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Published in Print: October 28, 1998, as To Combat School Violence, Adopt Proven, Not Political Fixes

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To Combat School Violence, Adopt Proven, Not Political Fixes

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To appear responsive, elected officials and educational leaders have begun to act all too quickly to school violence.

Violence was very much on the minds of educators as they began the new school year. The memory of 1997-98's school shootings in Oregon, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania was brought back vividly in the waning days of summer by the sentencing of the two boys who killed four students and a teacher in Jonesboro, Ark. And this month's White House conference on school violence continued an escalating national dialogue on the subject. ("President Seeks To Boost Federal Role in School Safety," Oct. 21, 1998.)

National, state, and local initiatives are being promulgated to address the public expectation that something be done. The Clinton administration has weighed in with a report prepared by an impressive team of psychologists and criminal-justice professionals.

Politicians everywhere are conducting hearings to entertain ideas and allow spleens to be vented. In my hometown recently, the school board continued its "zero tolerance" policy by expelling two students who threatened the lives of teachers over the Internet.

Alternative schools and programs for violent and disruptive students are rapidly being introduced in many districts. Security is being beefed up, too. New York City's schools chancellor, backed by an editorial in The New York Times, has called for uniformed police to patrol the schools' halls, and metal detectors are a fixture at the schoolhouse gate.

How much of this is necessary? Are we overreacting? What is the scope of the problem? Are we talking about school violence or community violence that spills over into the schools?

School shootings attract media attention because they are so tragic and rare. Indeed, only 1 percent of recent juvenile homicides have taken place in schools. Yet the nation's attention has been focused on the schools rather than the communities. As one teacher commented to me recently, "Another pile of merde dumped on our doorstep!"

To appear responsive, elected officials and educational leaders have begun to act all too quickly. They would be advised to look beyond short-term, partisan interests and take a closer look at what does work and what doesn't work in the fight against violence in schools. The National Institute of Justice recently commissioned a study led by a University of Maryland professor, Lawrence Sherman, and his team this past summer published the most rigorous analysis of research on the prevention of crime to date. The report shows that most of the crime-prevention programs that school boards and politicians are attracted to for philosophical or political reasons just don't work.

Gun-buyback programs have not taken sophisticated handguns out of circulation. Peer counseling in schools has not reduced student drug and alcohol use or delinquency. The original DARE curriculum has failed to reduce drug abuse, and fear and emotional appeals seem to have no significant impact either. Supervised homework, self-esteem exercises, summer-job programs, arrests for minor crimes, boot camps to reduce repeat offenders, and "scared straight" programs in prisons--all have failed to reduce crime in schools or communities.

What does work?

I cannot argue against taking preventive measures to save lives and reduce the terror many children feel. But effective solutions to the problem of school and community violence, according to the Justice Department analysis, are those that I'd classify as nurturing, not punitive.

Armies of nurses and teachers need to be deployed to homes, an effort proven effective in preventing child abuse, poor parenting, and accidental injury and in reducing juvenile arrests. Family therapy and parent training work well in combating aggression and hyperactivity, both prime factors in delinquency and violent behavior.

Teams of faculty and parents who intervene with bullies and gangs can have an impact on crime. So can incorporating and consistently enforcing conduct codes. We can also do a better job of teaching kids stress management, problem-solving, self-control, and decisionmaking skills.

Also, breaking larger schools up into several administrative units can make schools more personal and manageable, and can help deal with violence because these units are able to step in more quickly than centralized administrations.

Structured after-school recreation programs and intensive pre- and post-release programs for delinquents also work.

One might say, fine, but when do we teach? Well, I guarantee that with armed police roaming New York's schools this fall, some violence may be curbed, but a lot less learning will take place as well. If we can learn the lessons from solid research and apply them energetically, perhaps in a few years schools in New York City and elsewhere will not need to create armed camps at places of learning.


Raymond Bell is a professor of education and human services at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. He studies juvenile justice and school violence and has directed two national research studies for the U.S. Department of Justice.

Vol. 18, Issue 9, Page 42

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