School Violence Reduced When Students Participate in Problem Solving

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.

                        author

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