violence on this
campus. ese roles included, but were not
limited to, being members of the residential
life staff on campus; professors; student affairs
administrators; friends of the victims; or local
community members.
THEORETICAL FOUNDATIONS
is study is situated in two bodies of literature.
First, we turned to sociolinguistic scholars for
exploring the relationship between a specific
contextual cue (e.g., campus) and its related
phenomenon (e.g., violence). Incidentally,
adopting this sociolinguistic approach to the
study also informed our sampling strategy:
to include voices representative of many
community stakeholders, even those not
physically situated on or formally affiliated
(by way of employment) with this particular
campus. Second, we turned to experts on
violence for equipping us with the language
needed to design an interview protocol best
suited to answer the central research question:
How do campus community stakeholders make
meaning of the essence of campus violence?
The Sociolinguistic Paradigm
The communication paradigm of socio-
linguis tics emphasizes the importance of
accounting for social context when analyzing
language (Labov, 1973). eories of socio-
linguistics were necessary for framing this
study, particularly as these theories related
to the importance of context in shaping the
language used and perspectives taken by the
community stakeholders. Analyzing this
particular phenomenon from a sociolinguistic
perspective involved understanding the context
stakeholders were accessing to offer their
definitions and using this understanding
of context as a vehicle for examining the
language stakeholders adopted for describing
campus violence. In short, the context for this
particular study (i.e., a campus community
that had recently experienced several instances
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Campus Violence
of the phenomenon of campus violence)
was of utmost importance in informing the
perspectives of the stakeholders. Participants
in this study defined and explained the essence
of a particular term, in this case campus
violence,” by the contextual cues they might
have experienced as a result of being affiliated
with this particular campus.
We wanted to situate our study in the
communication paradigm of sociolinguistics
for our reasons. First, it placed value on the
particular context connecting community
stakeholders to each other and how this
context played a role in shaping participants’
experiences and perceptions. Second, it
empha sized the importance of understanding
violence as it related specifically to the college
campus; we assert that understanding how
insti tutional stakeholders make meaning
of campus violence involves processes and
meaning-making mechanisms different than
those invoked for understanding other types
of context-based violence, such as domestic
violence or violence in prison. (Although
we maintain that distinctions likely exist for
meaning making related to campus violence
versus other forms of violence, examining
these differences is not the central purpose of
this particular study; for this investigation,
we focused on how these campus community
members made meaning of campus violence.)
ird, this paradigm informed the sampling
design selected for participation in this study:
we interviewed a variety of constituents (i.e.,
faculty, staff, students, and community experts)
bound by a common affiliation and interest
(e.g., violence on this particular campus) for
constructing our description of the central
phenomenon, campus violence. Finally, we
used the sociolinguistic paradigm to justify our
decisions to analyze data in the aggregate as well
as by stakeholder role and gender; adopting this
approach provided another contextual cue for
making meaning of participants’ responses.
Literature Review: Campus Violence
In order to explore campus violence, it was
important to understand violence on campus
in relation to the broader perspective of
societal violence. e most drastic documented
difference between campus violence and
violence in the larger society involved incident
reporting: the majority of violence that
occurred on college and university campuses
went unreported.
According to the U.S. Department of
Educations Higher Education Center for
Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence
Prevention ([U.S. DOE], 2006), surveys of
current students indicate that only 25% of
campus violence is reported to authorities by
victims either on campus or in the community.
is statistic implies that this level of reporting
on college campuses is lower than that of the
larger community and cites two main reasons
for the low reporting. First, students do not
feel that the crimes they experienced were
serious enough to report, and second, the
college campus environment may discourage
the reporting of crime (U.S. DOE).
In addition to this underreporting, certain
types of violence tend to occur at higher rates
on college campuses than in other parts of
the community. Domestic violence, also often
referred to as dating or relationship violence
on campuses, occurs at an exceptionally high
rate for college students (Nabors, Dietz, &
Jasinski, 2006). Rates of what researchers
refer to as “severe violence” (including “using
a gun or knife on their partner, punching or
hitting with a solid object, choking . . . or
kicking their partner”) in dating violence are
significantly higher among college students
than among the general population (Tjaden
& oennes, 2000, p. 143). Lastly, violence
occurring on college campuses often warrants a
different type of response than that to violence
occurring in the community. Campus violence
256 Journal of College Student Development
Mayhew, Caldwell, & Goldman
often requires the collaboration of several
groups of community members, including
campus police, local police, professors and
administrators, and students. Campuses also
often lack a set protocol for response, which in
turn impacts the experience of the victim and
the level of reporting of violence that occurs
on campus (Payne, 2008). ese differences
suggest that further research is necessary in
order to fully understand the presence of
violence on today’s college and university
campuses, particularly in relation to the
violence that occurs in the larger society.
