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Beyond Metal Detectors and Disciplinary Transfers

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A few months ago, I attended a conference of people who meet annually to share information about the legal aspects of education. It was held at a posh Arizona resort. I was to speak about conflict in the schools and about building relationships among students, parents, and administrators. Immediately, specific questions were raised about Philadelphia. Starting with the man who introduced me, a lawyer from a rural state, people wanted to know about the safety of our city and its schools.

At the meeting, I was often stopped by colleagues who said they were afraid to attend or to bring their families to next year's conference in Philadelphia. When they thought of Philadelphia and its schools, these people thought of violence. I spoke of restaurants and the Art Museum, the new bookstores and sports, but if they had returned home with me, the news would have confirmed their fears: a shooting at South Philadelphia High, knifings at Gratz and Edison high schools, gang weapons at University City.

Indeed, violence is pervasive. From Sept. 1 to Nov. 30 last fall, there were 67 "incidents'' in which weapons were used by or confiscated from Philadelphia high school students. In response, administrators and their public-relations officers try to place the facts in a favorable way: Things are not as bad as the usual scapegoats, New York and Los Angeles. Disruptive students will not be tolerated. The schools won't be turned into armed camps. More security will be hired to supplement the district's 248 guards. Metal detectors will be installed. In any event, society is to blame.
Schools can't do everything.

These responses are predictable and the solutions probably unworkable. There are too many teenagers with guns that are too easy to get for metal detectors or disciplinary transfers to have much of an impact. If we are to permanently move beyond the cycle of violence and predictable reaction to it, a fresh approach, planned over a period of years, is the way to go. The entire school community needs to change from a bureaucracy which responds to individual troublemakers to a new community where violence is unlikely to occur.

The new communitarian movement has some good ideas to offer. In this view, schools have traditionally been authoritarian organizations more concerned about enforcing rules than the rights of the individuals. On the other hand, the "legalization'' of education over the past generation has resulted in a school culture obsessed with individual rights, rather than the needs of the community. But schools are not a place where either old notions about authority or selfish notions about rights is workable. The hostile and undemocratic environment which these approaches have created leads members of the community to act in ways harmful to all.

If a community can be developed where individual responsibility and trust is the guiding principle, then adversarial and irresponsible conduct will be lessened. Here are a few suggestions for change:

  • Change the central premise of training for people who run schools. Traditional "educational administration'' programs are based on a century-old notion that tight control of students and teachers is vital.

This leads to an adversarial climate where emotional and financial capital is spent enforcing and resisting authority. A new approach would emphasize developing relationships among all members of the school community, rather than keeping students, parents, and teachers in line and at a distance.

  • Develop a real system of conflict resolution. While a few mediation programs for students are in place, all schools need to design a permanent system for resolving conflict which addresses the special needs of each community. If students have clear alternatives and a forum for disputing that they trust, weapons might not be their primary way to end a dispute. The famous "Getting to Yes'' materials developed by the Harvard Negotiation Project are especially useful for schools, because they encourage solutions based on mutual interests, rather than individual gains.
  • Teach negotiation techniques in every aspect of the curriculum. In several schools, students agree to learn about conflict resolution and then try to help their peers settle disputes. But rather than having these isolated programs for volunteer students, include in all classes materials which demonstrate alternative dispute resolution in a variety of ways which use resources from particular disciplines: novels in English or historical examples in civics classes are two obvious examples.
  • Encourage deliberation to create democracy in schools. More participation by all persons affected by schools would create an atmosphere in which individuals matter. While task forces on violence may be worthwhile, their membership is often drawn from the "usual suspects''--community activists who have already demonstrated an interest in helping out. Real members of the community need to be involved for violence to be reduced because solutions cannot be imposed on average people by leaders they do not know.

These are some ideas, but they are not short-term solutions. If the concept of community is encouraged, individual responsibility may lead some students to think about their responsibility to others and reduce violence. For community to work, school authorities need to give up traditional notions of control.

Steven S. Goldberg, a lawyer who holds a Ph.D. in educational policy, is associate professor and coordinator of the Educational Leadership Program at Beaver College in Glenside, Pa. This essay first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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