ERIC Identifier: ED377256
Publication Date: 1994-09-00
Author: Ascher, Carol
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education New York NY.| BBB32255 _ National Education Association Washington DC. Center for the Revitalization of Urban Education.
Gaining Control of Violence in the Schools: A View from the Field. ERIC Digest No. 100.
Too often in urban schools across the country, both students and teachers feel unsafe. Many have been threatened physically or verbally, or have directly experienced violence. Beyond generating fears for everyone's safety, violence in schools is diverting energy and resources from instruction. Thus, it is not surprising that one of the National Education Goals for the year 2000 is "Safe, disciplined, and drug-free schools" that offer an "environment conducive to learning." (Executive Office of the President. (1990). National goals for education. Washington, DC: Author, ED 319 143)
Most analyses of educational problems and prospects are drawn from university-based research. By contrast, this digest presents the up-to-date wisdom of public school educators whose objectivity is enriched by having to solve the problems that arise daily in today's city schools. The digest summarizes a rich day of discussion among urban educators about the causes of school violence and their possible alleviation. Held on May 19, 1994 at the National Education Association (NEA) in Washington, DC, the discussion was sponsored by its Center for the Revitalization of Urban Education, with participants that included NEA representatives from 20 major American cities.
A VIOLENT, DIVIDED SOCIETY
People who grow up in poor urban neighborhoods tend to be surrounded by unemployed adults, rundown housing, a physically deteriorated environment, and the constant fear of crime. Too often their own parents are ill-prepared, neglectful, or even abusive--children, like them. And the paucity of good role models in the community and at school contributes to young people's belief that the deck is stacked against them. Not surprisingly, these youth experience a free-floating anger, accompanied by feelings of frustration and helplessness, making them tinder boxes, ready to ignite at any provocation.
LARGE, OVERBURDENED SCHOOLS
IMPOVERISHED NEIGHBORHOODS, IMPOVERISHED SCHOOLS
Urban students are aware that their schools are rundown and poorly equipped in comparison with suburban schools, that the technology isn't up-to-date enough to prepare them for jobs or college, and that they are often distrusted and feared by the adults who work with them. When these same students are able to go to school in well-equipped, modern buildings, they score higher academically than their peers in the old rundown schools. In fact, in several cities, when old schools were renovated or new schools built, students' test scores showed marked academic improvement.
LARGE SCHOOLS AND CLASSES
Adolescence is universally a precarious developmental stage, and many teenagers have limited reserves of self-esteem. Given the enormous problems urban students face, they see little hope for their future. Although urban adolescents want contact with adults, too often they are deprived of sustained relationships with caring adults in their homes and neighborhoods. Unfortunately, even elementary school teachers must struggle against large classes to pay adequate attention to their students, and teachers in junior highs and secondary schools often see 150-200 students a day. Thus teachers inadvertently become yet another lost opportunity for connection. Without sustained contact, they cannot give their students a vision of what education can offer, or save them from self-destructive behavior. Indeed, many educators are convinced that, without reducing class size, all other attempts to ensure school safety can at best offer marginal improvement.
TEACHER ISOLATION, UNCERTAINTY, AND CYNICISM
The recent threats of privatization, as well as salary cuts in several cities, are only the latest signs that teachers are isolated from their communities, without necessary public support. Unfortunately, the apparent loss of support for public schools comes at a time when new tasks--from "wanding" students with metal detectors, to talking to social workers and teaching socialization skills--are being added to teachers' already stretched roster of daily responsibilities. At the same time, a national uncertainty about how to handle potential conflicts between discipline, safety, and students' rights has made teachers unsure about what parents and the larger society want them to do. Can lockers be searched for weapons without giving students sufficient warning? Is it fair to wand only "suspicious-looking" students and not others? Do students have a right, as some claim, to carry weapons for their own defense?
All these pressures have made many urban teachers feel overworked, stressed, and burned out. A cynicism mirroring that of their students is prevalent among those who can see no way out. As a teacher commented, "You have people who have been in these dilapidated buildings for years, asking for help and getting empty promises. They just give up--throw up their hands and say, 'All I can do is deal with what I've got in front of me. Don't ask me to do anything more.'"
SCHOOLS AS FORTRESSES
In fact, finding weapons on students is relatively rare. In one typical case, a search of over 3,000 students yielded two weapons. This low rate of interception is partly because even the most sophisticated devices cannot catch all weapons entering a school. Unlike an airport, it is nearly impossible to secure every entrance to a school; those few students intent on bringing in weapons are inevitably a step ahead of the security devices, which means that enforcement activities alone cannot create a safe school.
Finally, metal detectors, wands, and security forces with guns, handcuffs, and other equipment, are taking large chunks out of already stretched urban education budgets, even as they increase, rather than alleviate, tension in schools. The garrison atmosphere is exacerbating tensions between students and school staff, who are forced to serve in policing roles. Conflicts are also emerging between teachers, who want to build trust for learning, and the security staff, whose orientation is toward control and arrests. Similarly, friction is surfacing between administrators, whose role is to promote the school and its students, and security forces, who often have no allegiance to the school but are anxious to increase their counts of weapons, violent incidents, and arrests.