Several theoretical understandings and
models of the different types of violence have
been established in an attempt to describe
and explain such violence. Riggs and O’Leary
(1989) proposed a comprehensive background-
situational model” of dating violence, which
draws primarily from social learning theory
(Luthra & Gidycz, 2006). is model suggests
that dating violence is a result of behaviors
learned through observation and in imitation
of others. Such behaviors are either maintained
or discarded depending on the type of positive
or negative reinforcement received. The
contextual factors impacting dating violence
include “(a) exposure to models of aggression in
intimate relationships, (b) exposure to parent–
child aggression, (c) acceptance of aggression
as an appropriate response to conflict, and
(d) prior use of aggression(p. 718). The
situational factors include: “(a) alcohol and/
or drug use, (b) partner’s use of aggressions,
(c) problem-solving skills, and (d) relationship
length(p. 718). Although these models are
useful for understanding campus climate,
they are based upon a definition of campus
violence that does not come from the voices of
those who have experienced it. As a result, the
programs and policies that are developed from
such models may not necessarily best address
the phenomenon of campus violence.
Still other research has suggested that the
theoretical underpinnings of violence lie in
adolescents’ need for peer acceptance. Begin-
ning as early as 1927, theorists Shaw (1931)
and rasher (1927) first suggested a link
between students performing violent acts and
students seeking changes in social status and
peer acceptance. Further research on this work
suggested that both subculture and conditional
effects may impact the relationship between
violence and peer acceptance. Factors such as
social class (Cloward & Ohlin, 1960), race
(Anderson, 1999; Ogbu, 2003), and gender
(Davies, 1999; Messerschmidt, 1993) may
directly mediate the relationship between
violence and a need for peer acceptance.
Kraeger (2007) studied these mediating
factors more recently and found evidence
in today’s adolescents that both gender and
socioeconomic status impact the violence-peer
status relationship, whereas racial background
does not appear to have an effect.
Current research has suggested that the
perceptions of campus violence held by com mu-
nity stakeholders seem to vary greatly. Several of
the key factors which impact campus violence
perceptions are the role that an individual
may have on campus (e.g., Furlong, Babinski,
Poland, Munoz, & Boles, 1998; Osofsky, Fick,
Flowers, & Lewis, 1995; Rosenblatt & Furlong,
2004), the location of the campus (e.g., rural
versus urban; Furlong et al., 1998), and identity
factors such as race, gender, socioeconomic
status, and sexuality (e.g., Bell, Kuriloff, &
Lottes, 2006; Norris, Nurius, & Dimeff, 2006).
Perceptions of campus violence also differ by
whether such perceptions are based upon actual
experience or vicarious experience, which can
in turn impact the measures that stakeholders
such as students may take to prevent campus
violence (Chapin, 2001).
A discussion of campus violence percep-
tions, however, is also directly related to the
frequent under-reporting associated with
campus violence. If campus community
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Campus Violence
members report confusion over how campus
violence is defined, perceptions of campus
violence may in turn not necessarily reflect its
reality (Sloan et al., 1997; U.S. DOE, 2006).
e current literature has suggested that
a gap still exists in how campus violence is
defined, particularly among institutional stake-
holders within a given campus commu nity. A
better understanding of how campus violence
is defined by institutional stakeholders is
important for developing policy and program
efforts targeted toward campus violence
that fully incorporate the experiences and
understandings of those most affected. In
addition, there is a dearth of research situating
campus violence within or relating it to other
forms of violence, such as domestic or sexual
violence. is study aims to address these
gaps by speaking to community stakeholders
directly about the phenomenon of campus
violence.
METHODOLOGY
Institutional Context
e institution studied is a mid-size university
with approximately 11,000 undergraduate and
1,000 graduate students. It is one of the 16
public institutions within the state university
system. e university is located in the south-
east within a small city of 100,000 residents.
Nearly three in five (59.9%) students are female
and 89.1% of all students are White.
In the summer of 2004, two female
students were murdered, each by a male
student who was close to his victim. In the first
murder, a female student was sexually assaulted
and killed in a residence hall by a classmate.
Four weeks later, a female student was shot to
death by her ex-boyfriend against whom she
held a restraining order.
This institution provides a distinctive
context for understanding campus violence and
its effects on a college community. rough
these nationally recognized tragedies, campus
stakeholders have mourned, reflected, and
responded in ways that we hope can educate
others interested from other institutions.
ese losses resulted in the establishment
of a free-standing violence prevention depart-
ment in the Division of Student Affairs in
August 2005. e establishment of the depart-
ment was an intentional move to apply the
principles of comprehensive prevention that
the institution has dedicated to alcohol and
other drugs to violence. is department is
a campus initiative dedicated to intervening
on a broad spectrum of violent behaviors,
includ ing sexual assault, relationship abuse,
stalk ing, and harassment. It provides 24-hour
crisis intervention, consultation, and advocacy
for students, faculty, and staff and oversight
of a peer education program. After receiving
institutional permissions, this office was
responsible for inviting community stakeholders
to participate in this study.
Approaches and Paradigms
e central research question for this study
was: What is the essence of campus violence?
In an attempt to answer this question, we
adopted phenomenology as the qualitative
methodological tradition for exploring,
understanding, and verifying ideas expressed
by participants. By philosophically and
methodologically grounding empiricism in
experience and subjectivity, phenomenology
legitimizes scientific study of the subjective.
