In the days before the fatal shootings at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Ark., say children who survived, the two boys charged in the killings made clear in verbal threats and by wielding a weapon that they planned a massacre at the school to avenge slights against them.
But rather than speak up, said student witnesses to the threats, they either didn't believe them or felt uncomfortable reporting them to an adult.
Overcoming such failures in communications and understanding the depth of adolescent passions are keys to reducing the incidence of violence in schools, says a report to be published soon by an organization of progressive police professionals. Making students equal partners in identifying and solving the roots of conflict is a main recommendation.
"We are so out of touch with what's important to our children. Kids worry about things that wouldn't even occur to us as being a problem, let alone one to get violent over," said Dennis Kenney, co-author of "Reducing Fear in the Schools" to be issued in April by the Police Executive Research Forum.
"The teasing in the shower, the insults, the pressure to be a particular way, these are the things that students must live with every day and they are the things that will often set them off," Kenney said.
The study, which compared varying approaches to discipline and safety issues in the nation's schools, found that schools where student problem solving was incorporated into the curriculum had the most success in reducing violence.
"The classes were designed so that students, teachers and police could share responsibility for identifying crime, drugs and order problems," said the authors. "As the process continued, however, we observed that it was the students who increasingly carried the responsibility," say the authors.
The researchers also noted that "in schools with high levels of student participation in problem solving, research suggested that improved attitude and sense of responsibility was most pronounced among minorities and youth who have traditionally invested least in the educational process."
The report recommends:
- Creating an equal partnership of students, school authorities and law enforcement to identify causes of conflict,
- Wide-ranging evaluation of possible solutions by all these parties,
- Giving students responsibility for coming up with solutions,
- Recognizing that classroom teachers are key to the process,
- Shifting the focus from traditional metal-detector and discipline approaches to addressing root causes of violence, that are often everyday irritants,
- Empowering students to seek negotiated solutions with each other and school personnel.
The study emphasized that traditional solutions like installing metal detectors or beefing up school security are not effective if implemented without other programs that directly involve students.
Kenney cites as an example of a successful program an initiative operated by the West Mecklenburg High School in North Carolina where students are asked to identify and help solve problems such as discipline, parking in the school's lot and smoking in the bathrooms. Student suspensions due to fighting and disruptive behavior fell by 59 percent.
One student-driven solution at Mecklenburg eased tensions at lunch time, Kenney said. "They had a situation where fights were regularly breaking out in their cafeteria. They had staff police the cafeteria, but that didn't work." The solution was embarrassingly simple. They split up, staggered and redirected lines, so that all students got an equal opportunity to choose from the pizza as well as the salad counters.
To adults, being muscled out of a lunch line might seem like a petty problem, Kenney said. But, that perspective itself is a problem for students.
Katherine E. Keough, president of Saint John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., who in 1993 led a team that researched violence in schools for a professional journal called "The Executive Educator," agrees that student-driven programs to combat violence are an effective tool, but she cautions that it is still the responsibility of adults to initiate and encourage the establishment of safe and effective schools.
"The one thing that stood out in the research we did was that students will live up or down to the expectations adults have of them," Keough said. If students see adults accepting violence as a good solution to a problem, then they will emulate that violence, she said. The influence from adults can come from the home, the media, churches, schools and any other place where the child spends time, she said.
Commenting on the alleged statement of one of the accused young Jonesboro shooters that "I have a lot of killing to do," Keough said that he most likely was copying a phrase he had heard someone else use and was acting out a violent image he had acquired.
Keough said the fact that no students reported this or other threats allegedly made by the boys is not surprising in a society and national educational system that "places so little emphasis on character development. We have become very used to images and practices of violence."
To date, there are no guidelines at a state or local district level that require or recommend mediation, counseling or other conflict resolution programs, according to David Thomas, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Department of Education.
There is, however, a wealth of innovative, student- and community-driven programs that establish lines of communication among students, educators, school administrators and the community.
The Suspension Re-entry Program, operated by the Ulster County Mediation Center in Highland, N.Y., is designed to safely introduce disaffected and violent students who have been suspended back into the school's main population.
Under the program, suspended students when they return are required to bring their adult guardians and other significant people in their lives to meet with a trained mediator and anyone they were in dispute with.
"The success of this program is that no student is allowed to return into the main population of students until they let us know that they have resolved the conflict," explained Joy Ann Savino, coordinator for the Ulster County Mediation Center.
By creating a sense of support and caring within the student population, the Suspension Re-entry Program fosters greater communication among students, educators and administrators, Savino said.
"It's vital that we make sure students have a safe place to talk to a counselor but too often schools are so 'structured' that problems of the kind we saw with the (Jonesboro) shooting, the problems closest to the student, are kind of stifled," Savino said. "Students can end up asking themselves, 'If nobody cares for me, then why should I care for them?'"
Without clear lines of communication and a mechanism acceptable to students, those seeking help can find themselves stigmatized or ridiculed, Savino said.
Noting that one of the Jonesboro accused allegedly threatened another student with a knife the day before the shooting, and that even that extreme act apparently did not inspire anyone to make even an anonymous report, Savino recalled that a student at a school using the re-entry program brought a knife to school and was quickly reported by another student. The knife was confiscated and the student was immediately suspended.
The Fallsburg Central Junior-Senior High School in New York's Catskill region has used the re-entry program for almost four years. "We don't have any hard figures, but the school does have a different atmosphere than before we instituted the program," said assistant principal Allan Lipsky. "We teach students mediation and problem-solving skills, and we are strict about not letting unresolved conflicts fester."
Lipsky said students' perceptions of what is a problem and source of pressure often differ from adults'. Many of the problems that arise among Fallsburg students are centered around "typical kid hassles," he said. "Someone will say something that isn't true about someone else. Or there will be some issue around dating or friendships" that injure a student's self-esteem or social standing, he said.
"Any time you can understand how the student is feeling and offer a healthy outlet other than hitting one another, and you can tell them where to go to resolve disputes, it helps," Lipsky said.
Many states have their own mediation and counseling services. Arkansas, the state where the shootings occurred, has a counselor in every school, said Margaret Preston, director of communications at the state's department of education. But, in Arkansas and in most other states, how much the counselors involve themselves with the personal and discipline needs of students varies from school to school, she said.
Preston said Arkansas also offers several peer counseling programs, peer mediation and other support services but, again, these are at the discretion of individual schools. "There are a number of programs where a student can report something anonymously. But those are instituted at a state level. There is no state hotline or anything like that," Preston noted.