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
The celebration of violence in
movies, on television, and in popular songs has turned into an epidemic of
personal tragedies for people living in our Nation's cities. Exacerbated by the
ready availability of drugs and weapons, violence has become a public health
issue of immediate concern. Yet the sources of violence are deep and
long-standing, for ours is a country sharply divided between haves and
have-nots; and areas of high poverty concentration have long been susceptible to
all forms of violence, from vandalism, robbery, and rape, to suicide--the
ultimate violence of despair.
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
Surrounded by violence in their
homes and neighborhoods, as well as in the society at large, youth often look to
the school as a haven. Indeed, the most resilient are students who can use their
teachers and other staff as mentors and role models, and their time at school as
a profitable refuge. Unfortunately, large urban schools are themselves often
anonymous, alienating, and fraught with danger. Insofar as the schools mirror
the society, they can exacerbate the problem of violence in several key ways:
IMPOVERISHED NEIGHBORHOODS, IMPOVERISHED SCHOOLS
schools are largely funded by property taxes, the school districts that face the
toughest challenges from the students they serve are also those with the fewest
funds to meet their children's needs. Schools in poor, deteriorated,
crime-ridden neighborhoods tend to be physically dilapidated, overcrowded, and
lacking the resources necessary for effective teaching. Not only are classes
much larger than in affluent neighborhoods, but students sit at broken desks,
and teachers (who are often less well paid than their suburban colleagues) must
do without laboratory equipment, computers, and even the most elementary
supplies like chalk and books.
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
The inability of teachers and
other school staff to make meaningful connections with students in large schools
and increasingly large classes has become a key safety issue.
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
It was once
thought to be a benefit of the profession that teachers work alone in their
classrooms, behind closed doors. However, teacher isolation from each other and
from administrators and other school staff, as well as from parents and the
surrounding community, has become an increasing liability.
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
Despite their acute concerns for
safety, few teachers feel at ease in the increasingly garrison atmosphere of
inner-city public schools. Rather than offering reassurance, metal detectors and
other mechanical devices, as well as security forces, are seen as providing a
false sense of safety, if not a harsh symbol of the failure to create safe
schools. In the words of one teacher, "The medium is the message. And the
message that this gives out is that we are afraid of our students."
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
While security forces and
mechanical devices are the most obvious and controversial responses to school
violence, many schools have also taken advantage of special federal, state, and
local money aimed at anti-violence programming. Unfortunately, there have been
several serious problems with these funds.
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
STRATEGIES FOR CREATING SAFER SCHOOLS
The web of
educational and societal problems described above are deep and difficult to
solve. Certainly, money is needed to repair schools and neighborhoods and to
create jobs for youth. It has also become obvious, however, that the ways in
which schools and other public agencies approach social problems must change.
Educators and other professionals must make wider connections, both in human and
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
School violence has
given new urgency to improving the recruitment and training of teachers,
particularly those entering urban schools. It is not enough for recruitment to
focus only on finding role models--that is, teachers of the same race/ethnicity
as their students. To heal the alienation and hopelessness of urban students,
teachers must be found who will live in the communities where they work, so they
can help reweave the torn fabric of community between teachers, students and
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
Although coercive methods may stop violence in the short run, too
often they create negative emotions that start their own cycle of undesirable
behaviors. An alternate approach, which develops self-respect and
self-discipline in students and positive working relationships, is obviously
better for both students and adults, and for the climate of the school.
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
best way to prevent school violence is to change how everyone relates to each
other, a number of schools are achieving good results by adding guidance
counselors and giving counselors new roles. At least as important as intervening
in crises and talking to students in the aftermath of violence is classroom
teaching by counselors. There, counselors generate group work and
developmentally oriented activities to improve the way students feel about
themselves and interact with each other, particularly during stress or conflict.
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
REACHING OUT TO PARENTS
Head Start, special education, and
other compensatory education programs have long involved parents in their
children's schooling. However, the growing number of "children with children" and other unprepared or overburdened parents puts new pressure on urban schools
to support families, as well as teach parenting skills. Activities range from
grandparent hotlines to programs that bring parents and junior high students
together to learn parenting skills. In all, the point is to help parents and
guardians become aware of the parenting skills they possess; enhance their
skills; and expand parents' choices in their guiding, teaching, and disciplinary
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
TREATING THE AFTERMATH OF VIOLENCE
Students who have
witnessed or been involved in violence suffer from post traumatic stress, which
can include anxiety, fear, emotional constriction, attention difficulties, and
sleeplessness. Thus, just as victims need counseling when they leave the
emergency room, students who were bystanders to the violence need carefully led
discussions to help them with their confusion, grief, and anger.
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
Simply stated, a safe school is a place
where students can receive a high quality education without the threat of
violence. A number of schools are developing plans and strategies to implement
safe schools. These plans work best when they are generated not only by school
staff, but also by parents and representatives from community groups and
agencies. Although every school's plan for a "safe school" looks different, the
key is developing a consensus about what everyone wants the school to be like,
and the rules that everyone is willing to uphold to make this happen.
JOINING WITH THE COMMUNITY
School violence is placing new
pressures on schools to reach out to police, gang intervention workers, mental
health workers, social service workers, clergy, and the business community. In a
city with a large tourist business, close ties to the business community have
resulted in guarantees that all the culinary arts program students in the
vocational school will receive jobs upon graduation. In another city, parents
bringing their children into an elementary school have the option of filling out
a form that is entered into the computers of all the public health agencies.
Though this raises privacy issues, creating joint centers of information can
enhance efficiency for both parents and professionals.
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.