It involves a return to experience in order
to obtain comprehensive descriptions that
provide the basis for reflective structural
analysis that portrays the essences of the
experience” (Moustakas, 1994, p. 13). A
phenomenological approach allows for the
recognition of the relationship between what is
perceived externally (e.g., natural objects) and
what is perceived internally (e.g., memories
and judgments; Moustakas).
258 Journal of College Student Development
Mayhew, Caldwell, & Goldman
With its emphasis on experience, phenom-
e nology welcomes an empirical explora-
tion into the construct of campus violence.
Evidence for the existence of campus violence
is derived from first-person reports of life
experiences by both the researcher and the
participant (Moustakas, 1994). (As mentioned
earlier, this particular research relied on the
first-hand life experiences of community
stakeholders who participated in the response
of the community to the recent outbreak
of violence on this particular campus. To
be clear we are not intending to derive our
definition of campus violence from its victims;
such a strategy might revictimize those very
stakeholders we seek to help). In this way, the
reciprocal relationship between knowledge
and experience manifests itself in the practical
relationship that the phenomenologist has
with his or her participant: e two parties
function as a team that co-creates meaning
about the essence of the phenomenon under
investigation.
e final step in this phenomenological
research process on campus violence is the
“intuitive integration of the fundamental
textural and structural descriptions into
a unified statement of the essences of the
experience of the phenomenon as a whole”
(Moustakas, 1994, p. 100). In other words,
we used the experiences of the researchers
and the participants to answer the central
research question, “What is campus violence?”
The research question in phenomenology
informs the subquestions for the research
and helps the researcher make meaning from
the transcriptions of the participants. From
a qualitative perspective, this reciprocal
approach encourages meaning making based
upon the shared experiences of both the
participants and the researchers. is type of
research in particular involves bracketing, or
epoche, requiring researchers to suspend all
judgments about “what is real—the ‘natural
attitude’—until they are founded on a more
certain basis” that is informed by the research
process itself (Creswell, 1998, p. 52). Although
vital to the phenomenological research process,
such bracketing of personal experiences can be
very challenging for the researchers.
The Epoche
e process of the epoche is vital to using a
phenomenological approach to research. is
process involves the researchers setting aside
any biases, prejudgments, and preconceptions
towards the phenomenon at hand (Moustakas,
1994). e process of the epoche involves the
researchers’ preparation to be able to incorpor-
ate new information about the phenomenon.
For this particular study, the researchers sought
to understand the phenomenon of campus
violence without making the stakeholders
aware of the researchers’ own experiences with
the phenomenon. We now turn to a brief
discussion of the researchers’ views of campus
violence and their influence on shaping the
process of data treatment and analysis.
Author 1. My involvement with this project
emerged from my interests in assessment and
evaluation. Formerly the Director of Student
Life Assessment at the campus where this
study takes place, I, with my colleague and
co-author Rebecca Caldwell, was awarded a
grant from the U.S. Department of Education
to understand campus violence and those
institutional conditions, educational practices,
and experiences that influenced its occurrence.
One grant objective involved creating a
measure to assess the campus climate toward
violence and safety. Turning to the literature,
it struck me that no one had empirically
derived a definition of any type of violence,
yet alone campus violence; thus, I proceeded
to use the existing literature to develop an
interview protocol designed to capture how
community stakeholders made meaning of
campus violence.
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Campus Violence
What I learned from conducting these
interviews was unexpected. First, the campus
was still mourning the tragic loss of two of
its students, each victims of campus violence.
Even those community stakeholders (including
myself) who were not physically part of the
campus community at the time of the tragic
events had heard the stories and to some degree
experienced the pain of the loss via community
members who were present. Clearly, this
project and its findings are biased by the
violence narrative sustained by members of
this campus community.
Second, I was surprised to learn that many
participants identified verbal threats or hate
speech as part of their working understanding
of campus violence and that many participants
understood “campus” as something not
necessarily describing a prescribed physical
space, but a phenomenon that extended
its reach to any person with a stake in the
campus community. Up until this time, I had
considered campus violence to involve any
physical altercation that occurred on a college
campus. Again, these biases probably exerted
some influence over my analysis and coding
of the data.
Author 2. I entered the study institution as
the coordinator of substance abuse prevention
and have spent my entire career in student
affairs (almost 10 years). Substance abuse
and issues of violence are deeply connected.
I solidly believe that interpersonal violence
is a public health issue and am interested
in how institutions can use environmental
management and other promising prevention
strategies to address violence. It is often said
in our field that violence prevention in higher
education is currently where alcohol and
other drug prevention was fifteen years ago.
It is exciting and frustrating to work in a field
that is just emerging into its own. Each type
of violence, such as sexual assault or stalking,
is distinctive, calling for unique approaches to
intervention development.
I was a member of the campus community
during the period of the murders, although
violence prevention would not be in my title
for another year. So, I have to be influenced
by both the grief of the incidents and the lived
experience of the campus response. Despite the
fact that I had broadly defined campus violence
in my work in substance abuse, I was anxious
for the campus response to be predominantly
directed toward the expressions of violence that
had caused these specific students harm. For
example, I was frustrated that so many of the
recommendations that emerged had to do with
the physical safety of the campus environment,
which would have done nothing to prevent
these particular crimes among our own
students. Little did I know how the university
had positioned itself for the new world of
campus safety expectations that have emerged
in the wake of the tragedies at Virginia Tech
and Northern Illinois University.