NARROW, TOP-DOWN INTERVENTIONS
First, whether directed to preventing dropouts, drugs, or violence, the money has tended to be restricted to extremely narrow and fragmented programming. Despite growing evidence, for example, that new or well-kept school buildings increase student performance and morale, anti-drug or violence money can never be used for building repairs. Similarly, the high unemployment rates in inner-cities have been repeatedly linked to crime and violence, yet job programs are rarely part of anti-violence measures. Even extra-curricular activities, after-school centers or sports programming, which are such a direct means of keeping students out of harm's way, rarely meet the tight programming restrictions of these funds. This missed opportunity is particularly sad, since student participation in sports and extra-curricular activities has decreased in the past decade.
Second, anti-violence and other youth assistance programs in schools have tended to be isolated from, and to duplicate, programming in other public agencies. In fact, competition for money in the context of overlapping services has created a territoriality and fear of sharing knowledge and resources among educators, and social service and other professionals. In this environment of competition and suspicion, teachers are rarely an active part of either program planning, or decisions about the needs of an individual student. Instead, they tend to be left out of the loop entirely, or to be given only limited and pre-designed tasks.
STRATEGIES FOR CREATING SAFER SCHOOLS
Although few believe that educational efforts, isolated from the surrounding society, can solve the problem of violence inside schools, there is widespread faith that some changes can make a difference. Moreover, a number of strategies being tried in schools around the country have improved safety and harmony.
PROFESSIONAL RECRUITMENT AND TRAINING
At the same time, the complex nature of today's schools necessitates a wider vision of which school staff need job preparation. Training must go beyond teachers, administrators, counselors, and other professionals. It must extend to all employees, including paraprofessionals, cafeteria staff, secretaries, custodians, and bus drivers.
Finally, the content of training must be reshaped. Both immediate, in-service and long-term, pre-professional training are necessary:
IN-SERVICE TRAINING. All school staff need to know how to address the immediate problem of violence in classrooms, the cafeteria, the halls, and other school areas, including on school buses. How should an adult behave when a student has a gun? What are the most effective methods of diffusing potential conflict among students, or breaking up fights?
PRE-PROFESSIONAL TRAINING. The pre-professional training of teachers, counselors, and administrators has to be expanded to include more social analyses, so that prospective educators develop a deeper understanding of the issues that impinge on violence: poverty, the media, gun control, the changing economy and joblessness, and parenting. In addition, school staff needs to be better prepared to teach socialization skills and nonviolent conflict mediation. Finally, because the traditional isolation of professionals from one another is no longer tenable, school staff must be trained to work cooperatively with each other, as well as with professionals outside the school.
PROGRAMS TO INCREASE MUTUAL RESPECT AMONG STUDENTS AND SCHOOL STAFF
Although small, unrelated programs rarely make much of a difference, school-wide interventions that have general support can be helpful. For example, a number of schools have begun to focus specifically on increasing students' self-esteem, as well as on building the socialization skills that many middle-class students learn at home. In some schools, teachers and students are asked to get to know each other, including their strengths, likes, dislikes, humor, and triggers. The object is to come to a consensus about goals, and to create an ownership of, and engagement in, the daily activities of both teachers and students. Several elementary schools are teaching students simple skills, such as how to greet each other and interact with each other in respectful ways. Finding alternatives to cross-sex and same-sex teasing is key, for teasing starts early and leads to goading, heckling, and other forms of aggression, which can be quite dangerous by secondary school. Finally, both elementary and secondary schools across the country are teaching students, parents, and school staff the many benefits and methods of resolving conflict nonviolently, including peer mediation and de-escalation skills.
EXPANDING THE ROLE OF THE GUIDANCE COUNSELOR
Some counselors are also working with cafeteria staff, bus drivers, and other support staff, as well as with parents. The goal is to give everyone involved in the school the same skills, language, and terminology for handling stress and conflict--to create an environment that is consistently nonviolent and nurturing.
REACHING OUT TO PARENTS
A number of schools are also working directly to bring parents into the school. In some, community facilitators work with parents to make them more comfortable with schools. In others, classes are held on a four-day schedule; on the fifth day, the parents and the students come to school together to participate in activities. A special literacy programs allows parents and students to learn together. And some schools are creating "half-way houses" just outside the school, where school employees, community volunteers, parent facilitators, and others all can come. There, without the fear of authority, parents can talk more freely about the needs of their children and obtain appropriate services.
TREATING THE AFTERMATH OF VIOLENCE
Some schools have instituted first offender programs, which usually involve four- or five-day training sessions for one parent as well as the student. Unfortunately, these programs have limited benefits, since many students involved in offenses have deeper problems, and need more serious help. However, schools are creating quite useful programs for students who have been suspended for violence. For example, the student and parent or guardian may be asked to sign a contract agreeing to joint counseling, as well as to tutoring for the youth. Then once the student returns to school, the student and parent make a one-year commitment to continue the counseling and the tutoring, and to train in mediation and conflict resolution skills.
"SAFE SCHOOL" PLANS
JOINING WITH THE COMMUNITY
There are several advantages to strategies that connect jobs and services through the school. First, since resources need to be where the students and their parents are, schools are a natural place to consolidate services. Second, finding other agencies that provide services enables schools to put their own money back into education, where it belongs. And third, since violence is not a school problem--it is a community and societal problem--its solution has to draw in a wider circle of participation.
Finally, whatever the specific strategy, there is a need to bring back a communal feeling to the schools, and once again to root the schools in their communities. To do this, students, school staff, parents, neighbors, and other interested citizens all have to become part of the fabric of the schools--stakeholders in its future and in the future of its students.