Schools as a Safe Haven

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As the recent election amply demonstrated, Americans continue to be suckers for "get tough" political rhetoric. It is not surprising, given our fascination with violence, that many elections were won by those who convinced the public that they would be tougher on crime than their opponents. As part of this, we have witnessed heated rhetoric calling for more punishment techniques such as the death penalty, "three strikes and you're out," adjudicating some children as adults, and automatic school expulsion for certain offenses. Yet, there is little evidence that any of these punitive approaches deter crime, whereas there is much data to prove the effectiveness of prevention.

Lost in the calls for more punishment is the reality that we are already the most punitive of all the Western democracies. We have both the highest crime rates and the highest incarceration rates. A two-year study at Temple University indicates that, when compared with other democracies, we are also the most punitive in areas such as treatment of delinquents, teenage sexual activity, substance abuse, support for families, and the use of corporal punishment in schools. Despite the current public frenzy, overall school crime has not significantly increased since 1977.

Politicians, exaggerating the data, have tapped into our fears of being harmed and our ongoing anger at adolescents. This is heightened by the media's incessant depictions of interpersonal violence in and around schools. These fears, based on portrayals of schools as caldrons of disruption, have led to public outcries for getting tough with students. Unfortunately, too many educators have bought into exaggerated claims about school violence, disruption, discipline, and student alienation. As a result they also subscribe to simplistic, punishment-oriented solutions.

Our research and experience in conducting workshops on school discipline indicate that too many educators agree with simplistic assumptions about youth misbehavior. They aren't familiar with demographics, causes, and research on the effectiveness of various approaches to the problem. We would like to set the record straight about school violence. The fact is that, when all data are examined, it is apparent that schools are one of the safest places for children and youths, especially those in the inner cities. While there are many adherents of home schooling, for example, our data show that, in general, schools are much safer than homes.

The Criminal Victimization in the United States Reports of the U.S. Justice Department for 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1994 indicate that rape, robbery, and assault are about twice as likely to occur in the home than in school. In 1990, 9.8 percent of violent crimes were on school grounds, while 24.2 percent occurred in or around the home. In 1993, the percentages remained about the same (12.1 percent school-related and 23.3 percent home-related).

In 1992, according to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, approximately 2.9 million children were abused or neglected. Family members accounted for 91 percent of the cases of abuse. These incidents resulted in 1,068 deaths in 44 reporting states, a figure that approximates estimates by other national groups.

Guns appear to be a major problem in schools. While the problem is very serious in some schools, and the presence of even one gun in a school is unacceptable, the problem is minuscule when compared with gun-related homicides in other settings, especially in homes. According to the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, 71 gunshot deaths occurred in schools in 1990. In the same year, 10,565 citizens died from gunshots.

When we compare overall homicide rates in large cities with the rates in their schools, we find that between the academic years of 1992 and 1993, the Los Angeles public schools reported three homicides. Their homicide rate for the schools in 1992 was therefore 0.12 per 100,000 students. The rate for the city itself was about 29.30 homicides per 100,000 persons.

In 1991, the overall homicide rate in the "get tough" state of Texas was 15.30 per 100,000 persons. The homicide rate for the city of Houston was an alarming 366.50 deaths per 100,000 persons. Meanwhile, the rate for the Houston schools was 0.71 homicides per 100,000 students. The Dallas murder rate was 48.60 per 100,1000, while that city's schools had a homicide rate of 0.48 per 100,000. Comparative data between the city and schools in metropolitan areas such as New York City and Chicago run about the same.

The research on aggravated assaults also supports the notion that schools are relatively safe environments. In 1991, the aggravated-assault rate in Chicago, a highly violent city, was 1,502 assaults per 100,000 people, figures that remained about the same for 1992. At public schools, however, the rate fell to 325 per 100,000 people. At the national level, data on assaults on students pale when compared with assaults in homes.