In examining our stakeholder’s perceptions
of campus violence, I am not surprised to
find the answers range from the specific, such
as naming specific crimes, to the broad and
inclusive. Participants’ comments reflect our
own journey to incorporate the breadth of
the landscape of campus violence and the
expertise, policies, and procedures that need
to be applied to specific types of violence. For
example, as our violence prevention depart ment
was established, we struggled often with the
types of violence we would address within our
mission, bouncing between wanting to address
many of the interconnected issues and a desire
to focus on specific issues in depth. Ultimately,
we narrowed the scope of the department
to four key types of interpersonal violence
(sexual assault, relationship violence, stalking,
and harassment) that we believed needed
dedicated professional services of their own,
and we were confident that we had expertise
to apply. Even with a more focused mission,
260 Journal of College Student Development
Mayhew, Caldwell, & Goldman
addressing issues of interpersonal violence
with college students remains complex; the
work spans victim-blaming myths, shame,
developmental issues, communication issues,
gender identity, media literacy, a reluctance
to name experiences as crimes, and so forth.
e broad definition that emerged from these
stakeholders is appropriate, and yet each type
of violence comprises its own complexities that
require expertise and resources.
Author 3. My research aims to better
under stand the role of gender in impacting
the undergraduate student experience, and
my professional work as a student affairs
administrator has informed my interest in
better understanding the phenomenon of cam-
pus violence. I believe that campus violence
in often misunderstood and misrepresented,
and in turn, the policies and programs aimed
to prevent and address campus violence may
not necessarily be as effective as possible. I
was specifically interested in investigating how
community stakeholders define the victims and
the perpetrators and the role that gender may
or may not play in such definitions.
As the study unfolded, I was particularly
surprised by the wide variety that existed in
the definitions of campus violence presented
and the range of boundaries for what “does”
or “does not” constitute campus violence.
However, although variety may have existed
within such definitions and characteristics of
the phenomenon, I was especially interested to
find that most of the stakeholders interviewed
did not recognize this variety. at is, they all
appeared to speak with certainty about their
own definitions and understandings, rarely
recognizing that there may be alternative ways
to comprehend the phenomenon of campus
violence.
Sample
Participants were solicited based on a pur pose-
ful sampling strategy adapted for this phenom-
enological study. This strategy mixed two
samp ling typologies characteristic of qualitative
research: criterion sampling (guaranteeing
that participants have experiences respond ing
to campus violence) and maximum variation
sampling (involving the intentional selection of
participants whose experiences, when analyzed
in the aggregate, provide the fullest description
of the experienced phenomenon). Twenty-three
campus community stakeholders were chosen
for participation in this study, all of whom had
had exposure to responding to violent situations
on campus. The participants represented
students, staff, faculty, administrators, and com-
mu nity-based violence prevention specialists;
names and titles are not provided for reasons
of anonymity.
Of those who participated in the study,
13 were administrators, representing a variety
of ranks and titles spanning divisions of
student affairs, business affairs, and legal
counsel. Of particular note was our inclusion
of campus physicians, attorneys, and police.
Four of the participants were faculty members,
most of whom were holding or had held an
administrative position within the university;
examples include employees of the women’s
center, African American cultural center, and
undergraduate advising. Two participants were
involved in agencies outside of the university
but had a history of working with students from
this institution within their respective agencies.
e remaining 5 participants included students
varying in education levels and leadership
roles, including, but not limited to, resident
assistants and peer educators.
Six of the participants were men and
18 were women. ree identified as African
American; the remaining identified as White.
A range of ages was also represented.
Interview Protocol
Hour-long interviews were conducted with
each participant by a member of the research
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Campus Violence
team (see the appendix). Participants in the
inter views were first asked about their indi-
vid ual definitions and assumptions associ-
ated with campus violence, with victims
of cam pus violence, and with perpetrators
of campus violence. ey were then asked
about the factors that may contribute to
campus violence and how their own university
had or had not responded to this violence.
Par ti ci pants were asked about how they
would respond if confronted by a victim or
perpetrator of campus violence and who they
would consider to be the most appropriate
responders to crimes related to violence on
campus. Finally, participants were asked about
their suggestions both for designing a campus
violence intervention and designing a survey
for students aimed at better understanding
the factors related to campus violence at the
university.
A semistructured interview protocol was
developed for this studys purposes. Hour-long
interviews were recorded and transcribed for
analysis.
Analysis
e Colaizzi (1978) model was used for inter-
preting phenomenological data as the general
analytic structure for this study. According to
this method, the transcripts were read, with
careful attention paid to how participants
described campus violence. Significant state-
ments from each transcript were then extracted,
and meaning was formulated around each
significant statement. Finally, the statements
were clustered under thematic labels. Next, we
checked the significant statements, meanings,
and their accompanying themes against
the complete record for each participant
and ultimately used them to construct a
description of the phenomenon of campus
violence. Findings were debriefed by peers and
then member-checked by three of the study’s
participants.
FINDINGS
e findings of this study suggest several major
themes around the phenomenon of campus
violence and how it is defined by community
stakeholders. Although the participants clearly
agreed upon the dangers of campus violence
and emphasized a growing need for universities
to better address such violence, there was not
a consistent definition for this phenomenon
among all stakeholders, nor did we expect there
to be. Having conducted a qualitative study at
one institution with a recent history of campus
violence, we do not intend that these findings
be generalized to all community stakeholders
or campus communities; rather, we hope
that the findings, in part or in total, may be
extrapolated from this study and applied in
ways that may aid community members from
other institutions.
In performing the thematic clustering for
unpacking the essence of campus violence, we
discovered two primary themes. ey included:
the physicality continuum (i.e., parti ci pants
varied in how they used physical harm to
situate their understanding of campus violence)
and the priority of using campus as a con textual
cue for understanding violence. We turn now
to a discussion of these themes.
Physicality Continuum: From the
Physical to Nonphysical Dimensions
of Campus Violence
e study participants were each asked how
they individually defined campus violence.
Large disparities were found in understanding
what constitutes campus violence among all
of the stakeholders, particularly in terms of
campus violence being limited to its physical
nature versus being more broadly defined.
For some participants, campus violence was
defined strictly from a physical perspective.
Purely Physical. Some participants related
campus violence to physical forms of violence,
262 Journal of College Student Development
Mayhew, Caldwell, & Goldman
including sexual assault, date rape, battery, and
murder. When asked how she defined campus
violence, one administrator said,
at means chiefly to me violence on
campus itself . . . an obvious sense of
harm, physical harm from physical assault.
But I think that there are also subtle forms
of violence as well, such as predators,
sexual violence, and sexual assault and
date rape.
Another administrator explained,
To me it’s any violent act, it could be a
punch, you know it could be a physical
assault . . . not that a simple punch is a
simple punch but you know anything
from physical altercation to the worst at
the end of the spectrum, murder.
Despite its relationship to many other forms
of physical violence, campus violence was
most often related to domestic violence. For
one student, campus violence was clearly
defined by its connection with domestic
violence: “First thing that comes to my mind is
domestic violence . . . pretty much a man-on-
woman violence.” Another student remarked,
“Campus violence . . . it would mean any
domestic, you know, any sexual violence or
any domestic violence that involves a student
from [this university’s] campus.” In tandem
with these student descriptions comes another
offered by an administrator,
For me, probably on our campus more
so than not, [campus violence] brings up
relationship violence, domestic violence,
however you want to state it. . . . I don’t
think we always look at our physical
altercations as violence on campus. . . .
But for me when we talk about violence
most of the time I think about relationship
violence, some things that are at a higher
level and much more serious, could put
the entire community at risk as opposed
to maybe one or two people.
Across these understandings, it is clear
that some community members understand
campus violence as something physical. Often
associated with domestic or relationship
violence, campus violence is something that
clearly involves harming or intending to harm
another through the use of physical force.
Physical and Nonphysical. For others,
campus violence included physical and verbal
altercations, as well as emotional coercion with
the intention of silencing, disempowering, and/
or doing harm. A faculty member described
the definition of campus violence as: “It runs
the gamut; it can be any act really physical or
nonphysical that is in some way affecting a
person in an adverse manner. So it could be
harassment through electronic means.”
Four administrators supported this idea,
describing the physical and nonphysical nature
of campus violence. One administrator listed
forms of violence, including physical and
nonphysical expressions: “Campus violence
is violent behavior, violent speech, violent
acts toward other people.” Another actually
described violence on a continuum consisting
of physical and nonphysical expressions:
Significant instances of violence could
include campus murders, homicides,
assaults, domestic violence, relationship
violence to the other end of the continuum
which is verbal behavior, violent behavior
that is of a threatening nature from one
person to another although they never
physically invade the other’s space.
Offering an implied order of how violence
escalates, another administrator noted,
That means [campus violence is] any
type of act that disrupts and threatens
the university community as a whole
and on an individual basis, whether that
is conduct from a group of students or
an individual student. . . . something
that could encompass physical type of
interaction, it would be verbal certainly,
it can be inciteful language that creates
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Campus Violence
disruption, melees, fights, those types of
things so I would say it could be interactive
or non-interactive.
One senior administrator actually described
the nonphysical nature of campus violence as
silencing, coercive, and disempowering:
Some type of coercive type of behavior,
physical or emotional or some type of
sense where the student is felt themselves
not able to say no; or they actually engage
in overt types of violence such as the
slapping, hitting, kind of behavior with
either an intimate partner or some person
they don’t even know.
It is clear that the definition of campus
violence, according to these community
stakeholders, ranged from purely physical to
nonphysical, including verbal and emotional
coercion intended to harm others. What
remains unclear is how community members
made meaning of the nature of violence
when juxtaposed with the word “campus”
as a contextual cue; we turn now to our
thematic clustering analyses of this specific
relationship.