In 1992, for example, the National Center on Child Abuse and neglect indicated that over 2.9 million children were victims of abuse or neglect and that 91 percent of the abusers were family members. With 44 states reporting, the figures showed results similar to those from H.H.S.: 1,068 cases of abuse ended in death. What is the justification for these deaths? In a study we did of 300 newspaper reports of parents' killing their children, we were able to identify 83 where sufficient information was provided to draw conclusions. In these cases, 41 percent of the parents involved killed their children in the name of discipline. Fatal misbehaviors included soiled diapers, refusal to take out the trash, and even standing in the way of a parent's view of the TV screen.

These data, and many more, demonstrate that while school crime is a real and growing problem, we should be much more concerned about crime in the home. Yet the punitive rhetoric that surrounds this highly charged issue promotes solutions that only exacerbate the problem.

We need to recognize that violence to and by students has always been a part of education in many Western democracies. We need to learn from at least three decades of research that hasty, quick-fix, simple, punishment-driven policies simply don't work in the long run. Our research at the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives suggests that problems of disruption, violence, student alienation, and discipline are very complex. While we do need to attend to problems of actual violence on a school-by-school basis, these problems are not unconnected to the daily discipline problems which are of most concern to educators. These include problems like smoking and other substance abuse, obscene language, truancy, lack of respect, and other less glamorous misdeeds. School violence, like other misbehaviors, should be considered within the total rubric of school discipline. There are no simple solutions to any of these problems. We need to examine panaceas, since there are no data to prove the absolute superiority of any one approach.

An example is the assumption, not based on any convincing data, that peer mediation and conflict resolution will make a significant dent in the rates of interpersonal aggression in schools. Without supporting data, schools and legislatures are pouring money into training and program implementation in this area. While the approach can be very helpful, however, to have any appreciable effect it needs to be part of systemic changes.

In educators' rush to deal with the low-incidence but more dramatic crimes and misbehaviors of students, we believe they are ignoring other more pervasive problems, such as emotional maltreatment by educators. The latter includes verbal assault, name-calling, scapegoating, put-downs, sarcasm, ridicule, rejection, and overly punitive sanctions of students. Our research suggests that emotional abuse is one of the most pervasive and least studied causes of student rule-breaking, disruption, and violence. This should be a major priority area in research and policy formulation concerning school discipline.

Sexual harassment is also a disciplinary problem because it creates a hostile learning environment in which victims may become fearful, anxious, withdrawn, angry, or suffer severe loss of self-esteem. Their lack of faith in school authorities' ability to protect them may result in lower academic performance, retaliation, withdrawal from school, or acceptance of their role as sexual victims. Considering the extent of the problem, as shown in recent studies, it is being poorly addressed.

There is good evidence to demonstrate that violence comes from violence. For instance, our research demonstrates that many adjudicated delinquents, and a very high percentage of those who are violent, were victims themselves. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, caused by violence in the form of severe discipline by caretakers. These findings suggest that early identification and trauma-oriented treatment, in addition to the usual behavioral approaches, could reduce the incidence of school violence and recidivism.

So, is there a problem of school violence? Yes, but there has always been a problem. Do we need draconian, punishment-oriented solutions? No, we have already gone that route. All the evidence shows that punishment only works in the short run and, when overused, causes more problems than it cures. Then what can schools do?

First, most schools can congratulate themselves for creating a relatively safe haven for youths. Second, policymakers should reject solutions driven by media hype, political rhetoric, and panacea mongers. Third, schools should collect accurate data on the nature, extent, and causes of school offenses. Finally, educators and the public alike should recognize that the only real solutions to violence come from communitywide, prevention-oriented programs that include input and efforts from all relevant agencies, organizations, and population groups in the community.

Will we do what it takes? Given the present political climate, probably not.

Vol. 14, Issue 23, Pages 37, 48

Published in Print: March 1, 1995, as Schools as a Safe Haven
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