The Priority of Using Campus as a
Contextual Cue
In addition to ranges of responses regarding
the physical and/or nonphysical nature of
campus violence, another continuum emerged
around the role of using the term “campus”
in differentiating campus violence from other
forms of violence. For some stakeholders,
using campus as a contextual cue implied that
campus violence differed or was supposed to
differ from other, more readily identifiable
types of violence, such as domestic violence or
date rape. For others, situating violence using
campus as a contextual cue was less important;
defining violence emerged as the priority and as
something that could be applied in a variety of
contexts, including the college campus.
Physical Space. For two administrators,
using the word “campus” referred to the
physical space where violence may have
occurred: “That [campus violence] means
chiefly to me violence on campus itself.” e
other administrator noted,
[Campus violence] means that violence
on our campus. I don’t necessarily view
it as violence off campus that involved
our students and employees, but I think
it would . . . to me it means within our
campus, within our programs and within
our events associated with [our school].
For these respondents, using the word campus
as a cue for understanding violence involved
defining the physical space where acts of
violence occurred.
Affected Victims. For others, using the word
campus as a contextual cue served as a strategy
for identifying those most likely to be affected
by the violent act. ose affected included:
students, staff, faculty, or anyone else involved
with the particular campus community. For
example, one staff member noted,
Any violence that occurs in the context
of the students off campus or on campus,
particularly or probably within the context
of a relationship . . . campus violence
could mean racial hate crimes or just
people getting into a fight downtown,
but I think it would be anything with the
students, staff, or faculty.
Another administrator shared a similar opinion:
Campus violence is what we focus on
relative to our specific population, which
ranges from particularly our prime consti-
tu ent college students to relative members
of the community, faculty, staff, guests,
anybody who steps foot on this campus.
For these community members, priming defini-
tions of violence by using “campus” as a con-
textual cue involved identifying those people
who would be affected by the violent act.
Historical Context. Some community
264 Journal of College Student Development
Mayhew, Caldwell, & Goldman
members thought that defining campus violence
would vary depending on the history of violence
on this particular campus. Two staff members
linked defining campus violence with the recent
events that occurred on this particular campus.
As one noted, “I think there’s a general feeling
that [campus violence] has to do with sexual
assault because we’ve been rather high profile
with that issue recently, and I think that’s
probably the big issue.” A staff member from
the police department echoed this claim: “Right
now it’s the shooters going into campuses that
seem to have the most attention. Two years ago
it meant domestic violence involving students.
Emergent from these voices is the idea that
campus violence and its essence are context-
bound, linked to the narrative of campus
violence at a particular institution.
Unsituated. For others, understanding
violence as it related to the word “campus”
was less important. What was more important
was defining violence in general, rather than
situating it within a campus context. For
example, one administrator noted, “I generally
think of [campus violence] as individual
violence on violence, person to person. So I’m
assuming that it’s going to either be random
or its going to be targeted such as domestic
violence or some type of violence.” Another
administrator noted, “You know that [definition
of campus violence] changes day to day. . . .
[e definition of campus violence] really just
seems to vary according to what’s hitting the
headlines.” Evident from these responses is the
idea that defining campus violence may not
involve situating violence within any sort of
context; for these respondents, using “campus”
as a contextual cue may not have been as
influential when defining campus violence.
Empirical Description of
Campus Violence
Based on these findings, the statements offered
by the community stakeholders, and the process
of the epoche, we offer the following description
of the essence of campus violence:
Campus violence is any action, verbal
or physical, that coerces for the sake of
harming or harms any person associated
with the given campus community. It can
be physical or verbal. It not only harms
but coerces, often through silencing or
disempowering, individuals or groups for
the sake of inducing harm. It involves and
affects all parts of a campus community,
including the violence narrative idio syncratic
to a particular institution, its physical
campus parameters, and its constituents,
broadly defined as those with any stake in
the given campus community.
Additional Noteworthy Findings
Interestingly, the role of the community
stakeholders did not appear to exert much
influence in how campus violence was defined
and how victims and perpetrators were
described. Neither did the gender of the
participant. The transcripts were analyzed
both as a whole and based upon gender and
stakeholder roles, and the findings seemed to
be consistent under both analyses.
We were surprised that these layered
analyses did not reveal patterns of responses
connecting articulated definitions to stake-
holders’ experiences, especially with regard
to affiliation with the campus and gender.
Offered definitions seemed idiosyncratic to the
particular stakeholder, rendering it difficult to
link definitions to experiences. e exception
to this finding involved participants’ explicit
deference to the recent history of violence on
this campus; these events were seemingly shared
experiences participants used in constructing
their definitions of campus violence.
DISCUSSION
Embedded in our call to be educators is that
we provide a safe community for all campus
constituencies. Part of developing a safe
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community is understanding and responding
to any potential campus threats, including
those related to campus violence. is study
takes an important first step toward this end as
we developed an empirically based description
of campus violence through analyzing the
transcripts of 23 stakeholders at an institution
recently struck by violence-related tragedies
resulting in the death of two of its students.
It is our hope that this definition can be used
as a starting point for further conversations
about campus violence and those institutional
policies and educational practices that can
serve to increase its reporting but decrease its
occurrence.
This study revealed several interesting
findings about the phenomenon of campus
violence, particularly in terms of how it
is defined and portrayed by community
stakeholders. First, community stakeholders
offer a variety of definitions concerning the
nature of campus violence. Is it purely physical?
Verbal? We decided to include the range of
responses in our description of the essence of
campus violence and to represent this range
on a continuum, beginning with emotional
coercion used to silence and disempower
victims to murder. (Note, we do not want to
imply that any form of violence is more serious,
more severe, or more important than any other
form; we use this continuum as a way to
capture the range of actions respondents noted
as violence.) is particular finding challenges
many of the ways empiricists, litigators, and
campus violence prevention specialists make
meaning of and report incidents related to
campus violence, as each has focused primarily
on the physical nature of the violent act (e.g.,
Carr, 2005). However, by including multiple
(e.g., emotional coercion, verbal altercation)
expressions of violence, we empower decision
makers with the empirical tools needed to
create policies aimed at reducing all forms of
violence. How to identify emotional coercion
intended to silence and nonphysical forms of
violence are areas warranting future research.
Similar to the range of responses among
participants concerning the physicality of
violence was the degree to which respondents
prioritized and used the word “campus” as a
contextual cue for understanding violence.
Some respondents used the word campus to
define the physical space where the violence
occurred. Others used it to identify those most
likely to be affected by the violent act. Still
others understood it as a vehicle to connect
the meaning of violence to the specific campus
community, suggesting that the essence of
campus violence might vary depending on
the particular campus where the interviews
took place. Finally, a few respondents seemed
not to use the word “campus” as a contextual
cue for situating their understanding of
campus violence, or at least did not articulate
any discernable difference between defining
violence from defining campus violence.
is range of responses was not surprising
given findings from related studies suggesting
great variability in how individuals perceived
and made meaning of violence on college
campuses (e.g., Bell et al., 2006; Furlong et al.,
1998; Osofsky et al., 1995), particularly for
those who may have had experienced it first-
hand (Chapin, 2001). e differential use of
“campus” as a contextual cue underscores the
importance of (a) adopting a paradigm, like
the sociolinguistic frame used in this study, to
understand the role context plays in informing
and analyzing the language used to describe
particular phenomena (Labov, 1973); (b)
approaching the study of meaning making
from a phenomenological frame in which the
experiences of the researchers and respondents
integrate to construct meaning about an
existing phenomenon (Moustakas, 1994);
and (c) accounting for contextual cues when
constructing an empirically based definition
of a phenomenon that would otherwise carry
266 Journal of College Student Development
Mayhew, Caldwell, & Goldman
alternative meaning (e.g., campus violence vs.
domestic violence).
Marking a departure from existing liter-
ature in this area was the study’s focus on
asking participants to articulate and explain
their own definitions of campus violence.
Rather than assume a shared understanding,
this study adopted a co-constructed approach
to deriving the essence of the phenomenon of
campus violence by locating its definition at
the nexus of the distinctive experiences of the
researchers and the participants. As a result, we
would expect other researchers performing a
similar study on another campus to provide a
more refined or even an alternative definition
of campus violence. What remains important
is the study’s premise of challenging the series
of assumptions often associated with broaching
the topic of campus violence: What role
does context play in shaping the particular
campus community’s understandings of
campus violence? The language used to
describe it? ese questions should at least
partially be explored before college campuses
institutionalize practices aimed at reducing the
occurrence of violence on college campus.
Limitations
Although this study provides a distinctive
approach to dening campus violence, it has
several limitations. First, because of the relevance
that context plays in defining campus violence,
the definition proposed by these researchers and
participants in this phenomenological analysis
may be limited in its application to other
institutional contexts. However, we feel that
the participants in this study were uniquely and
strategically informed due to their affiliation
with a campus recently struck by tragic events
leading to students’ deaths. Second, because this
data collection relied on stakeholder interviews,
findings from the study are biased by what these
stakeholders chose to share in the interviews.
Finally, the participants in this study were self-
identified as institutional stakeholders who had
had direct experiences with campus violence. As
a result, the data used to derive the definition of
campus violence reflected only those opinions
of respondents who participated in this self-
identification process. Different themes may
have emerged in a study that focused specifically
on a subset of a campus population (e.g., first-
year students or women).
Implications
This research has several implications for
postsecondary administrators and scholars
interested in examining campus violence and
those institutional policies and educational
practices that lead to its deterrence. First,
the description of campus violence proposed
by this research can be used to better inform
policy making aimed to address and reduce
all forms of campus violence, particularly
those associated with its nonphysical forms.
Administrators involved with adjudication
of student conduct on college campuses
might adopt arguments from this research as
a means for re-examining response protocols
and policies related to hate speech and other
forms of verbal abuse. What would it mean if
hate speech and verbal abuse were adjudicated
as forms of campus violence?
Second, violence prevention specialists
could extrapolate tenets from these findings and
apply them in programming efforts designed
to generate awareness about the occur rence of
campus violence and methods for prevention.
Although it is imperative for pre vention
specialists to use evidence-based practices
designed to address mediators related to specific
types of violence, such as sexual assault, the
work of these specialists should be informed
by how campus violence is under stood among
their campus community. Moreover, campus-
wide coordinating com mit tees or administrators
might note that several participants defined
campus violence in light of the history of
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Campus Violence
violence on this particular campus; despite
this specific focus, prevention specialists should
take care to keep their institution broadly
focused on all types of violence, including
those not recently experienced by the campus
community.
A nal implication for practitioners involves
the need for campuses to develop response
teams comprising a variety of stake holders
affiliated with the campus. Involving faculty,
students, off-campus experts, and practitioners
in constructing a mutually understood broad
definition of campus violence may better
position campuses to absorb new waves of
emerging safety issues within an overarching
paradigm of campus violence prevention and
response. In addition, such a strategy may
also help facilitate a high level of coordination
among response systems and prevention
programs related to issues of violence.
is study offers many insights for the
research community as well. First, we encour-
age those interested in understanding violence
within a particular context to adopt paradigms
similar to those used for this study—to
theoretically explore how violence, its essence,
and its strategies for prevention differ by
contextual cues (e.g., “domestic”). Second,
we urge empiricists to critically question
the origins of the language used to describe
and ultimately measure certain phenomena;
constructing empirically based descriptions
of phenomena, like campus violence, is an
important first step for developing and refining
related lines of inquiry. ird, we hope that this
study will provide an example of a scholarly
product facilitated by the collaborative effort of
practitioners and scholars with mutual interests
in creating safe environments for teaching and
learning. Finally, we hope that the definition
established in this study can be used in the
construction of surveys or other measures for
assessing perceptions with and experiences of
violence on campus.
Conclusion
e findings of this study suggest a larger need
for a shared definition of the essence of cam-
pus violence that comes from those who have
experienced it in some way, as students, policy
makers, faculty members, or members of the
student affairs community. The proposed
definition of campus violence is an attempt
to provide members of the higher education
community with an informed foundation
for shaping and structuring campus violence
policies and programs.
Correspondence concerning this article should be
addressed to Matthew Mayhew, New York University,
Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human
Development, Department of Administration, Leadership,
and Technology, Program in Higher and Postsecondary
Education, 239 Greene Street, Suite 300, New York,
NY 10003; matt.mayhew@nyu.edu
268 Journal of College Student Development
Mayhew, Caldwell, & Goldman
Appendix. Interview Protocol
1. Why do you think it was suggested that you participate in talking about campus violence
today?
2. When I use the term ‘campus violence’ what does that mean to you?
3. I’mgoingtoreadyouasentenceandthenIwantyoutogivemeyourrstimpressions
of the sentence. A student is victimized on campus. Describe the student.
4. I’mgoingtoreadyouasentenceandthenIwantyoutogivemeyourrstimpressions
of the sentence. A student is found to be the perpetrator of campus violence. Describe
the student.
5. What experiences do you draw on when you come up with these descriptions?
6. What are some of the factors that you think contribute to violence on college campuses?
7. What do you think that this school has done well in terms of helping stop campus
violence?
8. What are some steps that you think the campus can take to be more proactive?
9. How committed is this school community to help prevent campus violence?
10. Who do you think should be the primary responders to crimes related to violence on
campus?
11. And if a student came to you and told you that he or she was a victim of a violent act on
campus, what would you do?
12. And if a student came to you and told you that he or she was a perpetrator of a violent
act on campus, what would you do?
13. If you could design an intervention to stop campus violence, what would it look like?
14. If you were charged with designing a survey for students about factors related to
campus violence at this school, what questions would you be sure to ask them?
15. Do you have any other thoughts on campus violence that you would like to share?
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Campus Violence
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... In fact, studies show that faculty members of color (both liberal and conservative) support regulating hate speech to help promote campus community (Dey & Hurtado, 1996). Relatedly, administrators and other campus stakeholders view hate speech as involving intentional acts of campus violence that have a tangible negative impact on the campus community (Mayhew et al., 2011). This body of work illustrates that to advance priorities around inclusion, institutional responses to hate speech must address its negative impact on students of color. ...
... There is also a lack of punitive measures for those found guilty hence students continue to misbehave." (Personal interview, August 8 2020) This supports Payne's (as cited in Mayhew et al., 2011) argument that campuses often lack a set of protocols for responding to misconduct. However, one may argue that because of the institutional culture stakeholders do not recognize the misbehavior hence to some extent rendering the code of conduct ineffectual. ...
... Since the codification of the Student Personnel Point of View in 1937, college student affairs personnel have played a crucial role in student development, support, and success (American Council on Education Studies, 1937). Today, these professionals have found themselves increasingly acting as first responders to student crises (ACHA, 2016;Kraft, 2011;Stoves, 2014), including, severe mental health episodes (Suicide Prevention Resource Center, 2014), sexual assaults (RAINN, 2016), and incidents of campus violence (Mayhew, Caldwell, & Goldman, 2011). Research on social workers (Bride, Robinson, Yegidis, & Figley, 2004), K-12 educators (Hydon, 2015), and counselors (Galek, Flannelly, Greene, & Kudler, 2011) described the negative effects of repeated exposure to-or hearing second-hand details of-traumatic events on the well-being of helping professionals. ...
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